The End of the Affair by Graham Greene read by Colin Firth

Greene’s God works in mysterious ways indeed…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Bendrix meets Henry in the park by chance one rainy night, it takes him back to the time, a couple of years earlier, when he was having an affair with Henry’s wife, Sarah. Now Bendrix is bitter – she left him and he has never really understood why. And Henry, unaware of their affair, now tells him that he thinks Sarah may be seeing someone else. All the old feelings brought to the surface, Bendrix feels he must know – did Sarah ever love him? Or was he just one in a long line of men…

This is a book of two halves for me, and so I must warn those who love it that I am going to be quite critical of it. I’m also going to go much further into spoiler territory than I normally do, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, then you would be best to skip my review…

The first half of the book is quite wonderful. It’s a study of how jealousy and insecurity can lead someone to destroy the very love that is causing those emotions, and how easily a failed love can turn to bitterness, even hatred. Bendrix, the first person narrator, is arrogant and can be cruel, but he is also self-aware, which makes him tolerable if not likeable. The writing is fantastic from the very first sentences – lean and direct. Greene never tells us anything – he lets his characters speak for themselves, though we see them mostly through the filter of Bendrix’s jumble of emotions. Greene understands the vulnerability that comes with love, the weakness and insecurity that can cause us to seek excuses in advance for love’s failure, and, by doing so, create that failure through our own actions. There are occasional passages of pathos, done with a simplicity that makes them deeply moving without ever verging on the mawkish.

I listened to Colin Firth’s narration of the book and he does a superb job, making it feel both tense and intense. He doesn’t ‘act’ the dialogue, but uses the subtlest shifts in tone to convey the different characterisations. All the anger and bitterness is there on the surface, but he lets us hear the sorrow and love that still underlie those emotions. It’s not at all surprising that he won the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration for this in 2013.

Unfortunately the second half fell away sharply for me – and this is where spoiler territory begins.

Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr as Bendrix and Sarah in the 1955 movie directed by Edward Dmytryk

Many of Greene’s books reflect his own personal struggle with faith and his strange relationship with the Catholic Church, and this book is no exception. But whereas in other novels – The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory – I’ve found that both interesting and moving, in this one somehow it all feels forced and rather… OK, I’ve tried to think of a better word, but the one that suits is… silly. First we find the reason Sarah finished the relationship is because of a promise she made to a God she did not at that point believe in. I could accept that, just about.

But when, towards the end of the novel, Bendrix begins to think that she may be performing miracles from the great beyond, I choked. I hold my hands up – I’m a life-long atheist and that may have affected how I felt about it. But I actually don’t think it’s that – it seems to me the way Greene does it is crass, and I think I’d feel that way, perhaps even more so in fact, if I were a believer, particularly a Catholic. For one thing, we suddenly start being told by all and sundry what a ‘good’ woman she had been. In what way, I found myself asking? We know almost nothing about her except that she has been serially unfaithful to her husband throughout their marriage because he doesn’t provide her with sexual satisfaction. If she does good works or contributes to society in any positive way, we are not told so. And she has certainly never been devout. It seems to me this is a major failure in characterisation. This woman whom I thought I knew – a creature of emotion, a rather weak, shallow personality looking for episodes of love to fill her dull and rather pointless existence, is suddenly being lauded as a saint, in the literal sense of that word.

I could have accepted it had it only been Bendrix who was viewing her that way – love and grief do strange things to the memory and the mind, after all. But other people, even the priest, seem to be ready to beatify her within weeks of her death.

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the roles in Neil Jordan’s 1999 version

There’s another suggestion that sat uneasily with me too. We discover late on that Sarah had been baptised as a Catholic, though it happened when she was too young to remember so she lived her life unaware of it. It hovers not quite spoken that this is at the root of her later dalliance with religion and possibly also her posthumous miracle-working. Hmm! I’m not sure even the Catholic Church would think it works quite like that.

So, in short, what starts as a wonderfully truthful depiction of love, jealousy and grief, turns into a superficial and incredible account of some kind of miraculous conversion. My real problem with it is that I have been saying for many years that The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite books, and have put it on my Classics Club list for a re-read – and now I’m scared to re-read it in case Scobie’s struggles with his faith strike me in the same way. In other words, perhaps it’s this book, or perhaps I’ve just become too cynical for this kind of shallow, sentimental mysticism.

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Audible US Link

54 thoughts on “The End of the Affair by Graham Greene read by Colin Firth

  1. Thanks very much for your candor, FictionFan. I’ve always thought that issues such as religious faith have to handled very carefully to work. And even then, they don”t work for everyone. So I’m not at all shocked that the second half of this one didn’t work for you. Still, I’m glad you found some things that you really did like.

    • I do think faith has to be handled carefully and I suspect that, because I’m the kind of atheist who doesn’t set out to trash other people’s sincerely held beliefs, I actually get angrier when someone distorts real religions to suit their literary whims. And sadly that’s what I felt Greene did here. A pity, because it was all going so well up to that point… 🙂

  2. I had a very similar reaction to ‘The End of the Affair’, and actually felt much the same about ‘Brighton Rock’ too. Beautiful first halves overwhelmed by Catholic agonising in the second.

    • I haven’t read Brighton Rock, but I loved The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter when I was young. Now I’m not sure whether they were different, or whether I was. But the whole Catholic thing in this one felt so contrived and unrealistic. Glad I’m not alone! 🙂

  3. Do give Scobie another chance. I’m not a believer of any faith so heavy religious content would not appeal but I thought Greene’s treatment felt quite natural.

    • Thta’s good to know! Certainly, my memory of The Heart of the Matter is that it was more about Scobie’s state of mind and didn’t suddenly descend into miraculous happenings at the end. I shall take a pause and then tackle it with my fingers crossed…

    • You know, I’ve been wondering that myself about various “literary” audiobooks I’ve tried. I have a feeling that listening seems to trigger my thinking mind more while reading is more likely to reach my emotional mind, if that makes sense. Maybe it’s just to do with the fact that it takes me much longer to listen than to read, so perhaps I have more time to think rather than just being pulled into the story.

  4. I realize, as I have become older, that books I didn’t care for when I was a younger are quite enjoyable now. Sometimes, the opposite is true. I would love to read your re-read review of “The Heart of The Matter”

    • Yes, I’ve had that experience too. I suppose it’s natural – we do change as we age and have a variety of different experiences. I think I know a good deal more about various faiths now than I did when I read Greene in my youth and I wondered if that was why I reacted so differently. I shall pause for breath before tackling The Heart of the Matter, but I’m seriously hoping I don’t end up hating it…

    • Thank you! 🙂 Oh yes, do! Audiobooks are becoming so popular now and it’s always good to hear what people think of the narrator, which can be as important as the story in an audiobook, I find…

  5. The only book of his I’ve read is The Third Man, which I can’t remember because it’s been so long, but which I’m also certain I did not follow properly because detective stories don’t fit my personality (I demand to know what’s happening instead of letting the mystery unfold; much to the chagrin of my husband, I’m the same way during movie watching). Just this morning I read Anne’s review about the woman who is unfaithful to her husband, and I know you were in the “take no mercy!” camp. I can’t imagine how much the infidelity angered you in this book.

    • Haha! I’m not that anti-infidelity, but I just find it a bit much when people mess up their own lives over something as trivial as sex and then expect me to care and even feel sorry for them! There are worse things in life to worry about, I feel… 😉 Up until the last few months I’ve thought of Greene as one of my favourite writers but I’ve re-read a couple recently and I’m now thinking I might have grown away from the type of stuff he writes. I’m not completely ready to give up on him yet, but I’m getting closer…

  6. “Shallow, sentimental mysticism” – this just about sums up my view of Greene, I’m afraid. I was forced to read quite a lot of him, but I always felt the time would have been better spent with Agatha Christie!

    • I loved him in my youth, and hope I might still love The Heart of the Matter, but this one has seriously shaken my confidence – he used God and religion like some kind of cheap magic trick, which even as an atheist I find quite offensive!

  7. Oh what a shame – this is my very favourite Greene book, and being brought up by a lapsed Catholic the faith territory does not feel in any way alien to me. Curiously, your review puts me in mind of a long ago Horizon programme called ‘God On The Brain’ looking at the neurobiology of mystical experience.

    Going back to the book, I also think realthog is right, – as you know, whatever the marvellousness of the reader, I steer away from audioreads, as it is as if someone else is getting between me and the author. Not to mention, things progress on too quickly, and one rather loses the natural small pauses a reader might find themselves taking

    This is a book I read over and over, every few years, and rather continues to work for me, deepeningly. Isn’t it wonderful that we respond so unrobotically, so humanly, so individually to books!

    • I know it is, and I was reluctant to criticise it too harshly for that reason! But honestly it’s not the idea of faith that puts me off – I enjoy books about people with real faith. As you know, I actually quite envy people with faith. But this… well, I’ll just say it didn’t ring true to any kind of Christian faith I know of. It was more like she’d joined some kind of wizarding clan after death and was performing tricks…

      I do think I probably react differenetly to audiobooks than paper books, though, but sometimes that can be a good thing, especially on a re-read – gives a fresh perspective. Turns out this wasn’t a re-read though – I hadn’t been sure if I’d read it before, but once I started I knew I definitely hadn’t. Anyway, hopefully you’ll now completely forget my criticisms and continue to enjoy the book unsullied by my cynicism! 😀

      • But I always find it interesting when people have different opinions to mine – it will no doubt be an interesting extra dimension to my next re-read, rather than something I forget – give me an additional something to consider!

        • I usually do too but sometimes with a real favourite I prefer not to have other people’s negative thoughts intruded into my enjoyment. Positive thoughts are fine, though!

  8. This is one of my favourite Greene books too but I agree that the first half is much better than the second. I really liked Brighton Rock too but it’s a long time since I read it so my recommendation might be unfounded! It’s possibly not as good as I remember.

    • I’d like to read Brighton Rock one day, but I’m a bit hesitant to read another so soon after my relative disappointment with this one. But I really don’t remember the Catholic stuff being handled so badly in either The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter, so I’m hoping this was maybe just a blip…

  9. I read this a couple of years ago and did think that both Bendrix and Sarah’s were realistic – I didn’t have the same feeling as you around the ending but then I am ambivalent about faith (of any kind) and so probably dismissed that part of the book of not being worthy of any deep contemplation which I put down to my failing rather than the author’s.

    • I thought the characterisation was excellent right up until the miracles began, and then it all fell apart for me. Despite being an atheist, I’m quite interested in faith and usually enjoy books with a strong element of faith in them, so maybe that’s why this one felt so wrong to me – it seemed more like magic than faith somehow. However I know loads of people love it, so it’s clearly just a personal reaction.

  10. I struggle with Greene’s preoccupation with Catholicism, it often seems to come at a cost to the narrative! I remember quite enjoying this though, when I read it many years ago. I might give it another try, your review has me intrigued as it highlights how much I’ve forgotten!

    • Yes, I think when I read some of his books when I was young, I was at a stage where I was still somewhat tempted by religion, which might be why I loved them. Or it might be that he didn’t go so far as introducing miracles, which was what really threw me in this one. Do read it again – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it. 😀

  11. I don’t like Greene, but maybe it is time for a re-read as I may have been too young the first time around. I don’t mind Catholicism or religious themes so much as I get older, so appear to have the opposite reaction to yours!

    • I missed this one when I was going through my Greene phase when I was young, so I don’t know whether it would have affected me differently back then. Maybe I’ve just got too old… *gulps*

  12. I agree you, almost down to the letter. I also listened to the Colin Firth audiobook, and also found his narration really incredible; I also found the first half of the novel remarkable, and the second half remarkably silly. The way the miracles are handled is absurd–I am a devout Christian, though not a Catholic, and I found the ending very weak for all the reasons you identified! The existence of miracles is not what throws me, but the way they are introduced and the reasons given for them.

    I loved Greene’s handling of religion in Brighton Rock, and The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite novels, even though I have a lot of theological differences from the author and all his characters. But in this book in particular, it seemed forced and shoehorned in, and inconsistent even within the rules and characterisations he sets up within the novel.

    • Well, I’m actually really pleased to hear that because I loved The Heart of the Matter when I read it in my youth and was scared that maybe I’d feel differently now – it’s on my Classics Club list for a re-read. Although I’m an atheist, I’m not one of those who hates all things religious – in fact, I’m always rather envious of people with real faith. So normally I get on very well with books with a strong faith content despite my own lack of belief. But in this one it didn’t feel like faith or Christianity – it felt more as if she was performing magic tricks from beyond in order to “convert” Bendrix – and I don’t know any faith system that believes things work like that! I loved Scobie’s relationship with his God, even though it was also not what you would call conventional, but it seemed to stay within the bounds of reality, and was more about Scobie’s personality than religion itself. You’ve cheered me up – maybe I will still love it after all!

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