This blog post today will be my first attempt at some sort of assimilated book review/ book comparison. As mentioned previously in my last blog post, I have most recently been reading The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and after what I calculate to be a month of protracted reading, I have finally completed the 160 page long novel. To give a brief outline, the novella is set in London during the Second World War and follows the relationships between three central characters: Maurice Bendrix (a writer); Sarah Milles (Maurice’s lover) and Henry Milles (Sarah’s husband) Fundamentally the novel examines the themes of, jealously, envy, self-delusion and obsessions that develop within these relationships. Whilst Bendrix and Sarah fall quickly in love, their relationship is left unspoiled for only a short period of time, for very soon into their relationship it begins to dawn upon Bendrix that their affair will end just as quickly as it began (predominately due to his unconcealed jealously). Hence, one evening during a liaison, a bomb blasts Bendrix’s flat and he is nearly killed. It is at this point that Sarah breaks off their affair, with what at first seems to be for no apparent reason, and it is only two years later (this is the point where our story commences) that Bendrix discovers the reason for Sarah’s desertion, through an abrupt and troubled encounter with Henry, transgressing the Common which partitions their flats.
Intrigued as I was by the novel, I decided to do some further background research, from which I found that the novel was predominately based on Greene’s own love affair with Lady Catherine Walston (wife of a farmer and agricultural author) As much as it is in some ways a personal story of Greene’s own love affair, it is also a collective story of an individual’s inner conflict between self-happiness and religion, which contributes further to the portentously victorious tones of Greene’s explicitly Catholic novels. I believe I read once, in the introduction to Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter, that his reason for writing that particular novel (and by extension, most probably his reason for writing this book too) was what he described to be the same reason for Evelyn Waugh writing Brideshead Revisited (another fantastic book I would highly recommend), namely boredom and war; It was from this point onwards that my eyes were opened to the painfully obvious connections between the two authors’ lives and works.
Both Evelyn Waugh and Greene converted to Catholicism within a relatively parallel timeframe. (Greene in the late 1920s and Waugh in the early 1930s). Up until that point Waugh had led an irreligious life, as he expounds however, the realisation that life was “unintelligible and unendurable without God” was the catalyst for his conversion. Greene’s own conversion was bought about by his correspondence with his future wife Vivien Dayrell-Browning, during which time he was in fact agonistic, and perhaps would have remained so, if he had not considered seriously pursuing their relationship and eventually wedding. The resemblances are not however limited simply to their religious conversions- more profoundly the similarities resonant within their works. The central theme of God and religion ‘triumphing all’ undeniably pervades throughout the entirety of both these texts, and indeed I am in no way up to the challenge of endeavouring to clarify the significance of this or to recount the various scholarly arguments and interpretations put forward for the success of these novels as propaganda for Catholicism (many of which essentially question how effective the novels are as propaganda for Catholicism, if ultimately characters are in some form or another enforced (either by duty or guilt) to endure misery and sacrifice self-happiness- an argument to note for these novels being propaganda in favour of Catholicism is the idea that they promote the theory of asceticism- severe self discipline and avoiding of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. ) I have no doubts or delusions that the idea I would actually like to focus upon in this blog post has been deliberated and re-studied several times and with much more fluidity, yet it is a concept which has imprinted upon my conscious and is arguably one of those timeless ‘human’ themes that will be pertinent, no matter when or in which context you may read either of these novels- that is, the theme of beauty. I find it to be no strange coincidence that both the female protagonists in the novels are illustrated as being extremely beautiful and for this very reason both express their discontent with the gratification their beauty may bring for others, yet yielding no benefits for themselves. Sarah’s diary entry (TEOTA) in which she expresses her desire to be ‘ugly’ like Richard introduces the intriguing discussion between asceticism and beauty, advocating here that bearing pain (in the form of unattractiveness) keeps one closer to god: “I couldn’t tell him I envied him, carrying the mark of pain around with him like that, seeing You in the glass every day instead of this dull human thing we call beauty” (pg98) Now I struggled a bit with this statement, not so much for the fact that it implies that one should be grateful to God for providing you with pain to endure (for it is debatably reasonable in helping one grow as a person and detach oneself from materialistic conceptions of beauty etc) but rather it causes, at least in my understanding, a contradiction of mankind being said to have been created “in the image of God”(Genesis 1:27), as how can Richard’s physical deformity be seen as a mirror to God’s eternal beauty and power? Possibly (and most probably) the exact same sentiment is not being expressed, nevertheless I couldn’t help but recall Julia’s own disillusionment with her beauty in Brideshead Revisted (BHR) as our narrator Charles betrays that “Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of La Gioconda; the years had been more than “the sound of lyres and flutes,” and had saddened her. She seemed to say, ‘Look at me. I have done my share. I am beautiful. It is something quite out of the ordinary this beauty of mine. I am made for delight. But what do I get out of it? Where is my reward?”. Is this simply a typical case of desiring what one cannot have? Perhaps, but I think it is a little deeper than this.
Beauty has always been an awkward, intangible and quite frankly nonsensical concept to talk about. It’s an ever-changing phenomena; a trend created and sustained by human action, which in itself is not worth very much. It’s ironic when you think about it, because these supposedly 2 dimensional characters (which for me are in some aspects indeed 2 dimensional, but certainly in a lot more ways substantial) so happen to be born in the period of time when their physical appearance is deemed socially to be beautiful- how different it would be perhaps if their cast was explored in the modern context of beauty. Recently a good friend of mine sent me a YouTube video, entitled Woman’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History (Click here if you want to watch). Although it is in every respect a generic and in a way ‘basic’ video (it misses out various era’s of beauty for reasons unknown- BUT in particular the Roman era, which I take to be a personal jab) nonetheless, it does a solid job in demonstrating the alternating nature of the perception of beauty in society.
Anyway, as not to discourse too far from the main subject matter, I thought I could include in here, some other parallels that I have drawn between The End of the Affair and other various novels that have stuck with me. In particular, I found it fascinating how the relationship between Bendrix and Henry developed. The element of gaining comfort from the ‘enemy’/ the very person who has cheated on you with your wife, seems to echo the episode between Tom Buchanan and George Wilson in The Great Gatsby, whereby George, in utter despair turns to Tom for consolation. Or perhaps a more suitable comparison to be made here is with the book Revolutionary Road, where by the protagonist Frank is comforted by his neighbour Shep Campbe (who, as it is revealed beforehand, has previously had an affair with his wife, April) I’ve never actually gotten around to reading the book, but the film is portrayed by the power couple Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet, so if you’re a film maniac, or just love Leo then definitely give it a watch. The book/film is centred on the concept of the failed American dream, and unlike The Great Gatsby is not the failed dream of an individual, but one gains the sense of the failed dream of an entire generation, in a much more focussed and family orientated canvas. What’s more, I’ve always been a fan of literature that appeals to ideas and works bigger than itself, or can have connections drawn to other art forms; it feels like the author makes a conscious effort to associate with another human being, and project their own interpretation and understanding of that particular text: “He repeated: ‘I will take everything off your hands’, repeated it in a tone of admonition as though he were addressing Lady Macbeth, and promising her some better process of sweetening her hands than the perfumes of Arabia.”(TEOTA)
Back to the topic of the relationship between Bendrix and Henry, I can not help but ponder upon how realistic is it that Bendrix and Henry move in together after Sarah’s death; the lover and husband? It is perceivable that they only have each other to preserve Sarah’s memory and can only express to one another the love they felt for Sarah- “There are times when a lover longs to also be a father and a brother: he is jealous of the years he hasn’t shared.” But does this work vice versa? So true it is indeed that the lover is always jealous. There are times when I have longed to be a friend rather than a lover to my beloved one, simply because there is a different dynamic of closeness I will never get to experience and the time past that I shall never be a part of.
As I end this blog post, I think it is only appropriate that I too discuss the ending of these novels. The overriding message appears to be that religion triumphs all- just as both the female characters are made to feel guilt-ridden and even culpable for the pleasure their beauty inspires, so too are the male protagonists of the novels left disenchanted with their reality and particularly their religious beliefs. Greene’s novel however appears to have a more pessimistic tone, ending with Bendrix’s desperation not to believe in “You” but at the same time praying to God to “leave [him] alone for ever”. On perhaps a more optimistic ending in Brideshead Revisted, Charles too appears to be converted- he understands that the beauty of the Brideshead estate (as with all other materialistic and physical objects in life) is ultimately transient: “quomodo sedet sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Just because I couldn’t manage to fit these in anywhere else in this blog post coherently, here are some of my favourite quotes from The End of the Affair:
– “eternity is said not to be an extension of time, but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness.”
– “but a delayed victory can strain the nerves as much as a prolonged defeat.”
TEOTA- The End of The Affair (2004 edition)
BHR- Brideshead Revisited (online text, available here)- please note however that there are textual discrepancies between this version and the actual hard copy.