The End of
Who knew that writing personal responses to the 100 greatest books of last century would be so hard? I don't know whether Jessa or Jen are having this problem, but I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that I have nothing interesting to offer the world of literature on subjects like Robert Penn Warren, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Harper Lee. Or maybe that's just Daylight Savings Time, which always screws with my self-esteem.
To be fair, it's not my fault, it's Graham Greene's. He is, I think, the greatest British writer of last century, though I'm sure I'll hear back from fans of Tolkien, Lessing, Amis and Rushdie on that particular assertion. Jessa, Jen and I all submitted different Greene titles for the 100 Books List -- A Burnt-Out Case, The Third Man, and The Power and the Glory, if I remember correctly - and eventually compromised on The End of the Affair, Greene's 1951 novel of infidelity and jealousy. I read it just as the weather was turning cool for the first time, somehow stretching 192 pages into a period of two weeks, and I found myself speechless upon finishing it. Now, weeks later, I still don't know what to say.
The End of the Affair will break your heart. Set in London during the long months before, during and after World War II, the novel chronicles a doomed, but wholly passionate, romance between a novelist, Bendrix, and his friend's wife, Sarah. Sound like a boilerplate love story? It's the furthest thing from it. Bendrix is consumed by jealousy, and Sarah by a mysterious febrile sense of religion. The depth of feeling Graham instills in his characters is breathtaking, surprising, and much more than convincing. This novel exemplifies everything that can be great about fiction, whether it's psychological, philosophical, or religious. Of course, this book is all three of those things, but it's more than that. It's a revelation.
Despite its unlikely subject matter -- i.e., adultery -- The End of the Affair is widely recognized as being a classic of Catholic fiction. (I'm not sure what Catholic fiction is, exactly, except that it somehow encompasses Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and certain of Jack Kerouac's more lucid works.) Catholicism informs this novel deeply, though not quite as explicitly as The Power and the Glory. Neither book is an apologia for Greene's faith, but there is more learning in these two novels than in any catechism or textbook. Greene knows how it feels to be Catholic, and he communicates the feeling perfectly, without a single false note. As hard as it is to write about faith, Greene does it with the heart of a champion and the skill of some kind of angel.
I told a friend once that poets shouldn't use words like "God" or "love" because they were too easy and too imprecise. This is a perfect example of how when I was younger, I made tons of stupid pronouncements that I would later live to regret. I know now that language isn't perfect, that even the best writers can't begin to approximate the size and color and intensity of human relationships. I'm still a little suspicious of "God" and "love," though. What do words like that mean? Can they possibly mean anything? No one will ever know for sure, probably, but after reading Greene, I feel a little closer to an answer.
You have to read this.