It's hard for me to know exactly what to think of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. I first became aware of the story thanks to a movie released more than a decade ago, a movie I instantly loved, for reasons that went beyond the story. To finally read the book is to learn more about the story, certainly, but it also shades my memory of that story, knowing how the author originally approached it.
As the title in any incarnation suggests, this is a story about the end of an affair. Simple enough. And yet it's not that simple. The affair was apparently winding down, bursting into unavoidable arguments, so that the end itself was coming one way or another. It's the way it ended that leaves Maurice Bendrix in such unending turmoil, and that's where the strength of the story lies, because the whole book is about how he never really finds resolution because the more he learns the more complicated it becomes, and the less it's simply about the title event.
Bendrix, as most of his acquaintances know him, is a novelist and as such the book is presented as his manuscript, a memoir of his experiences with and related to Sarah Miles, his attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings on the subject. He writes from a point where all of it has already played out. This would work much better had Greene known everything he was going to write, and sometimes it seems like he did and sometimes it doesn't, and this is not simply a case of an unreliable narrator, because Bendrix has no reason to deceive himself, it's that Greene sometimes forgets that he's not writing a conventional novel but rather someone's memories. It's not a perfect book but it's memorable, filled with memorable set pieces, each of them defined by the relationships Bendrix forms because of Sarah, including her husband Henry, with whom Bendrix forms an unlikely bond; Mr. Parkis, who is the investigator Bendrix has attempt to reveal the identity of the replacement lover years after their breakup; and even God.
There's a certain level of religious thought in the book, the undercurrent of the whole story, Sarah's promise to God during the bombing of London in WWII when she believed Bendrix dead that she would forsake her love in return for his continued life. It's the start of her journey toward faith, and unbeknownst to Bendrix his investigation is the start of his, as he finally grapples with truths that cannot always be known even when explained. While Greene appears to have a superficial understanding of Catholic faith, it's not really necessary for faith to be considered so much as how the characters approach it, and on that level it may be the greatest success of the book. Sarah shares Greene's naive interpretation, but that's all she needs, because before she can go too far in her journey, she's dead.
That may be the best twist of the book, that Sarah dies, that whatever lingering hopes of rekindling their love Bendrix and Sarah share, it is always doomed. It puts Bendrix in greater perspective than he himself is capable of achieving, his arc defined not by resolution of the affair but rather that he believes he will no longer be able to love because of Sarah, and yet before the book is over he's already toyed with it on a chance encounter that simply didn't pan out. The way the book treats a massive event like WWII by all but trivializing it is just one indication of the vagaries of chance as human perception. That's what it's all about, ultimately.
I know a book is good when it frustrates and fascinates me at the same time, when I have more positive thoughts than negative ones at the end, that the latter helps in fact to enrich the former. That's what The End of the Affair is, one of the finest flawed pieces of literature I've ever read.