"A Thinly Disguised Autobiography" (Fictitious Letters Never Sent or Written)
Letter 1 (dated April 30, 1950 from CW to GG):
Oh, my most desirable Godfa"A Thinly Disguised Autobiography" (Fictitious Letters Never Sent or Written)
Letter 1 (dated April 30, 1950 from CW to GG):
Oh, my most desirable Godfather,
I’m sorry to learn you’re suffering from writer’s block. I don't recall you mentioning this affliction before.
I’m not the best one to give advice on such matters, but they say you should write about things with which you are familiar, not that there is much for you that doesn’t fit within this category. Perhaps, my love, you could write something about us? A thinly disguised autobiography? Do you think anyone outside our circles would ever guess?
I have another idea. I’ve written down a list of key words for you. Perhaps you might find inspiration in them? For instance, you could build your novel around three, maybe even five, of them. They are, after all, some of our favourite things. See what you think of these (sorry for the length. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, except to place them in alphabetical order):
What do you think, my darling? Not a bad list, is it? Not that I could write a novel around such words! I could only live a life governed by them! If you were both in it and with me!
I can’t wait until our next onion sandwich, whether at the table, in bed or elsewhere...
Letter 2 (dated May 12, 1950 from GG to CW):
Cafryn, sometimes I marvel at my love for you. No matter what misfortune might befall either or both of us, my love never seems to wane.
Your counsel to write an autobiography, albeit thinly disguised, is indeed the correct solution to my block. Of course, I can’t write the truth about us (lest I embrace pornography and write the first truly Great Sex Novel of our times, which I might just do for you!), but I can find inspiration in it.
I've decided to set this work during the war, you’re married to a high-ranking public servant, not a millionaire. I’m single and dote on you. Both of us are childless and able to indulge in our every sexual whim. We’ll lie stretched across every bed we can get our bodies on, we'll fornicate in front of every fireplace, upon every rug and behind every altar we can discover on our travels.
Nothing could possibly come between us, no commitment, no human, no being, except perhaps God. Even then, I haven’t quite determined how or why even He could frustrate our love, which in the manner of the greatest Love should be nothing if not eternal.
I love your list. Every word turns me on like an erogenous abstraction. In fact, each one appeals so much I can’t bring myself to abandon it. So, if you will forgive me, I will use them all. All I have to do is pad them out with suitable verbs. And there aren't many verbs to describe what I have in mind!
The proof is in the pudding, because since I embarked on this suggestion of yours, words have flown like that first plane trip of ours, during which a lock of your hair brushed my cheek and inflamed me below. Even now, as I await your arrival on Friday, I feel the same way. In my mind, I see you. I see myself touch you here...and here...and there...
The Vocabulary of Love
Graham Greene did eventually write his novel, using just such words. At first, I wondered whether it was a flaw in his otherwise great literary prowess that he used so many abstract words to describe his subject matter, then I came to the conclusion that it reflected a deliberate economy of both style and vocabulary.
In such a short fiction, he didn’t need many words. He didn't need more words. He didn’t need different words. In the hands of a master, they were all the words that mattered, they were all the words he required to get to the heart of the matter.
We are left to judge whether the people and the situations he created with them are adequate to the task of great literature.
I've read the novel three times over the course of my life. While this time I was tempted to downgrade it to four stars because of stylistic issues, I decided to retain the five star rating I assigned it from my memory of the first two readings. There are not many novels that I deign to read thrice!
Adulterous and Adulterated Love
We know from the title and the beginning of the novel that there has been an affair and that it has come to an end.
Greene plays around with time and subject matter to add drama and tension to a sequence of events that contains no surprise, apart from that which preoccupies the beginning and end of most affairs: the answer to the question "why?"
Sarah Miles is married to a senior public servant in wartime England. The first person narrator (the first use of this perspective by Greene in a novel), Maurice Bendrix, is an unattached and highly available author, just starting to experience the first blush of artistic and commercial success.
Sarah’s marriage is tantamount to both loveless and sexless, but neither spouse feels any compulsion in the religious or moral environment of the time to seek a divorce.
It is only Maurice’s personal desire to legitimate his relationship that raises the question of marriage or divorce at all. Without this expectation, both relationships, the marriage and the adultery, the love triangle, give the impression they could continue in their original form until death do them part.
The Denunciation of "the Slut"
Both Sarah and Bendrix commit adultery. Yet, for decades, Sarah was painted as the worse adulterer in the public eye, the "slut" (perhaps the second greatest pejorative that can be attached to a woman?).
While Bendrix simply coveted something that "belonged" to another man, Sarah was the one who had made a promise to love, honour and obey her husband. Her adultery, as opposed to his, involved the breach of a quasi-contractual promise, a God-sanctioned vow.
In those times, and to some extent even now, that marriage vow was supposed to withstand the threat of temptation.
The "incompatibility" of the wedded couple, the sexual or emotional attraction of another, neither was supposed to be enough to justify a breach of the vow. Marriage was sacrosanct and for life. Catholicism, in particular, forbade divorce, remarriage and the legitimation of a subsequent marriage. You had to make do with and in your first marriage.
To Thine Own Love Be True
Now, outside Catholicism, at least, it is difficult to see what all of the fuss was about. If they weren’t Catholics, why didn’t Sarah just get divorced? Why didn’t Bendrix and Sarah get married, bonk themselves silly, have kids, bonk themselves silly post-kids and live happily ever after? Arguably, this is what must have been going through the mind of Bendrix, who when we meet him is an agnostic, if not an outright atheist.
Looking through 21st century eyes, well, mine at least, there is a tendency to forgive both Sarah and Bendrix their "sins", because they were being "true" to their love.
Even though Sarah was married, it was a loveless marriage. Didn't she have the right to fall in love with somebody else and act upon that love?
"The Bitch and the Fake"
The novel could have been couched in these relatively simplistic, if modern, terms. However, Greene took it a step further, by ensuring that Sarah ended the affair and did not break up her marriage to Henry Miles.
Given that we know that this would happen from the outset, the focus of the novel becomes the question of how Bendrix (in the first person, and therefore we too, in the plural) will deal with his loss, which resolves down to the explanation for what Sarah did or didn’t do.
If Sarah wasn't a Catholic, what was her problem? Was her conduct even more culpable in our eyes, precisely because she ended the affair and didn’t leave her husband? Was she actually "the bitch and the fake" she suspected she might be?
While Sarah’s real life contemporaries might have viewed her as a "slut" for engaging in the affair in the first place, when Bendrix’ narrative commences, he too is full of hate for her. Like conventional, moralistic society, he's prepared to call her every foul word under the sun ("slut", "bitch", "fake"), because she turned her back on his love.
Love Gone Wrong
From Bendrix' point of view, here were two people who appeared to have everything that was needed of a long-term or permanent relationship: emotional and intellectual compatibility, material comfort, sexual attraction and love. What went wrong?
Of course, every man who has ever been rejected or dumped by a woman must believe that they bring the same qualities to the table or the altar. There can’t be anything wrong with me. You, the woman, haven’t loved me as I have deserved. You have cheated me. Or, perhaps the explanation is that, there is another man involved, some other card player who has trumped me in the game of love?
So it is that, when we first meet Bendrix, we find him at the end of the affair, bitter and full of hatred.
The Egotism of the Male
I found it interesting that, as a non-believer throughout the whole of the novel, Bendrix fills the hole left by the absence of God with his own presence.
There is no greater authority, no moral force that is higher than the individual, himself.
Bendrix is his own god. Before Sarah, he has only been sexually attracted to women who make him feel superior, women who, in effect, worship him.
Like God, however, Bendrix the non-believer is a jealous god. There can be room for no one else in his version of love. He must remain the sole focus of Sarah’s love.
As I read on, I couldn’t even fathom how family would be accommodated in this worldview. Their love had to be able to be expressed in the form of lust and sex at a moment’s notice. Children would only get in the way of love.
The Saintliness of the "Slut"
In what might arguably be a clumsy plot device, Greene gives Bendrix access to Sarah’s personal journal, in order to explain her motives to both him and to us.
We learn that her love for this one mortal god was true, if not undivided. Sarah found herself in a predicament where she felt obliged to honour certain "absurd vows", and she did so. Like a saint, she suffered pain, she sacrificed what she loved, in order to prove a greater love. Ultimately, she did the right thing, even if she didn’t do it exactly by the [good] book.
The Paradox of Hatred
At heart, Sarah’s compulsion to honour her vows had a religious foundation, one based in the belief in the existence of a God.
Bendrix derives some sort of comfort from knowing that he was genuinely loved, but, having learned to hate, he transfers his hatred to this God, in whom he had not previously believed.
The paradox is that, in Greene’s mind, you can’t hate what does not exist. In order to hate God and what he had caused to occur, Bendrix had to will Him, God, into existence. Once it was established that He existed, it was equally possible to hate or love Him.
Thus, while "The End of the Affair" is superficially a tale of a "failed" romance, if not just an affair that "ended", it seems at the conclusion that it might actually be the beginning of another love affair, that between Bendrix and the God of Catholicism.
Choosing Which Vows to Honour and Obey
Ironically, both Bendrix and Greene, male protagonist and author alike, wish to approach their God on their own terms. Having felt superior and godlike, they are reluctant to surrender their earthly, carnal privileges.
God is holy and they must be obedient to Him, only to the extent that He allows them/us [males?] to indulge in love, romance, desire and sex on their/our own terms. The body is the vehicle through which you both have sex and worship God, hence a slight twist on the object of worship in the the marriage vow, "With my body, I Thee worship."
This compromise, this personalized version of a belief in God, your own God, remained vital in Greene and his fiction for the rest of his life.
Presumably, in his own eyes, it allowed him to be "closer my God to Thee", if not necessarily closer to God’s Church, its teachings, the Sacrament of Penance or the Rite of Confession, what Bendrix calls "your bloody little box and your beads".
"They Call That Virtue and This Sin" [After a Poem by Graham Greene]
Who did dare to fashion What rules govern passion? What arbiter of taste Or godly person faced The challenge to decide Which laws we should abide? Why does some God above Prescribe how we must love, Adultery's a sin, Marriage should lock us in? What sex should be a vice, Though it feels very nice? May I remove your mask, Allow me, please, to ask, "If it doesn't hurt you, Why's it not a virtue?"
"The Third Woman"
My review of a book about the real-life adulterous relationship between Graham Greene and Catherine Walston, which inspired "The End of the Affair" is here:
"I'd sacrifice money and heaven all for love Let me be loved, let me be loved... I've been trying to nod my head, But it's like I've got a broken neck Wanting to say I will as my last testament For you to be saved and me to be brave We don't have to walk down that aisle 'Cause if marriage ain't enough Well at least we'll be loved." ...more
This book purports to explore the real-life adulterous relationship between Graham Greene and Catherine Walston, which inspired Greene’s novel,Summary
This book purports to explore the real-life adulterous relationship between Graham Greene and Catherine Walston, which inspired Greene’s novel, "The End of the Affair".
The book was published within 12 months or so of the release of the second film based on the novel.
I do not recommend that anybody read Cash’s book before you read the novel or watch the film. If your interest in the people or the events is satiated by either experience, I’d probably recommend that you savour the experience and avoid the temptation to read the book. If they didn’t satiate you, then neither will this work.
A Hack Job for Cash
William Cash sought to take advantage of a narrow window in time, when the film attracted attention to the affair and he had access to some correspondence and interview opportunities that others might not have and perhaps might never have.
This access might have given a more talented writer an opportunity to write a genuinely insightful literary biography of an affair. However, I have to question whether Cash was up to the task.
For a book about two people in whom I had a great interest, Cash insinuates himself, a third person, into a first person account of the affair, to no apparent value.
I derived no insight into the lives of the characters or Greene’s novel from any analysis or expression of opinion by the author.
The protagonists failed to come alive in Cash’s hands, except when they or others are quoted verbatim. I could probably explain the non-chronological, non-thematic approach to the raw material, given time, but that would require me to spend additional time on the analysis of the book that I can’t justify.
Research and Resources
I must concede that Cash appears to have conducted a lot of research, visited and described physical locations, and spoken to current inhabitants of the locations, many of whom had little or no recollection of the events that might have taken place at those locations in the past.
It is not Cash’s fault that we have only Greene’s letters to cite. Greene himself appears to have destroyed nearly all of the letters, journals and diaries of Catherine Walston that ever came into his possession.
This might have been an appropriate strategy to preserve her reputation. Who knows what damage Cash might have done to it, if he had had access to them? Greene’s appeal to me certainly diminished with the citation of private correspondence that was never meant to be seen by more than two sets of eyes. If he had suspected it would be subjected to such inane scrutiny, he might have made greater use of the telephone than the postal service.
I wouldn’t say Cash is a terribly bad writer, but I wouldn’t say he is a terribly good writer. I am content with the adverb, but can’t yet find an appropriate adjective to describe his literary prowess.
The book strikes me as a contract job that appealed to Cash more than a ghost-written autobiography of a forgotten war hero, a middle order batsman, a football referee or a disgraced athlete.
If the author was paid a lot of cash, it doesn’t appear that he spent much of it on an editor.
His scene-setting consists of the following level of description:
"The outside walls were the colour and texture of lumpy grey porridge."
In the next paragraph, we learn that Greene’s old cottage is now a "squalid wreck" and that "seagulls squalled and circled overhead" (do birds squawk or squall?). Over the page, the squalid wreck has become an "abandoned squat". Squat the fuck was he thinking?
There is one anecdote (the source of which is not cited) at which I laughed out loud, so I hope you don’t mind if I close this rant by recounting it.
It relates to a dinner party at Carol Reed’s home in King’s Road, Chelsea, which I recall photographing on my recent sojourn to Paris and London.
Apart from the host, the dinner was attended by Graham Greene, Catherine Walston, Evelyn Waugh, the film-maker Alexander Korda and his then current girlfriend.
The next day, Greene confronted Waugh as to why he had been so rude to Korda during the evening.
Waugh replied that Korda had no right to bring his mistress to Reed’s home.
"But I brought my mistress," Greene replied, referring to Catherine.
"That is quite different," said Waugh. "She is married."