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.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….At first the Immortalisation Commission was told by Dr Abrikosov that Lenin’s body could be preserved ‘for many, many years’ by refrigeration, if it was kept in the crypt, in a specially designed sarcophagus, at a carefully controlled temperature. But despite the most expensive and sophisticated freezing equipment bought from Germany, within two months there were already dark spots on Lenin’s face and torso and his eye sockets were deformed. The magnates were worried their plan would not work out, particularly as the weather was becoming warmer.
….Towards the end of March 1924 two prominent chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested re-embalming the body with a chemical mixture that they said ‘could last hundreds of years’. They had studied the ancient Egyptian techniques of mummification but they could do a lot better ‘and keep Vladimir Ilyich’s body looking natural’. They worked day and night whitening Lenin’s skin and devising the correct embalming fluid, under intense pressure, reporting directly to Stalin and Zinoviev. They experimented on several cadavers of fifty-ish-year-old men brought to them from morgues and scientific institutes in Moscow. After four months they found the correct formula of glycerin, alcohol, potassium acetate, quinine chlorate and another ingredient still strictly secret at the time of writing.

(FF says: I bet it’s beetroot soup…)

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….It hadn’t taken the landlady very long to find out that her lodger had a queer kind of fear and dislike of women. When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in the Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs. Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.

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….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

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….When the client came out, I noticed the fake tan on her calves looked a bit streaky, which almost never happens. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind. She winked at Mum and said, ‘Enjoy tonight – look forward to hearing all about it.’
….Mum says everybody spills out all their news in the Powder Room. She thinks that it’s something to do with lying with a nice white towel under your head and a blanket over your legs and feet. She says everybody feels like a child tucked up safely in bed, mostly because when she raises them up their feet can’t touch the floor anymore and they are warm and safe and so they sing like canaries. They tell her all manner of very personal things. Her way to describe this is womb talk. Some nights she’ll pour herself a glass of wine and say, ‘oh my goodness I’ve had so much womb talk tonight if someone else says menopause or hysterectomy to me I’ll start mixing HRT with the Fakebake.’

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 120…

Episode 120…

Aaarghhh! Up another 2 this week, to 197!! And review copies up too, to 35! It’s not my fault – I can’t help it if publishers keep publishing books I can’t resist! I’m sure it’s peaked though – it’ll start falling dramatically soon…

 

Here are a few that should rise to the top of the heap soon…

Fiction

I don’t often get unsolicited books in the mail, but the publishers of this one, Hodder & Stoughton, have sent me this one – twice! (See? It’s not my fault!!) It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but you never know. Sometimes it’s good to step off the well-trodden path…

The Blurb says: Minnie has always lived with her sister Clara in her family’s beautiful, grand, yet increasingly dilapidated house Rosemount. Now in her seventies, she finds herself looking back to a life that has been shrouded with sorrow, and a painful secret that she has guarded since her teens.

Eleven-year-old Max, who lives opposite Minnie on the housing estate built in Rosemount’s grounds, has grown up happily with his single mother. But his mum has begun a new relationship and suddenly life is starting to change.

As each of them tell their stories, she via a resurrected childhood journal, him via a Dictaphone, they spot each other through their bedroom windows and slowly and hesitantly an unlikely friendship begins to form. A friendship that might just help Max come to terms with the present and enable Minnie, finally, to lay to rest the ghosts of her past…

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Sword and Sandals…

And talking of stepping off the path, it’s been a while since I read a rip-roaring sword and sandals adventure! Cornwell has a great reputation and I’ve been meaning to try one of his books for a long time. I’m doing a readalong of this one with a friend and have already started it…

 The Blurb says: This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.

The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane. He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.

This thrilling adventure—based on existing records of Bernard Cornwell’s ancestors—depicts a time when law and order were ripped violently apart by a pagan assault on Christian England, an assault that came very close to destroying England.

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Fiction on Audio…

Darcy reading Graham Greene to me??? If I suddenly disappear, it will probably be because I have swooned entirely away…

The Blurb says: Graham Greene’s evocative analysis of the love of self, the love of another, and the love of God is an English classic that has been translated for the stage, the screen, and even the opera house.

Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) turns in an authentic and stirring performance for this distinguished audio release. The End of the Affair, set in London during and just after World War II, is the story of a flourishing love affair between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles. After a violent episode at Maurice’s apartment, Sarah suddenly and without explanation breaks off the affair.

This very intimate story about what actually constitutes love is enhanced by Mr. Firth’s narration. “This book struck me very, very particularly at the time when I read it and I thought my familiarity with it would give the journey a personal slant. I’m grateful for this honour,” Firth said when this production was recognized by the Audie Awards as Audiobook of the Year for 2013, “and grateful for the opportunity to narrate one of my favorite stories. A great novel told in the first person makes for the best script an actor could imagine. None better than The End of the Affair…. Theater and film each offer their own challenges and rewards, but narration is a new practice for me and the audiobook performance provides exhilarating possibilities for both actors and listeners. I’m thrilled to be involved in bringing this remarkable work of fiction to a wider audience, and thankful to Audible for offering me the opportunity to perform it and to engage with so many who share my passion for storytelling.”

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley, another anthology of vintage short stories from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards….

The Blurb says: Impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the ‘golden age of murder’ between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.

This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

TBR Thursday 82…

Episode 82…

 

Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 this week – to 167! So tchah! to all you gloaters who were trying to push me up to 200 – your nefarious schemes have failed!! (So far…)

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Fiction

Travels with my AuntA re-read from many years ago, by one of my favourite authors, this will take me on a journey on the Orient Express for the #AW80Books challenge…

The Blurb says: Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother’s funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe’s hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.

In Travels with my Aunt Graham Greene not only gives us intoxicating entertainment but also confronts us with some of the most perplexing of human dilemmas.

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chapel springs survivalWell, this is listed on Amazon as “Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction” so you may well wonder why it’s turned up on my TBR! Because it’s edited by our very own Susan P, regular commenter, fellow cat-lover and all round good chap… how could I resist? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the grammar… 😉

The Blurb says: A mail-order bride, a town overrun with tourists, and illegal art ~ How on earth will Claire and Chapel Springs survive?

With the success of her Operation Marriage Revival, life is good for Claire Bennett. That is until the mayor’s brother blabs a secret: Claire’s nineteen-year-old son, Wes, has married a Brazilian mail order bride — one who is eight years older than him. When Claire tries to welcome her new daughter-in-law, she’s ridiculed, rebuffed, and rejected. Loving this girl is like hugging a prickly cactus. Will Claire and her family survive her son’s marriage? From the first sighting of a country music star in Claire’s gallery, The Painted Loon, to the visit of a Hollywood diva, Chapel Springs is inundated with stargazers, causing lifelong residents to flee the area. When her best friends, Patsy and Nathan, put their house on the market, Claire is forced to do something or lose the closest thing to a sister she’s got. With her son’s future at stake and the town looking to her to solve their problems, it’s Claire who needs a guardian angel.

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Crime

 

ruling passionContinuing my gradual re-read of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, this is book 3…

The Blurb says: From Yorkshire to the sleepy village of Thornton Lacey is only a morning’s drive, but for Detective-Sergeant Peter Pascoe, the distance will close off part of his life forever. Motoring down for a reunion with old friends, he arrives to find not a welcome but a grisly triple murder. Out of his jurisdiction, Pascoe is in an untenable position: one of his oldest friends is wanted for murder, his boss is ordering him back to Yorkshire, and his instincts are telling him that the local constabulary will never suspect that the crime’s true motive lies not in the obvious places…but in the unexplored zones of passion within a twisted heart.

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Sci-fi

 

2001 a space odysseyI think this is the last of my Christmas books – and I have the film to go with it! I’ve tried watching the film in the past but never made it all the way through – I’m hoping reading the book will help…

The Blurb says: Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, made into one of the most influential films of our century, brilliant, compulsive, prophetic, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s place in the universe. On the moon an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent out deep into the solar system. But, before they can reach their destination, things begin to go wrong. Horribly wrong.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?