In The End of the Affair  the Catholic novelist Graham Greene takes us into the middle of an illicit relationship and explores the moral deprivations and emotional starvations of three distinct parties—and eventually a fourth—to explore resolutions in which moral salvation, or at least something akin to it, might be retrieved and ultimately achieved. A moral twist should not be unexpected in Greene, whose own adult life was an exercise in “practicing” Catholicism in the true sense of the word “practicing,” as in trying to get it right. With that in mind, it is no surprise that this novel’s tale of moral and psychological turmoil lasts long enough to see the light of dawning salvation just below the horizon. But it is a long night, albeit a captivating one.
The narrative plays out in London during and after World War II. Maurice Bendrix, a bachelor, and middling novelist approaching middle age, had been passionately engaged in an affair with a married woman, Sarah Miles. Sarah’s husband, Henry, a career British bureaucrat, was not drafted into the front lines given his government position, nor was Bendrix, who had a medical deferment. Several years after the affair ended abruptly at Sarah’s initiative--Bendrix finds himself sharing drinks with none other than Henry Miles, who confides in him his fear that his wife might be having an affair and that he is considering employing a private detective.
Not unexpectedly, this revelation piques a renewed surge of interest in Sarah Miles for Bendrix for a number of reasons, not least of which is to learn who had replaced him in the affections of his former partner, and why she ended their affair in the first place. As Henry Miles broods over what to do, Bendrix himself employs the investigator, a widower named Parkis who is breaking in his 12-year-old son, Lance, to the family business, so to speak. Parkis is not cut from the Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade cloth; his is grunt work, and there is a sadness in his personal reports to Bendrix as he describes in excessive detail the tricks of his trade, because there is no one else to tell. When Bendrix inquires about the age of Parkis’s son, the investigator replies, “Gone twelve. A youngster can be useful and costs nothing except a comic book now and then. And nobody notices him. Boys are born lingerers.”
But Parkis delivers. He identifies the location of Mrs. Miles’ present-day afternoon jaunts, and he discovers and provides for Bendrix his former lover’s diary dating back to their torrid years. [Stealing the diary did not seem, well, cricket to me.] Here Greene pivots to the contents of the woman’s diary and we come to understand the powerful if impulsive reason for Sarah’s sudden departure from the relationship. It also becomes clear that her new “interest” is nothing like Maurice, but more of a catalyst for profound changes in her own life, not to mention husband, ex-lover, and even young Lance.
Some years ago, pursuing my licensure as a psychotherapist, I had the opportunity to study the current literature of the 1980’s on marital affairs, and came upon several theories as to what psychological needs were met in such relationships. Greene does not psychoanalyze, but the profiles of his characters are insightful as to why each character behaves as he or she does. He does not justify the behaviors here or explain them away—Bendrix is at the core a very selfish man--but rather, he paints the emotional prisons of each player with considerable depth, such that the reader comes away with multiple faces of healing and a hope that no one’s pain or history is so bizarre as to lie beyond redemption.
If this preceding paragraph has a ring of “Catholic confession” to it, this is no accident. The End of the Affair is considered by many critics to be among Greene’s most Catholic novels, so it should come as no surprise that the concluding chapters involve full blown conversions as well as minor victories of faith and decency, and even a possible miracle. [All of this notwithstanding a very cold-blooded Catholic priest in his cameo role.] It has also been said of Greene—as about a number of his English contemporary novelists—that they are most at home writing about Catholicism from the starting point of sin, as Greene certainly does here, and allowing for the graces of the Lord to manifest themselves in strange ways indeed.
It is unfortunate that those of us in the Catholic tradition are, for the most part, unaware of the treasury of fictional literature from Catholic pens. The Graham Greene’s of the world are the modern-day parable spinners who wake us from complacency and show us what a heart-rending confession of sin and the gift of grace actually look like.