“Ordinary corrupt human love”: Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

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I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain. I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time.

My local book club met Tuesday night to discuss Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. We chose this novel as the follow-up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: as I’ve explained here before, we pick a thread to follow from one book to the next, which in this case was adultery. (The last time we read Graham Greene we had followed a “depressing novels about priests” thread from Such Is My Beloved to The Power and the Glory.)

Quite by coincidence, because I had forgotten that they had often been compared, I started Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder just before I had to turn to The End of the Affair. (Or was it a coincidence? Perhaps it was all part of some grand design by the great publisher in the sky!) The connection came back to me as I was reading and writing about Beha’s novel, though, thanks especially to Nicole’s comparative discussion at Book Riot, so inevitably I was thinking a lot about Sophie and and Charlie as I read about Sarah and Bendrix. As Nicole very adeptly explains, the two novels are indeed strikingly similar in structure, but reading them feels very different: Beha’s has a (somewhat deceptive) colloquial clarity to it, and (I thought) a lot more emotional detachment, especially, and paradoxically, where Sophie’s religious experiences are concerned, while Greene’s is more overtly written, more conspicuously literary, as well as emotionally intense — to the point of claustrophobia.

At the purely subjective level of taste, I preferred Greene’s: I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Bendrix’s palpable bitterness, and the twisty self-justifying but also self-loathing ways he tells his story. I was fascinated to learn that Greene tried this experiment in first-person narration because he’d been reading Great Expectations: apparently he felt he hadn’t really pulled it off:

Dickens had somehow miraculously varied his tone, but when I tried to analyze his success, I felt like a colourblind man trying intellectually to distinguish one colour from another. For my book there were two shades of the same colour —  obsessive love and obsessive hate; Mr. Parkis, the private detective, and his boy were my attempt to introduce two more tones, the humorous and the pathetic.

I can’t think of a novel I would be less inclined to compare to The End of the Affair than Great Expectations if I were approaching it thematically, but it’s interesting to think of it, as Greene apparently did, as a technical problem he was unable to solve. One thing Dickens does that perhaps he didn’t adequately consider was use retrospective narration to add a layer of painful self-knowledge over top of Pip’s obsessive love. The End of the Affair is told retrospectively (except for Sarah’s diary), but all that does is infuse the love story with that “obsessive hate.” Imagine the novel told in a way that really reflects the religious conversion that the ending points us towards: wouldn’t that complete or perfect the narrative by returning Bendrix, and thus us, to love, by way of forgiveness? It’s impossible to imagine any Dickens novel, much less Great Expectations, stuck in hatred the way Bendrix is: even Miss Havisham is brought to repentance, after all. As for “the humorous and the pathetic,” well, I agree with Greene that he doesn’t quite achieve either (at all, never mind to Dickens’s level), but it’s hardly a fair contest.

Anyway, I liked reading Greene better for the style and the emotional intensity … but I also found myself thinking back on Sophie Wilder (and bringing it up during our discussion) because there were things about The End of the Affair that left me dissatisfied, too, in ways that Beha’s novel helped me understand. I was particularly frustrated by Sarah’s “conversion.” Having protested Beha’s failure to explain Sophie’s conversion in more depth, I found I objected to Sarah’s on different grounds: it didn’t seem religious at all! She has no epiphany, no spiritual revelation, no breakthrough. She just makes a deal with a deity she only kinda sorta believes in, and then feels coerced into keeping up her end of the bargain. It seemed so pragmatic — and hardly inspiring, as it boils down to “I’ll be good if you grant me my wish” — which rather neatly sums up negative clichés about Catholicism.

That moment is only the beginning of Sarah’s newly-defined life, of course: does her contract with God lead her into genuine faith? She spends a lot of time doubting and arguing, as in the bit I chose for my epigraph (which nicely captures the central conflict between human and divine love, fought in the novel over the territory of the human body). But she does seem to find something like peace eventually, and of course once she dies she’s apparently capable of working miracles. There’s little saintly about her during her life, as far as we know, or as far as Bendrix will admit (“She was a good woman,” says Father Crompton: “She was nothing of the sort,” retorts Bendrix irritably) but being a saint doesn’t necessarily require that: as Father Crompton replies in his turn, “There’s nothing we can do some of the saints haven’t done before us.” But it didn’t seem that Sarah was working towards doing good, not the way Sophie is when she cares for her dying father -in-law. Still, struggle and debate are compatible with belief, and Greene did well precisely at conveying faith as something to be achieved through effort, not simply succumbed to or carried along by.beha

That said, I certainly didn’t see why Bendrix came round (or is on the verge of coming round) to it in the end. Greene apparently said he wanted to box him into a corner so he couldn’t help but accept the religious explanations. Here too I end up giving Beha the edge: both novelists play metafictionally with novelist / God comparisons and make room for ambiguity about the ultimate source of structure and meaning, but in offering the resolution I thought I wanted (“all right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists”), Greene frustrated me in a different way, because his ending felt both manipulative and reluctant. If your conversion is really a reluctant concession, what’s the thrill in that, especially if you haven’t in fact earned it by winning the argument against coincidence or rationalism? Beha at least seems to be saying “make up your own mind.”

We had a pretty lively discussion of The End of the Affair over our book club dinner. There, of course, the immediate comparison was to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, since I was the only one who’d read Sophie Wilder, and plenty of interest came out of that, particularly around the affair itself and what it meant to the characters, as well as the overall treatment of sexuality and desire in the novel (we thought poor Henry seemed not altogether unlike Clifford, for instance). We were intrigued by the war setting, and by the possibility that the blast that leads to Sarah’s deal with God might itself be interpreted as some kind of divine intervention. By and large we thought the ending of the novel was unsatisfying because the crucial interventions that build up to the “Sarah is a miracle-working saint in Heaven” theory seemed ad hoc: there’s the mother ex machina, for instance, who appears on the scene just in time to save Bendrix from himself. We were all fond of Parkis, which made me think we should maybe try some Dickens one day (or some Trollope — isn’t Parkis a bit like Bozzle in He Knew He Was Right?). We were also intrigued by the discussions of the novelist’s craft, and from this we picked up on the mentions of Forster and decided that should be the thread to our next book. Though Maurice would have been a cute choice (because that’s Bendrix’s name), we settled on Howards End, which I am very pleased about as it has long been near the top of my Humiliation list.

Write It Different: Christopher Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder

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“I wish things could be different.”

She leaned over the bed to kiss me.

“Then write it different.”

I read What Happened to Sophie Wilder in honor of D. G. Myers, who championed it with his usual hard-headed enthusiasm. “Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten,” Myers said of Sophie Wilder herself in his 2012 Commentary review, and in a longer essay this summer on religious fiction he went so far as to call Beha’s novel “the best American novel of 2012.”

Myers was not the only reader won over by Beha’s story of Charlie Blakeman (the aspiring writer who narrates the first-person portions of the novel) and Sophie Wilder, his one-time classmate and sometime lover (whose story, in third-person narration, is interwoven with Charlie’s). Mark Athitakis reviewed it very favorably in the Washington Post, for instance, calling it “beautiful and whip-smart,”  while Sarah Towers wrote admiringly about it in the New York Times (how Charlie — whose initials just happen to be the same as his author’s — would have relished such prestigious coverage!). Nicole wrote about it at Bibliographing, and again at Book Riot, and at Shelf Love Teresa sings its praises as well. Even closer to home, Sam Sacks wrote about it in Open Letters Monthly — but Sam expressed more ambivalence about it than seems to be typical: “It’s a testament to Beha’s talents as a dramatist,” he observes, “that What Happened to Sophie Wilder remains an intriguing and emotionally stirring book despite its palpable omissions. . . . in the end, the book is very gray.”

I have these links to other reviews close at hand because when I finished Beha’s novel last night I felt kind of let down by it and so I wanted to see what specifics lay behind what I had recalled (rightly, as it turned out) as the novel’s generally very favorable reception. A mismatch between other people’s reactions and my own is always thought-provoking, whether I liked a book more or less than they did — but especially when I liked it less, because, as Dorothea says to Will, “It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” I don’t typically second-guess my positive reactions, though when I write about a book that I found immediately and utterly captivating (The Once and Future King, say, or The Orphan Master’s Son, or The Paper Garden) I do try to articulate as much as I can about what the reading experience meant to me, rather than just gush. As Carl Wilson says (in his smart little book on Celine Dion, which I finally read!),

a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.

“This kind of exchange takes place sometimes on the internet,” he goes on, “and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?” It’s in that spirit that I went back to revisit other people’s stories about What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

And I have to say that all these smart people are convincing, not just that they liked it, but about why and what it was like for them to like it. I didn’t dislike the novel myself, but now, thanks to them, I feel that I have a better appreciation, if only retrospectively, of the craft of the novel. I see more clearly, for example, how the division into different narratives reflects different — perhaps incompatible — ideas about authorship and about purpose in narrative. Here’s D. G. Myers’s explanation:

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values. 

Convincing, as I said (though the alternating narrators is not such a novel experience to a Victorianist: Dickens does it flamboyantly in Bleak House, after all). These other readings also reconciled me somewhat to the irresolution of the novel’s conclusion. As Teresa says,

The two threads–Charlie’s first-person story and Sophie’s third-person story–cannot exist seamlessly. The book is, after all, a story. The question is, who is in charge of that story? Who, indeed, is in charge of life and death? And how does our answer to that question drive the stories we write for ourselves?

 In his review in Volume I Brooklyn, Tobias Carroll also makes a strength of the open ending (or, rather, endings):

The final scene, offering an image of redemption in the face of contradictory evidence, achieves an impressive [balance?] between intellectual rigor and unadorned faith.

I agree with Greg Walklin in the Journal Star that the novel’s opening is a feint, a kind of sleight-of-hand, setting us up for what seems like a rather clichéd example of the “MFA novel” only to replace it with something more interesting and intellectually ambitious. “If “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” was what it appears to be on first glance,” as he says, “– a simple story about a lovesick writer and his mysterious on-again, off-again girlfriend,” it might be hardly worth writing about. “But,” as Walklin says, “there is far more to it than that.” Instead of offering (only) thinly-disguised autobiography and resultingly thin metafiction, Beha sets out to reinvent the conversion narrative for our skeptical age — a move reminiscent of George Eliot’s story of a “latter-day” Saint Theresa in Middlemarch.

Walklin goes on, though, to echo Myers’s rapturous evaluation of the novel as “the best fiction I’ve read all year,” and that’s where I part company with both of them, and with the other readers I’ve mentioned. I recognize the book I read in the book they are talking about, and as I said, I didn’t hate it. But I was never enthralled or moved by it, and while I believe my appreciation of it might grow on rereading, I have no desire to go through it again — it just wasn’t interesting enough to me. The writing seemed flat and, at times, forced, and the characters — Sophie especially — seemed insubstantial: concepts more than people. As for what actually happened to Sophie Wilder, well, my conclusion at the end was “not much,” or at least not much that the book made richly present to me. I agree with Sam that the conversion “episode” — on which so much depends — is a particularly “thoughtful, earnest, and unsatisfying passage,” and the crisis Sopohie goes through during her time with her dying father-in-law seemed equally hasty and unmotivated to me: it was not developed in anything like enough detail to thrill me with dread or sorrow at either its problem or its conclusion(s).

What did I want from the novel that I didn’t get? Some of the lack I felt is surely a matter of that ineffable thing, taste. Some of my dissatisfaction comes, I think, from the expectations I have developed through years of focusing on particular kinds of fiction — on fiction that offers (to put it simply) more — more to think about, more to work with. For instance, to me the account of Sophie’s religious experience was a reedy echo (at best) of Maggie Tulliver’s struggles with faith in The Mill on the Floss, where her passionate embrace of asceticism after reading Thomas à Kempis emerges from a rich narrative context including overt philosophical reflection on the needs religion meets for those who are suffering inexplicably. By comparison, What Happened to Sophie Wilder is briskly superficial about the social and historical contexts of both Charlie’s and Sophie’s stories. Perhaps that’s because George Eliot thinks religious belief needs explanation, while Beha is emphasizing its spontaneity and inexplicability. Yet I agree with Sam that religious conversion (at least if it’s going to be a central event) is “something that can be expressed in words because it’s real, just as any other experience can be evoked through language. It is hard to grasp, when you read this scene, why Beha would be so quick to concede failure in this respect.” Paradoxically, Eliot’s religion — that is, the religion of her characters — seems more solid than Beha’s, even though the tendency of her fiction is to replace sacred explanations with secular.

In doing so, she is of course making a decision about the fundamental split Beha’s dual narration leaves unresolved. Do I perhaps prefer Eliot because of that — because that is my own outlook? Was I impatient — bored, even — by Sophie’s religious struggles because they were left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world? Wondering about this made me think about Silas Marner, which I have come to love, though it is certainly very much about religious faith. Does it satisfy me more because it offers (as Sophie Wilder does) a dual approach, religious and secular (or, sacred and literary) — but only in order to expose the religious as really human, the sacred as really literary? In doing so it conforms better to my own prejudices or preexisting beliefs: was my response to What Happened to Sophie Wilder a tacit form of resistance to Beha’s apparent openness not just to religion in general (or some kind of vaguely embraced spirituality) but to  Catholicism in particular? I have been trying to think of another contemporary novel with a genuinely religious protagonist that I did like — and Gilead comes to mind, so I don’t think it’s as simple as my unconsciously rejecting faith as a literary premise.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do much better than this at analyzing my reading of What Happened to Sophie Wilder — not now, anyway. I don’t think I have to defend my tepid response, and I certainly don’t think the readers who liked the novel more than I did need to defend themselves either. “What would criticism be like,” as Wilson says, “if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it weren’t about making cases for or against things?” It would, I think, be the ongoing exchange of views that we bloggers are used to, out here where (Wilson again) “the strangeness of our strangeness to one another” can get the “airing” it needs. I know that if he were still around, D. G. Myers would welcome my dissenting view — though I’m sure he’d also engage with it vigorously and make the experience of his own liking palpable. And so, since he is not around to do so himself, I’ll give the last word to him:

A brazen attempt to revive the saint’s life as a literary genre in an age of unbelief, Beha’s novel also dramatizes the enigma of Christian humility when viewed from a secular perspective. After the experience of being “taken over” by the Holy Spirit during mass at a small church, Sophie Wilder renounces her past enthusiasms and devotes herself to the care of her dying father-in-law. She is gennathei anothen—”not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.'” What happens to her as a consequence is so foreign to postmodern sensibility that an alternative ending must be written. The result is a two-sided novel of unforgettable insight into the religious life.

Update: See Nicole’s really interesting response at Bibliographing:

It may be just that “religious struggles…left as religious struggles, not absorbed into other ways of thinking about the world” are the only ones I enjoy. . . . What she believes may make no sense to me, but her actions do, because they predictably follow from her beliefs—and I never have to walk through any attempts at nonmystical moral logicking with her that might rankle or irritate.