Greene, concerning the nature of his belief, once remarked, “I fear I am a Protestant in the bosom of the Church.” His statement outlines the kind of crises which make this book, which he wrote in the midst of the climax of an episode of infidelity, truly one of the most compelling love stories he has produced: a fable haunted by his unease, his confused understanding of belief, and his desire for the security of a loving God.
Of course, these are all quite substantial themes for just a casual read, but this is where The End of the Affair comes into its own: it is not a difficult piece of fiction. The manner in which he crafts his sentences is unadorned, nothing is overwritten. The driving force behind the piece is really the emotional complexities of the protagonist, into whose inner monologue we are immediately thrust. I’d like to think Greene’s concise writing style was crafted during his time working at Cherwell, but who knows.
His character-cum-fulcrum, the aging, increasingly misanthropic ‘popular novelist’, Maurice Bendrix, is an obvious mirror of Greene himself. Self-obsessed, lonely, with deeply distressing opinions on other people’s intelligence, Oxford students should easily relate. He is also, like so many, rampantly non-believing. I doubt that even the Christian Union would be able to get him to listen. However, this novel, which fits into Greene’s tetralogy of overtly ‘Catholic’ novels, is all about conversions (I’m not going to ruin it for you, but everything doesn’t go according to Bendrix’s scheme). Part of me found this ob- session with bringing ‘the divine’ into almost every page, subtly or otherwise, just a little suffocating.
Indeed, the most compelling part of the work is not the presence of God – because, frankly, it’s a little boring – but the very worldly interaction between Bendrix and his lover, the wife of an insipid civil servant. Because we know how far this book is autobiographical – the dedication is ‘For C’ (Lady Catherine Walston, the wife of, you guessed it, a prominent civil servant) – the book is lent a kind of real-world poignancy that is both arresting and deeply disturbing.
Unlike his other works, like The Power and the Glory, or Brighton Rock, in The End of the Affair, we both understand and sympathise with the humanising, normal portrayal of a man torn between love and morality. However, precisely because he is so normal, this protagonist does not grip in the way that, say, Pinkie or Scobie does. There was no point in the novel where I felt the kind of dual loathing and appreciation which I expect in my understanding of Greene’s protagonists. This is, as I said at the start, a simple book. It is a very good love story, and demands little of the reader – but that, sadly, is all.