The End of the Affair is the fourth and last of Graham Greene’s so-called ‘Catholic’ novels which began with Brighton Rock in 1938. In my view it is his best. Written in 1951, a year before I was born, the novel is set in London during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and concerns the interplay of three central characters: the writer Maurice Bendrix; Sarah Miles; and her husband, civil servant Henry Miles.
Yes, the novel is about a ‘threesome’, but not in the conventional or pornographic sense. It is also to some degree autobiographical, as Greene draws significantly upon the affair he had with his then lover Catherine Walston. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the novel has found itself committed to celluloid on two occasions. First, in 1955 when it directed by Edward Dmytryk and starred Van Johnson as Maurice Bendrix, Deborah Kerr as Sarah Miles and Peter Cushing as Henry Miles. And, secondly in 1999 when it was directed by Neil Jordan and starred Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles and Ralph Fiennes as Maurice Bendrix.
The novel is perhaps one of the most honest, probing and intelligent explorations of love and adultery ever written. The reason for this partly reflect the time in which the novel was written, as well as the time in which it was actually set – a few years earlier, during the Blitz, when Londoners were not only concerned about the outcome of WWII, but also their personal survival on a daily basis. In addition, the novel is also about Greene’s complex relationship with Catholicism. In an age where people find it easy to easy to live without shame, the idea of guilt in a veridical rather than a psychological sense, seems strange and distant. Yet, the surprising truth is that we all we make Faustian pacts; we all engage in special pleadings, whether we believe in God or not.
According to Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, who provided an Introduction to the novel in 2004, “If culture is so all pervasive that you can’t think outside of it, how are you making genuine choices?” I think Greene wrestled with this dilemma repeatedly and to extraordinary effect. More than most, Greene was richly and wisely studied in the old adage that ‘hell is paved with good intentions’. But, perhaps, the final word should go Alex Preston who wrote in The Independent in 2012, "'The End of the Affair' [sic] is his masterpiece: an astonishing, painfully moving interrogation of the contradictions in a Catholicism he couldn't live without but struggled to live with".
In this world, there are tourists and there are adults; sometimes we can be both but not often!