The Short Version: Maurice Bendrix, a moderately successful author, reflects on the affair that destroyed his life and forced him to reconsider his faith. It’s London, there’s a war on, and this novel chalks one up for the belief that there are no atheists in foxholes – but what does it mean to have faith?
The Review: I try to keep the most personal aspects of my reading out of this blog – as it’s meant for reviewing and while a little flavor never hurt, these posts are about the books and not about me. However, I have to say that sometimes there are books that you will react to differently because of your beliefs. Religious, socio-economic, whatever – certain books, no matter how well-written, may frustrate you because it just pushes against something you believe in. Religion, of course, is the big one. You’re not going to get an unbiased reading of any major religious text out of me – and while these biases are what make individual readers, well, individual… I guess what I’m saying is that this book, your enjoyment of it, will be directly dependent upon your belief (or lack thereof) in God.
This is only my second adventure with Mr. Greene – I’ve been told several times that I’d appreciate his actual adventure novels, like The Third Man or Our Man in Havana but I haven’t got round to those / these Centennial covers are too gorgeous to pass up and they haven’t published pretty copies of those novels (for some reason). So I turned to this, which is the novel synonymous with Greene’s name (in my mind, at least). I also thought, for some reason, that this was the novel that included the quote “You cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” – a quote used, for those playing along at home, in Jed Bartlet’s speech in “Two Cathedrals” on The West Wing. Turns out that quote is from Brighton Rock. But I digress.
The book starts off with a bit of a bang, some authorial magic. Talking about how stories don’t have a beginning or an end but how we just have to ascribe points with which to begin/end in order to make sense of things. So we begin after the end, in a way, and then flash back to the during, before returning to the ‘present’ – realizing that the end wasn’t exactly an end, was it, because the story continued… and so Greene sets up his gambit from the very beginning and then pulls it off successfully. It’s a simple enough thing but it’s also the sort of assured writing that makes me see why Greene has been so established as one of the most important writers of the 20th Century.
The novel itself, for the most part, deals heart-breakingly with exactly what the title implies: an affair, and the end of said affair. I saw so much of myself – or my old self, anyway – in the Bendrix who begins to carry on with Sarah. The jealousy, especially: it was like Greene pulled thoughts that I had had and put them on paper. Of course, it’s not just me. The lasting impact of this book is a testament to the fact that people other than myself have commiserated with Bendrix. Again, it all seems so simple and that’s what makes it so much more impressive that it’s pulled off with such aplomb. Similarly, as Sarah pulls away from Bendrix without warning – although it was also quite obviously not going to last, of course – it’s heartbreaking. We’re warned, by Bendrix himself: “love turned into a love-affair with a beginning and an end” and suddenly they’re, to put it another way, slow dancing in a burning room. It’s that moment when you realize that there will be an end to this thing, that it won’t be indefinite… and you plow on ahead anyway, because what else is there to do?
The post-affair part of the novel is interesting enough in its own right, although I’d argue that this is where the book starts to unravel a bit for me. When Bendrix sees Sarah again after two years, he and Sarah’s cuckolded (but unknowing) husband end up discussing hiring a private detective to follow her and uncover whatever new romance she’s got up to. Mr. Parkis, a caricature if ever there was one, is an interesting enough character – also a little creepy, what with his never actually leaving the case… – but he’s a character only. He doesn’t feel real and he lessens the reality of the rest of the novel in his flatness. Similarly, Smythe feels forced – like a plot device more than a real character, especially when compared to Henry and Maurice.
Of course, once you hit the end of the novel, you realize that those two characters are kept in the novel in order to facilitate the end. Sarah, apparently having been a Catholic her whole life (as per her mother), makes some overtones about coming to God at the end of her life, even as she and Maurice have discussed how much they don’t really believe. Yet suddenly both Parkis and Smythe are direct recipients of miracles, ostensibly perpetrated by Sarah. And Sarah – having herself been given a miracle in the ‘reborn’ Maurice after the bombing at the end of their affair – is revealed to’ve become a believer in a big way and thus God is trying to give Maurice the peace she requested. Maurice, faced with several coincidences – the coincidence of so many coincidences being too much – comes to believe (although hate, not love) God.
The introduction of the novel says that these pages have provoked generations of readers to hurl the book across the room in frustration. I can’t say I was that angry – I’ve done that before and this book didn’t provoke such feelings – but I honestly felt like the whole God thing undercuts the power of the relationships in this book. The raw, beating heart of romance and how it feels to hurt/be hurt is lessened by the religious moralizing that comes out of this realization that God exists. The rationalist Smythe, being converted in one go, is almost an insult to humanists/atheists/agnostics/rationalists – and it makes you wonder if Greene was writing a book about the end of an affair or about one man’s conversion to God, even if it is a hatred and not a love.
Rating: 3 out of 5. As the book hit the halfway point, I was convinced I would be rating it higher. The end of an affair – whether a true Affair or just a love affair in general – is always, without exception, painful and Greene lets that pain come through so beautifully that you almost don’t mind that tightness in your chest and the water in the corner of your eye. But when the tone of the book shifts and it all becomes some sort of fucked up morality play… I’m sorry but the religion stuff annoyed me. It lessened the impact of the reality - because I believe in the love between people, not a higher power. But, like I said: it’s all maybe going to depend on where you stand on that issue.