The End of the Affair, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1951).
Summary: A writer struggles to understand why the woman he has had an affair with broke it off, discovering who ultimately came between them.
Maurice Bendrix, a rising writer, encounters Henry Miles, the successful but dull civil servant Bendrix had cuckolded by having a five year affair with Sarah Miles, his attractive wife. The affair, hidden from Henry had ended nearly two years earlier. All that Henry knew (or claimed to know) was that Bendrix had been a great friend. Now he comes to Bendrix with a problem. He is concerned that Sarah may be seeing someone else and wonders about hiring a private detective.
Bendrix discourages this plan, but ends up hiring the detective himself. He’s never understood why Sarah broke off their affair, although at some level, he knows his jealousy of Henry, who she will not leave, had been driving them apart. But they had a powerful love that drew them together. They were parted toward the end of the war when a German V-1 struck the building they were in, leaving him apparently dead underneath some debris. But in fact, he survived. Their affair did not.
Only when the private detective purloins a journal does Bendrix discover the truth. Sarah had found him under the debris, apparently lifeless and made a plea, a promise to God for his life. If he lived, she would not see him again. And the others Sarah was seeing? An atheist and a priest helping her sort out the question of belief. In the end, Bendrix finds out it is not Henry or any of these rivals who came between him and Sarah. It was God. The God he hated who did not exist.
He discovers something else as he reads the journal, and talks with Henry, the atheist, the priest, and the detective. There had been a saintly goodness about Sarah that Bendrix hadn’t seen amid their torrid affair. Even that affair was a longing for passionate love, a love she hadn’t found with Henry. There was more–Henry’s life given back, a disfigurement that disappeared, a sickly child healed. I’m intrigued that Greene includes this “miraculous” element in the story.
We discover that neither Henry Miles nor Maurice Bendrix truly took the measure of Sarah during her life. There was a higher love in her life unsatisfied by being the trophy wife of a civil servant or the possessive passion of Bendrix’s love. The question we are left with is whether Bendrix will respond with love or with hate both to Sarah and Sarah’s God.
Greene, who wrote several novels touching on religious themes raises a searching question: can God call for ultimate love and loyalty? Even when it means the end of the affair? It may be one of the marks of modernity that this is even a question.
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