Friday, December 31, 2010

An Uncertain Masterwork

I am apprehensive to write a review of The End of the Affair. This discomfort occurs for two reasons: first, although I found it extremely powerful and engrossing, I am not quite sure what to make of it, and second, it provides a contemplation of the Catholic faith on which I hesitate and have little ground to judge it. So, as usual, I will give it a partial review, but I would be happy to discuss it with anyone who has read it.
The End of the Affair (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
I cannot remember who recommended The End of the Affair to me, but the recommendation (and subsequent purchase of the book) came sometime in my senior year of high school. That year, like everyone, I spent a lot of time writing college application essays as well as trying to improve my general approach toward writing. Over and over I heard the mantra "show me, don't tell me." This, of course, referred to the ability to convey meaning not through simply passing along information to the audience, but causing them to see, to hear, or to feel your meaning through literary devices. The End of the Affair, and the opening especially, does precisely the opposite; the narrator tells, showing almost nothing. At the time, I put the book down, annoyed at what I deemed to be "bad writing." However, something must have struck me, because a few years later I opened one of the many partial novels I have written with a similar style [1].

About a week ago, I happened upon The End of the Affair when I was looking for a moderately short piece of fiction to read. As I reread the first few chapters, the writing style took on new meaning. The narrator was a mid-level late 1930s-early 1940s author just on the verge of becoming popular; the "tell not show" style made a lot of sense. This narrative style also provided something that I think is really artful: it gave me, as a reader, the sense that the perception of the world that the narrator related was flawed without showing what exactly was flawed about it. There were moments where I cold peer around Maurice Bendrix (the narrator), but most of the time I felt like I was wearing Bendrix-colored glasses-- forced to see the world through his eyes.

(Small spoiler alert for the next few paragraphs)

The story itself is about Bendrix's quest to make sense of an affair he had with the wife of a friend, which Sarah (the woman in question) had ended abruptly without explanation. The story begins as Bendrix's story, the record of his hate, as he calls it, but it quickly morphs into Sarah's story. To me, The End of the Affair was much like The Awakening or "To Room 19" told from the other side, i.e. the perspective of the lover or someone else watching the social forces that lead to the trapped woman's ultimate destruction. In this case, it is not simply social forces, but also religious forces that lead to Sarah's demise. Her desire to be Catholic overwhelms her with guilt for her affairs and for her love for a man other than her husband and self-hatred and ultimately destroys her.

Whether Greene attempts to redeem the Catholic faith in the novel, I cannot tell. Some potentially miraculous things happen, but my interpretation of these events might be either (or both) atypical or against the grain of message one is supposed to gain from the story. You must determine for yourself. The book is engrossing and fascinating. It's also short, so it is well worth the time one would invest in it. I recommend it.

  1. Amusingly enough, this was not intentional. I did not realize my imitation until I reread the beginning of The End of the Affair.

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