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


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.

Book Club: Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

Last night was the second meeting of the book club that first met in November to discuss Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved. In keeping with our plan of following some kind of thread from one book to the next, we moved from that sad story of failed religious idealism to a still sadder–but, perhaps, ultimately more uplifting–one, The Power and the Glory. For all of us, it was our first reading of the novel, and for some of us, our first serious encounter with Graham Greene. I include myself in this last group: I had read The Comedians years ago for an undergraduate class, and my copy of The Power and the Glory has my [unmarried] name and then “88” inscribed in it, as if it too was part of my course readings, but I have no recollection of ever actually having worked through it. That’s it, for me and Graham Greene!  (I’ve also seen the movie adaptation of The End of the Affair, but I’d be the first one to insist that doesn’t really count!)  It’s hard to imagine that I could have read it and not remembered it: it certainly seems to me now a highly memorable book, the kind of book that leaves deep and not altogether welcome tracks in one’s literary and moral imagination.

As before, our group discussion was wide-ranging and open-ended rather than conclusive, but also as before, the process of hearing a range of ideas and trying out my own helped me sort my preliminary impressions. I am left with a number of uncertainties about the novel, some quite literal (what happened to the girl Coral, for instance? I thought she had died, perhaps from whatever caused her sharp stomach pains, but it turned out other people had not inferred that, and we couldn’t find any specific information), some more abstract (what is the place of women in the moral and religious universe of this novel, for one? except for Coral, they seem mostly very limited in their roles and their agency and are generally peripheral to the novel’s central dramatic conflict–is it a misimpression that in the priest’s struggle between material and spiritual needs, women are sidelined because they belong to the world of the flesh?). But I am also left feeling I appreciate at least some aspects of it, particularly about how its very dreariness–its immersion in corruption, failure, sin, inadequacy, disappointment, dirt, and death–helps us make the same journey the whiskey priest makes towards a particular idea of God and salvation. Listening at one point to the confession of the mestizo who ultimately will betray him, the priest reflects on the unoriginality of his sins, on the mestizo‘s inability to understand that he is “only a typical part” of “a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant.” But the moral ugliness of the world illuminates rather than obscures the greatness of God:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay in death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

This is the world–these are the people–for whom the whiskey priest, too, ultimately dies, as, unable to turn away from his duty to a dying Christian, he knowingly allows the mestizo to lead him into a trap. Even before then, he has risked his life repeatedly by hearing confession and performing mass for the motely assortment of variously ugly, corrupt, ignorant, even evil people he encounters on his grim travels. And there is a kind of glory in the fleeting moments of grace he achieves, as well as a kind of heroism in the ruthlessness with which he admits his own inadequacies and failures even as he doggedly serves the God he believes may damn his soul to Hell. He is no saint, if being saintly means transcending the needs and temptations and vulnerabilities of ordinary human life. But if a saint is someone who is fully human and yet who, despite sharing those needs and temptations and flaws, still persists in honoring the ideal he may never reach–then, perhaps, the whiskey priest is closer than he thinks to being “the only thing that counted.” The mother’s story of Juan the Martyr provides an ironic commentary on this perspective on sainthood: our priest, too, may become the subject of such legends and be given in death the purity of heart, the courage, the heroism he lacked in life. But Greene lets us see the superficiality of that simplistic version, which is no more than a story for children. His imperfect man is, I think the lesson is, a perfect priest, truly a man of God.

I found Greene’s prose very effective, especially the unexpected similes which I learned he called “leopards” (because they “leap” at you): “She carried her responsibilities carefully like crockery across the hot yard”; “The world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit”; “the watch-tower gaped over their path like an upper jaw”; or, most poignant of all, “He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place”–that’s the line, I think, that will stay with me. For all the spiritual beauty that oozes out, though, from dark scenes such as the priest’s nights in prison or the remarkable mass he performs in the darkness in his home village even as the soldiers draw near–for all that, I found myself repelled by the vision Greene presents, of humanity as well as of religion. I found myself thinking of Swinburne’s lines (in the “Hymn to Proserpine”) expressing horror at the replacement of pagan joy with Christian suffering. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;” says his speaker, “the world has grown gray from thy breath”: “O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods; / “O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!” I don’t usually align myself with Swinburne, but Greene’s world is certainly gray and ghastly. I was also reminded of Cardinal Newman (like Greene, of course, a convert to Catholicism) and his eloquent rant about the fallen world he saw around him: “the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary, hopeless irreligion …all this is a vision to dizzy and appal,” from which he draws the conclusion that “if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible calamity.” You don’t need to be a cock-eyed optimist to consider this a very partial account of the world and man’s nature, one that drives us towards hatred and suspicion of ourselves and legitimizes suffering and misery. “I hate your reasons,” the lieutenant says in exasperation to the cornered priest; “If you see somebody in pain, people like you reason and reason. You say — pain’s a good thing, perhaps he’ll be better for it one day. I want to let my heart speak.” Though Greene doesn’t vilify the lieutenant, he makes him the priest’s antagonist and thus implies, I think, that his principles serve only worldly or material, not moral or religious, interests. But I think in this one thing I’m with the lieutenant, though clearly that goes against the grain of the novel itself. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me or reads my blog that I greatly prefer a moral vision that (rather than offering us a get-out-of-Hell-free card if we repent for our wrongdoing at the last minute, or that expects us to be good under threat of punishment or promise of reward, or in service to the glory of some hypothetical deity) is based on the human capacity for sympathy and the intrinsic value of reducing suffering and increasing joy.

The book we chose for March is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Graham Greene once called Brian Moore his “favourite living novelist,” and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne apparently contains both excess drinking and a priest, so the two reads are connected in several ways!

Recent Reading: Atkinson, Greene, Kennedy, Simonson

I have been reading quite a lot, thanks to being on sabbatical, but the irony is that I feel a little overwhelmed and unfocused now, sitting down to try to say something about the books! It may be not so much the quantity of reading, which isn’t really overwhelming; it’s more the motley assortment. But I’m already moving on to the next ones, so if I don’t write at least something now, these ones will recede into the mists of my increasingly imperfect memory. So.

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. I enjoyed reading this instalment in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series almost as much as I enjoyed the first three–almost. Atkinson is fiercely good at characterization and scene setting, and she takes a theme-and-variations approach to plot, so that the overlapping or intersecting stories she tells relate to each other thematically as well as chronologically or historically. The result (as Miriam Burstein explains better and in more detail in her post on this novel) is a book that tests and even refuses some of the conventions of mystery fiction as a genre. This time I found myself starting to get impatient with Atkinson, though: the book seemed to me to lack a certain tautness and the plot served so conspicuously as a vehicle for presenting her cleverly conceived characters that I wondered why she didn’t let go of the pretense of the genre altogether. I realize there may seem to be a certain inconsistency in this, as I have been known to complain about the dully formulaic nature of a lot of mystery novels, and my own reading preference is certainly for those that let go of the constraints of the ‘puzzle’ form and raise the literary stakes–as, for instance, P. D. James and Ian Rankin do. But James has always been explicit that she likes the basic form of the detective novel because of the clear structure it provides, which enables and supports elaboration. I thought Started Early, Took My Dog, with its diffuse attention, nearly fell off the scaffolding.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. I’ll write more about this after my book group meets tomorrow night to discuss it. It certainly follows on in an interesting way on our last reading, Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved: both books are about priests struggling to express and act on their faith according to their own principles when circumstances conspire against them. But the tone of Greene’s book is altogether darker and I founds its idea(l) of religion altogether more elusive. Where is God, in this novel? What are we to make of the whiskey priest, who hardly seems to have a calling or a vocation–indeed, it’s not clear what, exactly, he still believes in–and yet cannot turn his back on what he believes to be his duty, even when he knows it will cost him his life? Are we to read him as a martyr? What kind of a faith is it that glorifies an existence so squalid and pathetic? Where is the power, or the glory?

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. This is the first in the cluster of novels by Margaret Kennedy that I’m reading for my little Virago Modern Classics project (mentioned here). I knew almost nothing about Kennedy when I started it, and at this point I feel I know hardly any more now. It’s a very odd novel, nothing like what I expected. For a long time I couldn’t figure out who was the nymph of the title–I was only certain at the end, and then after I went back and looked up the blurb on the Virago website, as my library copy has no jacket information, no introduction, nothing at all to help me figure this weird thing out. The novel’s plot centers on the eccentric family of Albert Sanger (his “circus,” as everyone calls it). Convinced he could not flourish in England, Sanger has exiled himself to Europe and raised his miscellaneous offspring quite free of the inhibitions and values of “civilized” life. The one value they all recognize is music, or perhaps art more generally; they take really nothing else seriously at all. On Sanger’s death his second wife’s relatives step in to act as guardians to the younger children; the cousin who comes out to collect them falls in love with one of Sanger’s friends, another misunderstood musical genius, and their marriage creates the tensions that carry the novel along to its conclusion. Love, in this novel, is not a mutually beneficial or fulfilling relationship but seems to manifest itself almost entirely through a peculiar kind of worship directed by women towards brilliant, creative, anti-social men. Kennedy’s take on this is satirical, I think, but I’m not entirely sure because I found her tone difficult to interpret: she writes with a fairly flat affect, and the only times she rises into anything like compelling language is when she writes about music, which suggests she may, in fact, be aligned, or align the book, more with those who worship the muse than with those who seek worldly compromises. Reading more of her novels may help me get my interpretive bearings better. There’s hardly any critical work on her to help me out, but I have a book coming through interlibrary loan on the Somerville College novelists (of which she was one).

Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I really enjoyed reading this novel but in the end I think it’s a near miss. It prompted lots of wry laughs, and approaches questions of cultural difference and misunderstanding in a nicely muted and nuanced way, allowing its characters to make fools of themselves rather than setting them up as targets for the novelist’s (or protagonist’s) rebukes–at her best, Simonson handles this much as, say, Jane Austen does, allowing us to enjoy our superiority as we root for the happiness of Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali. The lead up to the dinner/dance–the theme of which, the ladies of the club decide, is to be “An Evening at the Mughal Court”–and then the calamitous events of that night, are beautifully handled. Here’s a little excerpt that will give you an idea of the artfully artless style of the book:

“We were reminded of the story of your father and his brave service to the Maharajah. We’ve decided to do it in three or four scenes. It’ll be the perfect core of our entertainment.”

“No, no, no,” the Major said. He felt quite faint at the idea. “My father was in India in the thirties and early forties.”

“Yes?” said Daisy.

“The Mughal Empire died out around 1750,” said the Major, his exasperation overcoming his politeness. “So you see it doesn’t go at all.”

“Well, it’s all the same  thing,” said Daisy. “It’s all India, isn’t it?”

“But it’s not the same at all,” said the Major. “The Mughals–that’s Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal. My father served at Partition. That’s the end of the English in India.”

“So much the better,” said Daisy. “We’ll just change ‘Mughal’ to ‘Maharajah’ and celebrate how we gave India and Pakistan their independence. Dawn of a new era and all that. I think it’s the only sensitive option.”

“That would solve the costume problem for a lot of people,” said Alma. “I was trying to tell Hugh Whetstone that pith helmets weren’t fully developed until the nineteenth century, but he didn’t want to hear it. If we add an element of ‘Last Days,’ they can wear their ‘Charles Dickens’ summer dresses if they prefer.” […]

“Partition was 1947,” said the Major. “People wore uniforms and short frocks.”

“We’re not trying to be rigidly historical, Major,” said Daisy.

At the event itself, Mrs Ali’s deadpan responses offset the absurdity perfectly:

“The Maharajah’s wife throws herself upon the protection of the British officer,” said Daisy’s voice again. “He is only one man, but by God he is an Englishman.” A round of cheers broke out in the audience.

“Isnt’ it exciting?” said Mrs Jakes. “I’ve got goose bumps.”

“Perhaps it’s an allergic reaction,” said Mrs. Ali in a mild voice. “The British Empire may cause that.”

The relationship between the upright, stiff, but good-hearted Major, with his old world courtesy and literary inclinations, and the astute but reticent outsider Mrs Ali is developed at once believably and sympathetically. Simonson does well with her secondary characters too, particularly the Major’s insufferable son and his American girlfriend–who is, thankfully, redeemed from reductive stereotypes after a scene or two. But I didn’t understand the turn towards melodrama at the end of the book, or why, if some kind of crisis was felt to be necessary, it took quite the form it did. Perhaps Simonson felt she should balance her satirical treatment of the shallow English villagers with some equal opportunity mockery (if that’s what it is) of the values that lead to ‘honor’ killings, but I felt that this very troubling episode threw the book off balance. I was interested that Simonson chose Kipling as the author who drew the Major and Mrs Ali together. I haven’t read any Kipling beyond snippets of (jingoistic) verse, but the part he plays here, along with Ahdaf Souief’s allusions to him in her novels (including the title of In the Eye of the Sun) make me think he’s worth taking a closer look at.