Beliefnet
Graham Greene usually set his novels in raw and exotic corners of the earth, the better to push his characters to the far edges of torment and self-recognition. "The End of the Affair" is his great domestic masterpiece; its sinners find the moral precipice at home, within. Written in the late 1940s and published in 1951, the novel takes place in wartime London, under the pounding of the Blitz. This was Greene's time and place, so bleakly evocative of his embattled soul. Desperation huddles against the elements of weather and war: the fog, the rain, the enforced night of the bomb-raid blackouts, the shortage of food and fuel.

Occupying this tableau, in director Neil Jordan's new movie adaptation of the novel, is a triangle of mortals: Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a dull and clueless bureaucrat, has long since ceased to be a good husband to the adventurous Sarah (Julianne Moore), so she has begun coupling surreptitiously with their friend, world-weary novelist Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes). These three fine actors may revive interest in one of Greene's most personal works, but rereading "The End of the Affair," I was left wondering whether they aren't a bit young to carry the mature, many-layered intrigue of what's so clearly a novel of middle age.

But there's a fourth character, by Whom hangs the tale.

In the novel's threshold moment, the basement where Bendrix and Sarah are trysting is hit by a German rocket. A ceiling falls in, and Bendrix is buried in it, out cold. Sarah sees her lover's lifeless arm protruding from the rubble and believes he is dead--and, for the first time, prays. When he does stir to life, she inexplicably (at least till the end of the story) calls off the affair. She has taken up with Another.

"The End of the Affair" was the last of Greene's three "Catholic" novels, and is less read in our day than the other two, "The Power and the Glory" and "The Heart of the Matter." The three books and their haunted sinners share a language of explicit religiosity, and take faith seriously in a way that today seems remarkable, if not antique. Yet "The End of the Affair" treats more directly, more literally, than any of his novels Greene's own lifelong struggles with faith and sin, specifically adultery. It takes risks of sentimentality that seem awkward in a writer usually so good at staying cool, but those risks suggest the actual torment and passion that Greene was feeling, or at least exploring, as he wrote. I don't take lightly William Faulkner's endorsement: "For me one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody's language."

Greene was a convert to Catholicism--as a consequence of his marriage, in 1927, to the subsequently inconsequential Vivien. Like so many converts, he thought more critically and devotedly about his faith than most who are born to it, but he certainly sinned no less.

During the years that inspired this novel, Greene was having a serious affair with Catherine Walston, the wife of a dull and clueless American named Harry. Greene knew the Walstons as a couple, even spent Christmas of 1947 with them. Greene and Catherine used to eat garlic together because her husband detested the smell and stayed away; in "The End of the Affair," it's onions. During one visit to their estate he recorded in his diary practically the same words Bendrix records of his lovemaking with Sarah under Henry's nose. (In the novel's version: "When the moment came, I had to put my hand gently over her mouth to deaden that strange sad angry cry of abandonment for fear Henry should hear it overhead.")

Catherine Walston, with her own powerful reserves of faith and libido, was obviously made for Graham Greene--and for "The End of the Affair." The priest who received her into the Catholic church told Norman Sherry, Greene's biographer, "She was determined not to be chaste and yet she was deeply religious." The couple's ultimate fulfillment was making love and taking the sacraments on the same day.

Adultery was for Greene the fulcrum of deeper belief, and he kept his fulcrum busy with simultaneous mistresses and, by his telling, countless prostitutes. He died in 1991 still technically married to Vivien but spent the last 30 years of his life in the company of a cherished woman friend who was, of course, married all the while.

During the most passionate years with Catherine Walston, Greene once wrote a poem embracing the impertinent contradiction that adultery had brought him closer to God. It concludes, "For this is love, and this I love, / And even my God is here." The Catholic Church had banned "The Power and the Glory" for its coarse, sinning, whiskey priest, but one influential cardinal later said he would have preferred to proscribe "The End of the Affair," which he thought far more dangerous.

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