Sunday, 15 September 2013

Week Thirty-Four - Jude

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951) 
Recommended by Mark Hooper

I read four books on holiday. Four! Three were for this blog, and one wasn't (unless anyone wants to belatedly recommend me Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, as I'd love to write about it).

So first up: Graham Greene. I've loved Graham Greene ever since I picked up a copy of Brighton Rock from Gorseinon Library in my mid-teens. Oh, Gorseinon Library! I read practically everything  there – kids' books, history books, everything about nuclear war, stuff on Welsh poetry, a copy of 1984 that some rotter had hidden in the teenage fiction section (I was 12; I was terrified). I also ordered books in, which seemed to lose themselves into the permanent shelves. That's why I hope a copy of The Cure's song lyrics and Marcus Gray's R.E.M. biography are still there, anyway.

The beginning of Brighton Rock is still one of the best things I've ever read, though. The tension, the characterisation, that drawing of that eerie, compelling seaside scene...argh! The rest of the book isn't half bad, either. Then last year, I read Our Man In Havana. Such a different, dryly funny story from the same writer, making brilliant fun of the British intelligence services....and now comes The End Of The Affair.

These three books have such a separate sense of voice and style, it's staggering really. But perhaps that's Graham Greene's thing: sustaining different approaches to subjects smartly and effortlessly.

The End of the Affair was recommended to me by Mark Hooper. Mark is lovely – a great magazine editor and writer (I've worked for him), currently editing a great quarterly brick called Hole and Corner, about "people who spend more time doing than talking, for whom content is more important than style, whose work is their life". That pretty much sums Mark up for me. As for this book, I'd seen the 1999 Neil Jordan film adaptation already, so knew roughly what happened in the narrative (single man and married woman have a catastrophic affair), although I found it fairly easy to dislodge Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore from my mind. (Saying that, I have refreshed the memory of seeing them today, by watching the awful trailer on YouTube – I particularly recommend the scary-voiceover-man's "IN A TIME OF WAR" section.)

The book is something else. Although it's pretty obvious what will happen to Sarah from the off, Greene's book is a masterclass in how to create heavy claustrophobic atmospheres. Here we are experiencing "black wet January nights on the Common", further darkened by them being in London in the Second World War, and similar states in the mind: when "in that state of blackness one can no more tell the days than a blind man can notice the changes of light".  The structure of the story is also interesting, shaped by a writer-character who is conscious of the limitations of his narrative ("a story has no beginning or end", the book begins, "arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead"). 

The swings between past and present time also demand that the reader involves themselves deeply in the characters' minds, and becomes part of their webby, messy world.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Maurice Bendrix, an upcoming writer, meeting Sarah husband's Henry on Clapham Common (they live at opposite sides of it, a detail that has a certain knowing, oppressive poetry about it). Henry is worried about Sarah, and thinking about hiring a private detective to find out what is wrong with her; Maurice does so himself. It quickly becomes obvious that Bendrix has some history with Sarah, although he is loathe to admit it, but the details of their passionate past slowly, and painfully, start to seep out. 

The hurt I felt while reading this book reminded me of Brief Encounter, one of my favourite films. It's such a stark, modern film in some ways, especially at the point when Celia Johnson (as Laura) talks about not thinking about her children while she is away with her lover, and when you realise her her husband is such a nice, unknowing soul. Greene's story also has an unknowing husband (Henry), but many more physical details that deepen that sense of dread. Take the pages when Maurice and Sarah are having sex in the house in which Henry is also in – I barely breathed.

The last scene of (the wonderful) Brief Encounter

What's not obvious early on, though, is how huge a part religion will play in The End Of The Affair. Catholicism is the real cheat of the hour that enters the frame and rips this relationship apart (I won't say much more here; you'll have to read the book to appreciate what happens). It's also impossible to see this when the narrative starts, and that's one of many things I love about this book. You look at the heavily-loaded title, and Sarah's nasty cough, and all signs point to an obvious melodrama. What we actually get is a story when nothing is truly as it seems, or will work out to be, for both character and reader. 

The last section even takes us somewhere very gothic and strange, where miracles happen, while others implode. Plus, the last line is also surely a contender for the bleakest ever:

"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."

And if this isn't dark enough... Greene lived at 14 Clapham Common Northside. His house was bombed by one of the first V1s, just as Maurice's was. Graham Greene had an affair with Lady Catherine Walston. Her husband was called Henry. 

The English edition of the book is dedicated to C.