Late last year I applied for the Varuna Publishers Introduction Program. Unfortunately I wasn’t successful but I consoled myself with the fact that quite a few of the shortlist and winners list have already been published. Anyway, the judges notes on what publishers and agents are looking for is really useful for novice writers. Their notes from 2014 are here, and for 2015 here. The End of the Affair was used by one of last year’s judges as an example of a book that has a clear intent – that of the main character Bendrix’s self-loathing.
Maurice Bendrix is a writer who lives on the South Side of Clapham Common and the story begins one night in 1946 when he bumps into Henry Miles, apparently an acquaintance, but actually the husband of Sarah, with whom Bendrix has had an affair that has now ended. Henry is worried that Sarah is having an affair and wants to get a private investigator to follow her but he can’t quite bring himself to do it. Bendrix offers to do it for him, but Henry sadly tells him not to worry. But Bendrix, who is consumed with hate for both Sarah and Henry, does hire a private investigator to follow her. But we know from the outset that Sarah will die, so there’s no hope that either Henry or Bendrix will live happily ever after with her.
Bendrix parallels Graham Greene in many ways – he’s a writer with the same habits as Greene, and the Sarah character is reputed to be modelled on one of the many women Greene had affairs with. There’s not a lot of action in the story but the characterisation, particularly Bendrix’s self-loathing is relentless and consistent. When Sarah’s diary falls into Bendix’s hands he at last can’t ignore the evidence that she loved him and its then that his self-loathing is so apparent:
‘It’s a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved, when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or God to love.’
Greene writes so heartbreakingly and brutally about love that its impossible not to feel Bendrix’s pain. The lies, jealousy, the suspicion and the lust that come from an affair are rendered so real and angry. Then there’s the weight of her head on his shoulder, the ‘greatest pleasure I have ever known’, and the memory of the fine dust of hair at the base of her spine. There’s very little physical detail about sex but the small ones that Greene does impart are erotic and charged with desire. Bendrix maintains his strict production of 500 words a day, even when he’s having a love affair, but he realises that the affair must end when he can’t work and becomes unhappy with Sarah and knows their love is doomed.
‘But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck. Who can’t help but be affected by words like that?
Greene really skewers his minor characters mercilessly. The bumbling private investigator Parkis is made fun of but the reader can’t help but feel sorry for the well-meaning man who only wants to appear competent in front of his young son. The endlessly kind and patient Henry cops the brunt of Bendrix’s scorn, but in the end there’s nothing Bendrix can do to dent Henry’s decency.
And as in nearly all Greene novels, there’s the Catholicism. Greene converted to the faith to marry his wife but struggled with belief and the meaning of God, which comes through clearly in Bendrix. But its Sarah that makes a pact with God that will profoundly affect Bendrix and Bendrix hates him for it, unable in the end to let go of the idea there’s a God, and he’s a vengeful one.
There’s a lot I’ve learned about strong characterisation from this book. There’s nothing I love more than characters like Bendrix and Sarah, who are essentially good people who behave badly in the throes of strong emotions like love and hate. And it was a pleasure to read Greene’s beautiful haunting writing once again.