Monday, December 6

Considering Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair"

Michael Gorra discusses the one key plot point in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair during his introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, and I was prepared for that. I stopped reading them first when the introduction to my school library copy of Crime and Punishment pretty well revealed every major resolution but for Raskolnikov's final choice. That Anna Karenina throws herself beneath the train and that Snape kills Dumbledore are near unavoidable knowledge, but I do enjoy not knowing what will happen as much as possible.

What I was not prepared for was the revelation that Sarah Miles, the ender of the titular affair, was likely modeled on Greene's own mistress, a Catherine Walston, potentially the 'C.' to whom the novel is dedicated. Maurice Bendrix, the narrator, was an unpleasant enough character already in his selfishness, lies, obstinacy, self-centeredness, arrogance and all the rest. When it becomes possible that Bendrix is modeled on Greene himself, the novel begins to seem like so much wankery. Sarah continues to love Bendrix after she ends their affair? She tries but cannot find solace in the body of another man? Her cuckolded husband forgives Bendrix and invites him to take their spare room after Sarah's death? Sounds like a super awesome guy, that Bendrix.

No mistake, the writing in these sections is beautiful and fluent. The opening lines "A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccuarte pride of a professional writer who-when he has been seriously considered at al-has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?" are classic. Bendrix discovers, too, a brilliantly drawn ensemble of characters, especially the investigator Albert Parkis who is at pain when writing a list of expenses for Bendrix and the street atheist Richard Smythe, but it all only seems to lead to so much self pleasure and satisfaction.

Yet the narration of Bendrix bookends the diary of Sarah Miles, one of the greatest accounts of faith I have seen in fiction outside of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. For his personal faith and for Sarah's baptism into the Roman church, The End of the Affair is called a Catholic novel, but beyond these particulars I find nothing especially Catholic about it unless the theology is too subtle for me. In the transformation of Sarah's arguments with and hatred of God to a grudging acceptance and willing belief in Him, I see nothing that would be so foreign to a Lutheran or Pentecostal or even a Jew or Muslim as nothing would seriously change if the church Sarah runs to became a mosque or the father who baptizes her a rabbi. Sarah's prayer to a God she does not understand, much less believes in, is answered. She defies God. When she finds the miracle unbearable, she rages against Him and is prepared to break her promise to Him but finds her efforts and ploys thwarted. She comes to accept that she cannot hate Him without believing in Him. The path from there is still tenuous but it only leads in one direction.

That Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennet and all the rest straw man faith is no surprise. Their works on religion are polemics and leave no room for subtlety, but I do wish they would read just Sarah's passage and realize that faith is so much more complex than they imagine. It is not some simple salve for a fear of the dark and a rustling in the bushes. It can be very unpleasant for the believer and means sacrifice but must be pursued because it is true.

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