Graham Greene’s record of hate: The End of the Affair (1951)

The End of the Affair

  • Author:  Graham Greene  (1904 – 1991)
  • Rank:  #82
  • Published:  1951
  • Publisher:  William Heinemann Ltd.
  • Pages:  192  (Penguin 20th Century Classics)
  • First Line:  “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.”
  • Last Line:  “I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, 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.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  1955  (**.5 – dir. Edward Dmytryk), 1999  (**** – #3 of the year, dir. Neil Jordan)
  • Read:  December, 1999

The Novel: “I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed,” Maurice Bendrix says at the conclusion of the novel.  It’s not so surprising.  In the very first page he warned us “this is a record of hate far more than of love.”  In the end, it is very much a record of hate, a book as full of anger and pain as anything not written by Philip Roth.  In the end, it not just God or his lover, Sarah, or her sad-sap husband, Henry that Bendrix has come to hate.  Perhaps there is no one he hates more than himself.

It doesn’t start out that way of course, for love never does.  But he chooses to tell the story of the end of the affair, of the love that he had for Sarah Miles, of the passionate affair that commenced, throughout the war, until the day, when the V-1 came crashing down, nearly killing Bendrix and definitively killing their affair.  But the story doesn’t begin there, but only later, long after the affair has passed, when suddenly Sarah and Henry once again become part of Bendrix’s life and he tries to piece everything together, to find out why Sarah left him, what precipitated that end.

But the story, as startling as it is when we discover what happened, is only part of this book.  Part of it is Bendrix himself, a man who says such things as “If I could, I would write with love, but if I could write with love, I would be another man.”  We get nothing of the Bendrix before the war, before Sarah, but it seems that the anger stems from her departure, from the hole the bomb left in the middle of his life without even having the courtesy to kill him.  Early on, he seems happy with Sarah: “She touched me sympathetically with her hand and from then on we sat there with our hands in the innocent embrace that children and lovers use.”

But then the bomb falls, and for a few minutes, there is no Bendrix.  He almost ceases to exist: “I had no memory at all of Sarah and I was completely free from anxiety, jealousy, insecurity, hate: my mind was a blank sheet on which somebody had just been on the point of writing a message of happiness.”  But he doesn’t know that his very survival will encompass an embrace of God from Sarah, driving her away from the man she loves and into the very thing that comes to encompass all of his hate.  It is a record of hate, especially his hatred of the very concept of God, that God which stole his love away without taking his life.  “When she slept, I was with her, not You.  It was I who penetrated her, not You.”  And at the end, his life intractably altered, his hatred of God seems to have the final words.

the boring 1955 version of The End of the Affair

The Film: (1955)

What the hell were they thinking?  Yes, Deborah Kerr was well-cast and did a good job.  Peter Cushing, a few years before he would leap into the macabre with Hammer Studios isn’t too badly cast, though he never seems very convincing as the weakling Henry.  The film would have better off if they could have found a way to cast John Mills both as Parkis, the investigator and as Henry.  He would be equally adept at either role.  But of course, these are the things they didn’t do too badly with.

But then they cast Van Johnson and it is a crippling move.  Johnson is inadequate on pretty much every level.  He isn’t believable as a writer.  He isn’t believable as this kind of lover.  He certainly isn’t believable as the kind of person who could give this record of hate.  As a result, the film falls dreadfully flat.  Kerr does what she can with it, and seems well-suited, having already played to perfection the cuckolding wife in From Here to Eternity, but this film can’t convey the depth of emotions that the novel had and that would be found in the Neil Jordan film.

Of course, this, like early mediocre version of The Quiet American is available.  Both have been re-made with vastly superior results.  Yet, The Heart of the Matter and Brighton Rock, both brilliant adaptations of Graham Greene novels are extremely difficult to get hold of.  Do yourself a favor and skip this version.  Watch the Jordan version instead.

The Film: (1999)

the passionate 1999 version of The End of the Affair

Is he believable as a writer?  Yes.  As a passionate, obsessed lover?  Yes.  As a person who could give this record of hate?  Absolutely.  Of course, casting Ralph Fiennes was only the first of the smart moves.  Perhaps the smartest was the casting of Julianne Moore, one of the best actresses of her generation, right at her peak, so perfectly cast as the frail, yet passionate Sarah.  She is so vibrant, so alive, so perfectly the woman for Maurice that it makes her turning away all the more confusing.  “Love doesn’t end just because we don’t see each other,” she tells him.

And how can she bring herself to do this?  We have seen their passionate affair growing, the way they instantly connected on a physical level and fell into each other’s embrace.  But I am reminded of something I wrote about the novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, that there are the things that happen to us, but also the witnesses to those events.  Both can be shattered by a traumatic event and often not in the same way.  We see the bomb explode, the way the glass flexes outward, then explodes inward, blowing Maurice down the staircase.  Then we see him slowly regain consciousness and return to Sarah and his puzzled response to her reaction.  Then she leaves, with those perplexing words, the ones he cannot bring himself to understand.

Then, some twenty minutes later, we see the event and this time we see her reaction, the passion with which she comes down the stairs, only to find a broken body without a sign of life.  So she returns and approaches this event her own way and we know what she is doing when he comes up the stairs behind her, recalled to life.  And only then can we understand.  We understand the bargain that she has made and why she leaves.  And then it is all the easier to see why he makes this a diary of hate, why his passion for her turns into passion against Him.  And there are no two actors alive who could more fit these roles, of the passionate lover, betrayed by faith, and she who would ignite that passion.