Even London can turn into a desert. The crowds, the traffic and the daily bustle of the metropolis suddenly disappear into thin air when compared to the excruciating pangs of a soul in pain that finds no rest. The filthy slums change, becoming a stage suitable for hosting human tragedy, perfect for the pen of Graham Greene, who was always able to turn the miserable protagonists of his novels into universal emblems. These find themselves fighting hard to get even a slice of happiness in a degrading universe, where all hope is annihilated by the excessive power of incredulity.
The plot of The End of the Affair is based on an unusual love triangle that comprises Maurice Bendrix, a penniless writer, his former lover, Sarah Bertram, and that God in whom the woman comes to believe. The rubble of the Second World War is the backdrop to the unexpected encounter between the two, to the violent and angry love that is consummated under the very eyes of her oblivious husband, Herny Miles, and to the sudden end of the relationship.
The hate document – as Bendrix, the narrator, defines the story that he is about to tell – manifests both in form and in stylistic features Greene’s closeness to detective stories and cinema. From the outset the author makes full use of the mechanisms geared to the creation of suspense and, above all, the adventurous dimension of everyday life which the protagonists, in spite of themselves, are forced to confront. The story does not seek to impress with astonishing extraordinariness, but proceeds according to a progressive unveiling of events, alternating between a measured tread and frenetic drama. Furthermore, the description of the discovery of signs of God’s grace is conducted as if Greene were behind the camera, in a visual and dynamic action assembled with craftsmanship.
The genesis of the novel lay in a painful autobiographical experience: in 1946 Catherine Walston, wife and mother of five children, wrote a letter to Greene in which she informed him that she had been so impressed by his books that she had decided to convert to Catholicism. From the meeting between the two a sentimental relationship was born that dragged on clandestinely for a few months and that ended when the writer realised that, contrary to what he had aimed to bring about, the woman did not intend to abandon her husband. The long depression that followed the separation provided him with the material to write the book, published in 1951 and dedicated to Catherine.
The forbidden love between Maurice and Sarah is described right from the start in terms of a subtle perversion, of a disease that taints the conscience. Far from the stereotypes of delicate passion, Greene presents their relationship as a cannibalistic confrontation, in which the one plays sadistically to devour the soul of the other. The combination of love and death, the paradoxical happiness that annihilates, is an ever-diminishing prison in which the two have voluntarily confined themselves.
The escape begins for Sarah when she realizes that, beneath the surface of a seemingly fulfilling love, there is actually an impossible void to fill. The re-awakened awareness of the gravity of her infidelity is the beginning of a purgatorial path that scrapes away the woman’s radical atheism.
For the anti-hero Bendrix, on the other hand, hatred for that God who took away the only decent thing in his shabby existence seems destined never to turn into an act of faith. Although the reality around him testifies exactly the opposite, the fictional writer slowly forges for himself, piece by piece, an armor of dullness that prevents him from seeing the signs of divine providence in events. In a spiral of growing madness, he even claims to protect Herny from his wife’s new religion, not realizing that he is preparing evil for himself and for others. “The stranger had really won, in the end” is the sarcastic comment of the protagonist in the final pages of the book, but reading the secret diary of his beloved, stolen by means of the subterfuge of a previously hired private investigator, opens up an unprecedented scenario, distorting to the last any former certainty.
The End of the Affair – which inspired two films – is therefore a chiaroscuro novel, similar to an old film noir, the story of a conversion that is unprecedentedly strange and dramatic.