Saturday, November 07, 2009

That strange mathematical point of endlessness

So I've finished reading Graham Greene's The End of Affair, and it's not at all what I expected. This guy sets about sabotaging his relatively long-term relationship with this married woman, and the affair ends, and we spend much of the book wondering how and why it ends, and the guy sure doesn't have a clue about the why, and years later he's still a bit upset about it, but the book's not even really about that. It's about her, developing a relationship with God.

There are some pretty complex human dynamics at work here, and Greene put them to paper seemingly effortlessly. "The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness," he writes (and I think Tolstoy would agree — that's where the story lies). The narrator is dripping with anger, hate, frustration, confusion, spitefulness, pride (masquerading as indifference), and, yes, even love (on occasion appearing as lustfulness) — everything but happiness.

I felt that afternoon such complete trust when she said to me suddenly, without being questioned, "I've never loved anybody or anything as I do you." It was as if, sitting there in the chair with a half-eaten sandwich in her hand, she was abandoning herself as completely as she had done, five minutes back, on the hardwood floor. We most of us hesitate to make so complete a statement — we remember and we foresee and we doubt. She had no doubts. The moment only mattered. Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space. What did time matter — all the past and the other men she may from time to time (there is that word again) have known, or all the future in which she might be making the same statement with the same sense of truth? When I replied that I loved her too in that way, I was the liar, not she, for I never lose the consciousness of time: to me the present is never here: it is always last year or next week.

She wasn't lying even when she said, "Nobody else. Ever again." There are contradictions in time, that's all, that don't exist on the mathematical point. She had so much more capacity for love than I had — I couldn't bring down that curtain round the moment, I couldn't forget and I couldn't not fear.

The narrator, Bendrix, is, for the most part, a spiteful little shit. It's odd that he should invoke Sarah's capacity for love here — he spends so much energy on denying it, disbelieving it, and trying to disprove it. But he recognizes it. It's this capacity and this being outside time that, if they don't make her saintly, bring her closer to God.

What is love, anyway? Does Sarah make her sacrifice out of love? Or is it fear? Her keeping her contract with God — is that for love of God, or love of Bendrix, or indifference toward Bendrix? Is it selfish or selfless?

Who's the hero then? Bendrix is nasty and petty — not exactly sympathetic — hardly the makings of a hero. Or is it him after all, for raging on? Certainly not the cuckold Henry. The rationalist? But he fails in his argument against God, creates a convert even. Could it be Sarah, slut turned saint? (Apart from acknowledging that she's been a bitch and a fake, I'm not convinced that she's evolved much as a person.) Perhaps it's God Himself, having the last laugh on the lot of them, for all they would lose in His name, whether willingly sacrificed or not of their own agency.

Maybe it's simply that religion makes me uncomfortable. Maybe that's why I find this to be an excruciatingly painful and difficult little book. And it boggles me (as it does Bendrix) that someone could love God more than a flesh-and-blood person.

On a side note, Emily in writing about St Augustine's Confessions called out that "he depicts his relationship with God in language modern readers will recognize from the subsequent literature of erotically-charged romance." I immediately recognized that something similar is at play in Sarah's diary entries. Greene even reinforces this: "The words of human love have been used by saints to describe their vision of God."

There's some compelling writing in this book, capturing perfectly the underlying tensions in a run-of-the-mill conversation.

Halfway through, I'm thinking, he reminds me of someone, the way he does that, the way a banal conversation explodes with meaning. Some may think it blasphemous of me to say, but: Doris Lessing. (By some, I mean Maud Newton, who, if I've got it right, loves Greene and hates Lessing.) I'm thinking specifically of Lessing's short stories, and The Golden Notebook. Not sure this quality is so present in her other novels.

Anyway, the narrator is a writer, and it's hard to know how much is fiction and how much is Greene himself. The novel is, after all, allegedly based on a real-life affair. He writes in the morning ("A love affair had to begin after lunch"), setting himself a daily quota. Most of the work of writing is done in the subconscious. "So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days," so that the unconscious is freed up to work out the problems of the fiction. Stories aren't invented, they're "remembered"; but they still require intense research.

It seems that Greene himself was ambivalent toward this novel. It is raw and weird, but, to my mind, this perhaps heightens its power and may offer more authenticity than a "well-crafted" piece.

From a 1951 New York Times review:

His juxtapositions of love and hate, envy and admiration form the high level of his drama and are reinforced by the stylistic contrasts of the characters and scenes which give them flesh. When we come to his shifty money-changers, private investigators and race-track touts, Government officials and garden-party ladies we hear the tape recorder at its accurate work. In "The End of the Affair" the splendidly stupid private detective, Alfred Parkis, and his apprentice son, and the maudlin grifter who is the heroine's mother, equal the best of the seedy supernumeraries of his other novels. It is savage and sad, vulgar and ideal, coarse and refined, and a rather accurate image of an era of cunning and glory, of cowardice and heroism, of belief and unbelief.

Read this book before you die.
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