This is a quietly intense modern classic. Graham Green’s The End of The Affair reads like a psychological thriller, relentlessly examining and prodding the relationships and repercussions between writer Maurice Bendrix, Sarah Miles, and her husband Henry. Maurice is a successful and disciplined writer reflecting back on his obsessive affair during the Blitz with Sarah, a neighbour. Conducted under the cover of darkness, living on the edge as bombs threaten them daily, that mood suffuses the book, allowing much, much more to be concealed.
And I mention Henry above because despite the title, this book is not just about the obsessive affair between Maurice and Sarah, but about the triangle between all three them. The love triangle is a age-old literary device to signify the complexity of human relationships and desire, but more contemporary academic examination (like that of Eva Sedgwick) reveals a new level: one that inverts the triangle. Some theorists believe that the history of sexualisation of homosocial relationships means sexual desire for a female is necessary for a heterosexual male relationship exist: the triangle enables it. As it is traditionally understood, Sarah is the apex of the pyramid, as the men fight for her attention and love; but as well, Sarah’s existence allows a (non-sexual) relationship between Maurice and Henry. Here, no one should win in the battle for Sarah because as soon as the triangle is resolved, the relationship between Maurice and Henry can no longer exist if they are not rivals.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
And Green has allowed this to play out perfectly in The End of The Affair. Through Sarah’s death, Maurice and Henry’s relationship can actually move closer: Sarah didn’t resolve the triangle so they are forever rivals. They are now eternally connected through her death and their relationship is safer than ever before because it is no longer under threat by Sarah’s sexual preferences or moods. This is a perfect outcome for a manifested homosocial relationship.
Considering Green was writing in the 1950s, this is a post-feminist or post-modern interpretation of his potentially subconscious intentions, however I feel this adds significant depth to this work. It is a strange story: Maurice reflecting back on the intensity of the Blitz and the intensity of his affair with Sarah; how he wrangles a friendship with Henry to get at Sarah; how after her death he moves in to Maurice’s for each others’ company; how Sarah haunts them still. There is little ostensible reasoning for much of these characters’ motivations, and the love triangle enabling homosocial desire provides some explanation for their choices.
Outside of this potential narrative drive, Green has Maurice narrate with such intensive self-examination it can become exhausting. His style and self-absorption is tiring, unhealthy, destructive. And, amazingly, reveals very little: Maurice is a writer of fiction, and a lot of his inward focus just provides further comforting fictions to himself. It is a conscious narration to the reader however, deliberately articulating scenes for the stranger reader:
“How can I disinter the human character from the heavy scene – the daily newspaper, the daily meal, the traffic grinding towards Battersea, the gulls coming up from the Thames looking for bread, and the early summer of 1939 glinting on the park where the children sailed their boats – one of those bright condemned pre-war summers?”
A beautiful illustration of living during the Blitz emerges. There is an unacknowledged precariousness and recklessness to life. So for all his pains in conscientiously narrating the story for us, Maurice leaves the biggest bit – the relationship between he and Henry – out in plain sight. It is the largest fiction of them all: that the affair was about Sarah, that the book is about Sarah and her death.
The End of the Affair is about an intense, obsessive relationship, but perhaps not between Maurice and Sarah. Deeply personal and psychological, this love triangle story set under the bombs of the Blitz is potent and heavy; an odd and interesting tale.