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22nd June
2009
written by Steph

Sometimes reviewing classics can be a pain in the bottom, because much of what you think of saying has already been said before, probably far more intelligently than you can think to put it, and likely in someone’s doctoral dissertation (then again, who really reads those?).  Also, it can be difficult to review a classic when you get that divide happening between enjoying a book and appreciating it.  Moreover, sometimes a book was so powerful, the writing so precise, it makes it seem foolish to try and use my words to pay homage to it any way, shape, or form.  And then there is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, in which all of these factors conspire against me writing a coherent and meaningful review. Let’s start with the easy stuff: plot.  As you may have gathered from the title, The End of the Affair focuses on an adulterous affair between an author, Maurice Bendrix, and the wife of a British civil servant, Sarah Miles.  At the novel’s onset (which we may take to be one of those meta book within a book thingamajigs), their affair has already ended, and Bendrix is mad.  Like, really mad.  He bandies the word hate about a good deal, and I for one wouldn’t exactly quibble with him about semantics.  Because the dude is seriously angry.  But anyway, the first portion of the novel spends quite a bit of time musing on the divides between love and hate, and what it means to love someone else, and in so doing, we have the story of Sarah and Bendrix’s ill-fated love affair gradually revealed to us.  And we see the various ways in which love can end, and how love can bring us to our highest height as well as our lowest lows. And that part of the novel I really liked.  I mean, it was emotionally very intense and the subject matter wasn’t exactly fun or what I’d categorize as light reading, but the writing was beautiful and there were lots of wonderful moments during which Bendrix ruminates on love, writing, and life, that were incredibly insightful and one might even say transcendental.  I did find the characters quite loathsome in this first part, given that Bendrix is so full of rage and the two individuals were conducting an affair (not exactly the type of action to gain sympathy), but the writing and story was interesting and engaging. But then I felt that everything changed in the second portion of the novel.   From reflecting on the past the action moves into the present and I felt like the focus of the novel then becomes a religious one, as the various characters struggle with issues of belief and faith and whether there is a God out there.  At times I can find theological discussion provoking and captivating, but I suppose I just felt thrown for a loop that this topic really seemed to consume the characters and the novel, much like hatred and passion did the first half.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a good deal of passion throbbing through the latter half of The End of the Affair, I just felt it was contained within a topic I didn’t much care to spend so much time on.  The anger Bendrix feels towards Sarah’s burgeoning faith and the God she claims to love was really perplexing to me… it made me simply feel that Bendrix really was just such an obscenely angry person that he would lash out at everything and anything around him. Perhaps this was just a poorly timed pick for me in many respects.  I’m not lamenting a lost love (quite the opposite, really!), nor am I going through a crisis of faith, so in many ways I felt I wasn’t really in the position to internalize much of the characters’ grief and anxieties.  I appreciated the writing, and feel that Greene has a wonderfully cinematic and tragic scope to his writing, but I suppose that in the end I had expected this to be earth-shattering and in the end I thought there were elements that were interesting and admirable, and yet it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I had hoped.  I think it would be great for a book club, as there are tons of things to discuss and argue about… maybe I just need someone else to read it so we can talk about it?  Also, for what it's worth, I'll certainly try more Greene in the future.  His writing really is remarkably fluid and insightful; Tony compared him to John Steinbeck when I asked for a comparison, and I think that's quite apt. Rating: 4 out of 5

12 Comments

  1. 06/22/2009

    This sounds like one I might like, although I think switching focus in the middle of a novel would irritate me. I also tend to zone out when authors discuss religion, whether for or against.

  2. Eva
    06/22/2009

    This was one of my very favourite books in high school!! 🙂

  3. 06/23/2009

    I don’t remember this book except that the man became mad after the affair. Graham Greene has been one of my favorite authors whose works I continue to re-read. He always reminds me, or at least associates my thoughts to Fitzgerald. Their writings are both elegant and contemplative, often revolving around religious ponderings and human values. It’s time to re-read this book and a few others of Greene.

  4. 06/23/2009

    @ charley: the switching focus did bug me, mostly because he switched to something I was less interested in! Like you, I tend not to enjoy extended discussions on religion… and this one seemed very much to suggest that lives are empty without God and that religion is needed in order to be something more than an angry shell. Meh.
     
    @ Eva: I’m not sure how I would have felt about this in highschool! Maybe reading it right after a break up would have helped me connect with it more?
     
    @ Matt: Interesting comparison to Fitzgerald. I (shamefully) haven’t read anything by him (but I did take The Great Gatsby out from the library this weekend!) so I can’t say whether it’s apt, but it does intrigue me. I’ll have to keep your thoughts in mind when I do read The Great Gatsby. We have The Quiet American as well as The Power & the Glory (which Tony reviewed earlier), so I’ll probably tackle one of those next.

  5. Sara
    06/23/2009

    Pretty good post. I just came across your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really liked reading your posts. In any case
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

  6. 06/25/2009

    Thanks for the kind comment, Sara! Look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

  7. taryn
    06/23/2009

    I think you should put this at the top of the pile of things for me to read when i’m at yours!!

  8. 06/23/2009

    Fitzgerald, Greene, Maugham are what I consider “old-schooled” authors who have a knack for weaving philosophical inquiries into their stories. As for Fitzgerald, I’ve got Tender is the Night which I’ll read soon.

  9. 06/24/2009

    I think the abrupt change of focus would have irked me too. While I don’t mind reading about religion and theology at times, it sounds as though this may not have been integrated with the other elements of the plot very well. I appreciate your insight on this book because I love well written and smooth prose, and now that I know what to expect it may not bother me.

  10. 06/25/2009

    I’ve never read Graham Greene but have been toying with the idea of reading several of his books over the summer – this one sounds like a thought-provoking and well-written book, so it might just fit the bill.

  11. 06/25/2009

    If Tony compared Greene to Steinbeck, my favorite writer ever, I know I have to move this up the TBR pile.I can definitely understand how the switching of topics in the second half of the book threw it off.

  12. 06/25/2009

    @ taryn: I think it already is at the top of the pile, simply because that was the easiest place for me to put it back! (That’s right, it came from one of the two mega stacks of books that are sitting on our floor.)
     
    @ Matt: I haven’t read any Fitzgerald or Maugham yet, so I’ll be interested to see how well my appraisals of them match yours (and whether I see any corollaries to Greene).
     
    @ zibilee: It wasn’t exactly an ABRUPT change in focus, just that there was a definite shift in terms of what Bendrix muses about in the latter portion of the novel. The prose really was lovely – it was just the content that annoyed me! 😉
     
    @ verbivore: I think one of the boons for Greene is that his books all appear quite short, and they lend themselves to a single-session read. I’m glad I read this one, and am excited to see what else he has done.
     
    @ Vasilly: Even if you don’t feel Greene is a perfect match to Steinbeck (Matt has thrown out some authors he personally feels Greene is a good match for), I think you’ll be happy to have read him regardless. He’s certainly a very strong and engaging writer.

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