No end to my affair with Graham Greene
came late to Graham Greene. I had seen most of the films – The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and of course Brighton Rock – before reading him in any depth. The exception was Brighton Rock: I had read it at university and, as a secularised Protestant atheist, been repelled by its overt Catholicism. Indeed, the religious aspect of several of Greene’s novels put me off him altogether until a friend gave me two for a birthday present and I decided to give him another chance. I ended up reading the whole canon, and then the megalithic biography by Norman Sherry. Greene continues to fascinate me, but also to repel in some measure, to this day.
I can at least understand his attachment to Catholicism – even if, in his version, sin seems too easily washed away. His increasingly absurd politics later in life are harder to swallow, notably his embracing of any communist dictatorship that opposed America. The Quiet American is an impressively forward-looking novel, predicting no good would come of American involvement in Vietnam. The wider points it makes about American imperialism still resonate today. But Greene’s loathing of America became irrational, and turned him into a sort of tyrants’ fag-hag – however much he would have rejected the label.
Yet once I had reached the end of his canon, and digested the biography – and Greene himself intrudes so often into his work that biographical context is more important with him than it is with other writers – I realised two positive things above all about him. First, he was a magisterial short story writer; and second, that he unquestionably wrote novels, thrillers and, as he called them, entertainments of the highest quality and originality. His exact contemporary Evelyn Waugh had a different sort of genius; but in English novelists of their era they stand alone for the consistent excellence of their work over many years.
And, though I would not have predicted it when I embarked on the exercise, the novel I considered best of all is one most infused with Catholicism, The End of the Affair. As a former film critic Greene knew how to write a blatantly cinematic novel, and many will have seen one or both of the two films made of the book – the first with Van Johnson better than the second with Ralph Fiennes, even though Johnson was wildly miscast as the adulterer in retreat from God, Maurice Bendrix. As a work of art the novel is better than either film. Bendrix – an incarnation of Greene – is a novelist who starts an affair with Sarah Miles, wife of a dull civil servant living near him in Clapham (where Greene, too, lived for a time before the war). Bendrix is thought to be dead when his flat takes a direct hit during a bombing raid, and so much does Sarah wish him to live that she promises God she will end the affair if he has survived. He lives, and she ends it, to Bendrix’s complete incomprehension.
We learn a lot about Greene from studying Bendrix. Greene was married but estranged from his wife, who for religious reasons never divorced him; in his own extramarital escapades he seems to have felt no guilt at all, and nor does Bendrix – but he does seethe with jealousy, because Sarah will not leave her husband. She is based on Catherine Walston, the glamorous wife of an East Anglian landowner with whom Greene had an affair for years, and the guilt with which Sarah is riddled in the book appears to have been felt by Walston, and shared with Greene, who seems to have been indifferent to her suffering. Ironically, two years after the affair has ended, Sarah’s husband suspects her of having an affair. Bendrix, jealous again, employs a private detective who finds that the other man is God, because Sarah has become devoutly religious. She dies of a lung infection, in Greene’s depiction of her almost a candidate for sainthood.
The structure of the novel, as well as its highly original plot, is radical and remarkable. We learn of Sarah’s motivation in ending the affair from her diary, to which the narrator has access. But aside from the emotional assault course that features in the novel, Greene gives a superb picture of London during and after the war. It is one of the greatest novels in the English language, and essential reading for those who wish to grasp the literary and social culture of the mid 20th century.
Devotion: Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in The End of the Affair in 1999