This is the oldest of the books that I am listing among my favorites of 2012. My requirement is that I read them in 2012, not that they were written in 2012. One of my goals this year was to read more old books. And I certainly did that. But I was disappointed in many of the older books I read. Some of the disappointment is because I did not work hard enough to understand the background (one of the comments on my review of Alice in Wonderland essentially said that I just didn’t get all of the jokes.)
It is certainly true that not all literature that is great travels well through time. But The End of the Affair did travel well (albeit only about 60 years.) Tragedy, love and romance may be particularly easy subjects to travel through time. A good audiobook often helps.
The problem with reading is that no matter how much you do, there is so much you will never get to. There are more than 1 million new books published each year, just in English. And then there are the thousands of a classics that even a serious reader will never get around to reading.
So I am glad when I run across one of the beautiful books accidentally. I would have never picked up The End of the Affair on my own. I thought I had watched the movie, but I had not (although I will now.)
Audible.com has been commissioning “A List Actors” to read classic books. The Wizard of Oz read by Anne Hathaway, that I read a couple week ago, was from this collection. And luckily for me, Audible.com has been giving away a couple of the books to promote the series.
In The End of the Affair, Colin Firth reads the melancholy and beautifully haunting story of a couple having an affair at the end of World War II in London. This is a tragedy, and like all tragedies, nothing turns out the way you want it to.
My wife and I have been catching up on the Game of Thrones. We are at the point were I told her last night. “This is a low point in this book. Everyone starts dying now.”
What is it that forces us to read (or watch) tragedy? The romantic in me wants all marriages to be strong and healthy. But listening to The End of the Affair, I want Maurice and Sarah to stay together and at the same time I want Sarah to actually love her husband Henry. I don’t want all of the characters that I love in Game of Thrones to die. But we live in a broken and fallen world and tragedies communicate something very true.
The surprising turn for me in The End of the Affair is when suddenly in the middle the theme turns to God. (It is so very hard to describe the story without spoilers. But the book is now more than 60 years old and there have been two different movies made from it. So I will share some spoilers, but as few as I can.) Sarah and Maurice are making love during a air raid. It is the first of the V-2 rockets attacks. One of them lands near where they are and they are separated in the explosion. Sarah finds Maurice and fearing that he is dead, she prays for God to save him. Both Maurice and Sarah (and the husband Henry) are not religious. They are ‘above that type of superstition.’
That prayer was a turning point. Sarah leaves Maurice that day because she promised God that she would end the affair if Maurice was saved. Over the next two years they are apart. And Sarah is slowly finding God. One of the best lines of the book (this is from memory since I listened to the book) is from Sarah as she is sifting through the pain of being apart from Maurice, not loving Henry, still not sure about God. And she says, “I wish I knew another prayer than Me, Me, God Help Me.”
God does work through her. Eventually Maurice prays another prayer, “I hate You. God, I hate You as though You existed.” And that is essentially the point. Greene’s theme both in the marriage between Henry and Sarah and the affair between Sarah and Maurice and the relationship between God and the other characters is that if there can be hate, then there must be the ability for love. It is only the ambivalence that is truly dangerous.
The book unfolds as a first person narrative by Maurice. But it is told through a number of flashbacks and at one point through Maurice reading Sarah’s journal. It is slow and carefully paced. But the words are beautiful and the pain helps you cherish those you love. I guess that is the point of tragedy.