Matt Purple, managing editor: Graham Greene has always been a phantom to me. I’ve wanted to read his novels for years yet they’ve never been available in the Amazon store, denying me a convenient three-second download onto my Kindle. And my two local Barnes & Nobles, though brimming with children’s toys and artisanal coconut waters, are also curiously devoid of his works. Every time I think I’m on the cusp of finding him, he disappears into so much English mist—like Sarah Miles eluding Maurice Bendrix, as I was about to discover.
A couple months ago I finally tracked down several Greene paperbacks at a bookstore in Burlington, Vermont (an ironic place to find one of England’s finest Catholic novelists, to be sure), and last week during a vacation to the Outer Banks, I at last began to read him. First up was The Comedians, about three men who sojourn to Haiti only to run afoul of the dictatorial regime of “Papa Doc” (Francois Duvalier, who ruled the country from 1957 to 1971) and his secret police force the Tonton Macoute. It’s a polemical novel whose quiet anti-totalitarian fury is occasionally reminiscent of Orwell. It also features what one comes to understand as the Greene hallmarks: turbulent men, love affairs petering out, a patient Catholicism that its characters seek to escape but can’t.
It’s the latter two subjects that Greene writes about with the most incision (from The Comedians: “This is one of the pains of illicit love: even your mistress’s most extreme embrace is a proof the more that love doesn’t last”). And in The End of the Affair, his (justly) most famous work, they combine with shuddering force. I’ve dismissed “this book changed me forever” as a cliché ever since I heard a friend apply it to Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, but in this case it’s true. Greene’s account of a dalliance gone wrong will leave you different than you were before; some distant truth about romance or faith will be forced into focus. The story is told in the first person by Maurice Bendrix, an English writer who two years ago saw his lover Sarah Miles abruptly leave him and is now filled with rage towards her and her husband Henry. He admits at the beginning that this is a chronicle not of tender affection but of hatred, which he says “seems to operate the same glands as love.”
Henry, still unaware of having been cuckolded the first time around, comes to Bendrix fretting that Sarah is having yet another affair. Irate, Bendrix sticks a private detective on her, and through a series of revelations that hop across time, discovers that (spoilers, spoilers) her latest love is God Himself. She wants to be a Catholic, not a paramour. And she doesn’t believe that she can be both illicit with Bendrix and pure with God. This sends Bendrix into an emotional squall, appealing to God one minute and bitterly envious of Him the next, back and forth between the cousins hate and love, the two at times conflating and at others running hopelessly gray. The religiosity of the last 30 pages is a bit heavy-handed but you scarcely notice amidst all the painful truths that Greene is telling about the human condition. This is a book for any man who has ever loved, for any Catholic who has ever lapsed.