"Morning Sun" by Edward Hopper

A True Realist

This month’s “Book of the Month” is The End of the Affair, published in 1951 by the twentieth-century English novelist Graham Greene.
Stephen E. Lewis

Greene’s novel is narrated by Maurice Bendrix, a novelist by profession who has been praised, he tells us, for his “technical abilities.” Bendrix is a writer of “realist” fiction; that is, he writes fiction that tries to stay close in its descriptions, characterization, and dialogue to the way people really speak and act, and the world as it really is. He fancies himself a keen observer and an expert craftsman. Needless to say, his account of what is real dismisses God as an illusion. However, in producing the book we are reading, which focuses on an adulterous affair he undertook and its aftermath, he finds himself compelled to write in a new way: in particular, he has adopted the first person, a narrative approach that for him is unprecedented (as it was for Greene himself in writing this novel). Bendrix has put his very self into question in his narrative practice, because the “affair” that he is recounting to us has deeply challenged his established “realist” understanding of reality. Indeed, what he has discovered over the past ten years about love and hate through this affair has thoroughly overturned his very sense of what is real, a fact that renders his tone at times angry, amazed, cynical, resigned, and even almost defeated (a mix of emotions communicated well by his final line in the book: “I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever”).

On the face of it, the novel’s “affair” is just that: a banal story of adultery, beginning with excitement and sensuous adventure, and concluding with a break-up and jealous speculations. But we see right away that in this case there is more: somehow through this affair, God has entered Bendrix’s life. Bendrix begins with a line denying that there is any inherent meaning to be discovered in his narrative thread: “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.” But by the end of this first paragraph, he backtracks, saying, “It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion” to begin at precisely the incident he begins with.

That incident is an encounter on a rainy London night in January 1946 with Henry Miles, a British government official and the husband of his former lover, Sarah Miles. Bendrix has known Henry since 1939, when he first met Henry’s wife, Sarah, as part of an effort to research the life of a typical civil servant for a novel he was writing. He never finished that novel, but Bendrix and Sarah soon began an affair, about which Henry remained clueless. The lovers carried on for five years until Sarah abruptly ended it all on June 17, 1944, the night that a German V-1 “robot” rocket exploded outside the flat in which they were sleeping. Bendrix tells us that he regained consciousness amidst the rubble, having escaped being crushed by a heavy door blown off its hinges that somehow stopped only inches away from his face. To Sarah’s great surprise, he emerges from the wreckage merely bruised and having lost a few teeth; Sarah, for her part, is unharmed. But something has happened to Sarah: in the aftermath of this incident, she refuses to continue the affair, and she won’t say why.

Bendrix has pondered and rehashed every detail of the affair ever since that incident, jealously suspecting that Sarah called it off in order to leave him for another lover. Now, during that rainy night in January 1946, he learns that Henry has started to wonder, too, about Sarah, because she is often absent from home. Henry tells Bendrix that he would like to get to the bottom of whatever may be going on. Bendrix has a similar desire, of course for reasons he does not divulge to Henry, and offers to engage a private detective on Henry’s behalf. The detective Parkis is assigned to the case, and soon Bendrix is learning surprising new information about Sarah and, with each new detail, about himself. The writing of Bendrix’s narrative takes place circa 1949, and moves back and forth between the relatively idyllic affair of 1939 (its beginning), the time of the investigation (1946), and the period of the end of the affair (1944-5). Bendrix learns details from this last period by reading Sarah’s journal from that time, which Parkis steals and provides to Bendrix. Thus Bendrix reproduces verbatim the contents of Sarah’s journal at the novel’s very center, allowing the reader the dramatic opportunity to hear Sarah’s striking voice and discover how the novel’s epigraph, “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence,” provides the key to the new reality that Sarah has discovered (and which Bendrix, grudgingly, encounters along with her). Sarah’s writing echoes the insights and experiences of many saints and mystics from the tradition, and at the same time rings absolutely true as that of the woman we have come to know through her lover Bendrix’s descriptions of her.

This account of the novel has purposely avoided major spoilers. But I will make one suggestion about an important point of entry, or rather a narrative shape, that repays our attention as we read this masterpiece of modern English fiction. The shape is the triangle: triangular relations among characters in this novel are worth noting. Parkis, the hapless detective, states, as he hands over Sarah’s stolen journal to Bendrix, “It’s all human nature, sir, isn’t it, and human love. Though I was surprised. Not having expected the third.” What Sarah, and then Bendrix (as well as Parkis, another character named Richard Smythe, and even Henry), discover in the course of the story is that human love always involves a third, whether that love is true or a parody. In this novel (as in so many of the greatest novels in Western literature), adultery is the paradigmatic parody of the triangular shape of human love. But Greene, as much an acute student of the novel as Henry James before him, has produced a book in which those caught up in the parody find themselves drawn out by God himself into the experience of true human love, where God is the third. For Bendrix, the experience is not one he enjoys, but in the end he finds himself on the path to becoming the realist he has really always wanted to be.