I had to touch you with my hands, I had to taste you with my tongue; one can’t love and do nothing.

Love, hate, jealousy, possession, faith and doubt. These are the major themes explored in what may well have been Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novel (the book is dedicated to Catherine Walston, with whom Greene carried out a wartime affair).

The setting for the story is London during and just after the Second World War, and our narrator is Maurice Bendrix, a middle-aged literary writer who lives alone. Bendrix initially embarks on an affair with the beautiful Sarah Miles in order to obtain information about her husband, the successful but rather dull senior Civil Servant, Henry Miles, whom Bendrix wished to use as a character in one of his novels. As time goes on though, Bendrix becomes increasingly infatuated with the charming Sarah and their relationship deepens, despite the fact that his own selfishness, jealousy and anger often cause them both pain.

However, shortly after Bendrix is knocked unconscious when a bomb gets dropped near to his house, Sarah suddenly breaks off the affair, without giving him any explanation. Bendrix assumes that she has tired of him and is now with another man, so tries to forget her. Yet two years on, still wrought with bitterness and jealousy, he decides to employ a private detective to follow Sarah and find out details about her current life. I won’t reveal any more of what happens, but already you can see why I said that this is a tale of love, hate, jealousy and possession.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

In terms of how the novel is composed, the first thing to say is that the quality and impact of the narrative is striking: Bendrix is incredibly honest in his account, carefully detailing his exact thoughts and emotions as well as his actions. There is little self-justifying or excusing of behaviour either: he is as candid as could be with himself. He comes to realise that not only only has his relationship with Sarah been defined by love and hate, but that perhaps the two emotions are inextricably linked; that the more he loves her, the greater is his capacity to hate, and that his hate itself, in one sense, speaks of the depth of his love. It is difficult for me to summarise here these sentiments and the complex interplay of different emotions that Bendrix experiences, so if the previous sentence sounds hackneyed or even ridiculous, the fault is with my attempt to sum-up his journey, rather than with Greene’s narrative.

Although Bendrix is the sole narrator, we also come to hear some of Sarah’s own thoughts, both through the lovers’ dialogues and also through her diary, which Bendrix later reads. Sarah is an extraordinary character herself, superbly drawn by Greene. She is such a mixture of different qualities (or to put it another way: she comes across like a real person and not a two-dimensional character): she’s capable of so much love, yet can never really love herself. She is passionate, bold and strong; she is forgiving, gracious, and remarkably honest, yet views herself as ‘a bitch and a fake’. Then there is her adultery itself and the inevitable deception that goes with it, yet coupled with this she is fiercely loyal, in her own way, to her husband, even when it would have been quite easy for her to have left him long ago.

Finally, at the real heart of the story, there is Sarah’s faith. Or, to be more precise, there is her doubting and wavering faith. A slither of a shadow of faith which has been with her since childhood, but has generally been submerged under everything else. However it is a faith that will not go away, which refuses to be forever smothered and which survives long after she is gone. It is this faith that points to a need for something greater than even human love can  supply. Again, I wouldn’t wish to spoil anything for anyone who has not yet read the novel, but Green’s study of faith in seemingly faith-less people is seriously and intelligently carried out, highlighting the complexity of human nature.

The End of the Affair is the fourth and last of Graham Green’s explicitly Catholic novels, all of which I would heartily recommend. All four are fairly serious, intense, ‘heavy’ books, if you will, but they all contain a depth to them which leaves you pondering their contents for months and even years afterwards.

“I had to touch you with my hands, I had to taste you with my tongue; one can’t love and do nothing.”
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