Sunday, November 6, 2011
Wrapping Up “The Affair”
You can see that I have some work to do. Step one, I’m going to do here, setting out some notes about the book. Step two—You’ll have to subscribe to Traces.
Short and deep: The End of the Affair is a short novel by today’s standards: 240 generously leaded pages and about 70,000 words. After gorging oneself on a long work like Michael O’Brien’s new magnum opus, The Father’s Tale, it is a bit like eating a gourmet dessert. You’ll savor it slower and remember it longer.
You can look into this book for a long time and never quite glimpse the bottom. The second time through, you run into remarkable metaphors that you ran past the first time. For example, near the end comes a roadway metaphor. Sarah, the she of the Affair, is writing to Maurice, the he, and explaining how the love between two non-believers turned her into a person of faith:
I used to think I was sure about myself and what was right and wrong, and you taught me not to be sure. You took away all my lies and self-deceptions like they clear a road of stubble for somebody to come along it, somebody of importance, and now He’s come, but you cleared the way yourself.
Those two sentences will have to summarize the plot, for present purposes. Another roadway metaphor refers to a priest, Father Crompton, who tries to convince Maurice that Sarah—but no spoilers!
Father Crompton was not used to dining out. One had the impression that this was a duty on which he found it hard to keep his mind. He had very limited small talk, and his answers fell like trees across the road.
Main theme: The End of the Affair begins in hatred and ends in prayer, although the hatred is mixed with love, and Maurice’s closing prayer is to be left alone. Like Communion and Liberation, Greene’s novel shows how faith arises amid the carnal everydayness of life. If faith cannot be found here, what good is it?
The book also asks what we really love when we think we’re loving. In her diary, which Maurice discovers, Sarah asks God or Christ, “Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time?” (The caps are hers.)
Faith catches Maurice Bendrix in spite of himself. Bereft over the end of the affair, he hates God, he hates the circumstances and people who separated him from his lover, and he even hates his lover herself. Maurice is a professed atheist who, like Hamlet’s lady, “doth protest too much.” He is self-aware enough to know that hating God implies there may be a God to hate.
Narrative structure: The story begins near the end, in January 1946, after the affair is over, then loops back several times into England’s years of conflict, 1939–1944. From the declaration of war against Germany through the buzz of the V-1 rockets over London, these years bracket the love affair itself.
If Greene makes love synchronous with war, that may not be by accident. Love and hate, he writes, “seem to operate the same glands”; they even produce “the same actions.”
If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?
“Once in the blitz,” Maurice recalls, “I saw a man laughing outside his house, where his wife and child were buried.” Such self-contradictory emotions ebb and flow throughout the novel.
The Catholic novel: The End of the Affair is far less overt an advertisement for Catholicism than The Father’s Tale, but I suspect it is more effective in portraying the faith to readers of every stripe, from convinced to skeptical. If you don’t accept Catholicism as a given—if you don’t sing in the choir to which O’Brien preaches—you probably won’t tolerate his massive tome. The Father’s Tale is a carpet-bombing, which you can simply avoid by getting out of town. The End of the Affair is a sneaky stiletto in the back.
Near the end of the novel, as faith takes hold in unexpected places, the coincidences begin piling up. But somehow Greene pulls off these events without pointing a finger and shouting Miracle! Instead, the surprises are outgrowths of the characters’ inner ferment. Greene’s depth psychology is thought-provoking.
Minor characters: There are several to cherish in The End of the Affair, including the bumbling private detective Parkis, a grieving mother, and an atheist orator who is also hounded, in the end, by a doubt in his own self-assured rationalism.
Conclusion? What a messy, human thing religious faith is, and how unavoidable, too, sometimes, when one loves enough. Or hates enough. “I’ve caught belief like a disease,” Sarah says, and in The End of the Affair, the disease is contagious.
Footnote: The illustration at the top of this post is the poster for the 1955 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson. The novel was published in 1951.