No end to my af­fair with Gra­ham Greene

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Film - Si­mon Hef­fer

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

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