Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Reading List: "The End of the Affair"

Grahm Greene's The End of the Affair is a book that is unabashedly, almost didactically, about faith and religion. There are really only five characters, one of whom fills a plot function and provides some comic relief; the other four each represent a stance towards religious faith.

  • The narrator is scornful of religion.
  • The narrator’s girlfriend resists religion, but eventually has a powerful conversion experience.
  • A rationalist with a crush on the narrator’s girlfriend is so passionately anti-religious that his life is effectively shaped by religion.
  • The narrator’s girlfriend’s husband couldn’t really care less about religion, and is thus the only character in the novel whose life is not dictated by religion.
The essential idea of the novel seems to be that you can run from faith, but you can’t hide – unless you are like the husband character, a weak, passionless workaholic who, Greene seems to suggest, is barely living in any meaningful sense anyway. The rationalist, who spends his days publicly preaching the absurdity of Christianity, is depicted as someone with a deep, complicated, but obvious relationship with God. Someone who simply didn’t believe in God, in the logic of the novel, couldn’t possibly care enough to spend his life in this way.

The girlfriend, who is the central figure of the book, resists her own religious belief until an experience that she interprets as a miracle, after which she has a religious conversion and breaks off her relationship with the narrator. And as for the narrator, he keeps up an air of sophisticated dismissal of faith throughout, but ultimately we have to judge him the same way we judge the rationalist – after all, he as a character is obsessed enough with his relationship with God to be, within the fictional frame, writing the novel that we are reading.

It probably goes without saying that the book on balance – although it is not without subtlety – argues for the rationality, or at least the reasonableness, of Christian belief, and for the inevitability of some sort of religious faith. From this, you might reasonably guess that it presents Christian belief as key to a happy life. However, your guess would be wrong. Powerful religious experience is, for every character, a painful and heartbreaking force. They are happiest when they have the least faith, and it is only the husband, bland and shallow as he is, who makes his way through the days with anything like equanimity. As for the others, they experience less the “Peace of Christ” than the metaphorical pain of the crucifixion. The girlfriend’s religious experiences are so overblown as to suggest neurosis more than piety, and a series of miracles late in the book – it is implied that the girlfriend is, either symbolically or literally, a saint – seem to cause more suffering than solace to their supposed beneficiaries.

The novel is told in a highly fractured narrative than weaves freely backward and forward through time, mixing straight first-person retelling of events, the narrator’s ruminations, and textual material read by the narrator. Key events are often given away long before they are described in full, so that you know basically how the book will end after just a few pages. The effect is fairly engrossing and entirely natural; it is much like hearing a friend tell a long and complex story in the typically shuffled way that stories are told.

Did I like the novel? Well, I admire its craftsmanship and am sympathetic to its attempt to plumb the nature of faith. It is also a fascinating look at the texture of life in London during the 1940s. The characters, unfortunately, are all in their separate ways rather shallow and unlikable. This made it hard for me to get too concerned about the state of their souls, which in turn rendered the book rather academic. The narrator, in particular, is self-absorbed to the point of obsession, in a manner which made me fear that this had more to do with Graham Greene’s own personality than with his intention to create an unsympathetic first-person character (although, I know nothing about Graham Greene, so take this with a grain of salt). On balance, then, I found The End of the Affair a reasonably engrossing novel of average interest, but one that perhaps falls short of its reputation.

Plot: After a chance encounter with his former lover’s husband, a British novelist decides to investigate why his lover left him. To his surprise, he finds that she has not been carrying on with a third man at all, but has instead been carrying on with God. Several possibly mystical events occur which bring peace, joy, and contentment to no one.


d said...

i've always had a really hard time with grahm greene. everything is just so...dry. and kind of dull. and most of his protagonists are pretty unlikeable which means that i have a hard time caring about them. and don't really want to spend much time with them.

in other words: kudos for making it through an entire novel.

mhwitt said...

Ever since I read this book, I have tried to remember why I set about reading this book. That's not to say I disliked it, I just can't remember what lead me to purchase a copy.

I knew nothing of Graham Greene's reputation as a "Catholic novelist" before I read the book, so was quite surprised when "miracles" started happening in the third act. I felt blind-sided. I somehow expected the strident atheism of the narrator to be the abiding theme.

I'd say your assessment matches mine: a book to admire but not a book to enjoy in every way.

blythe said...

yeah, graham greene is one of those guys whose books i keep around, but have really no interest in contemplating. i'm really more into looking rather than being well read, and graham greene books are integral to that mission.