Film adaptations of famous novels have long endured the spittle of the literary elite; after all, what can be shown on screen that cannot be committed to the faithful papyrus? However true this statement may be (and it is quite true; rare is the cinematic version that betters its source, as in this film), it is interesting how many readers come away disgusted by the film and how many moviegoers delight in the original text. I suppose one could argue that no one would read the book who hadn't first admired the film, but there is also another element to consider. What we do as teenage readers – all of us, no exceptions – namely, impose familiar faces and voices upon the characters on the silent page, lends a story the intimacy we crave in life itself. The figures need not be, and are most often not, movie stars or unattainable strangers; they are usually our loved ones, the girl we smile shyly at during homeroom, the odd-shaped and wretched gremlins banished to high school classes. We imbue them with the conversations and thoughts we believe they might have or they ought to entertain, and they step out of the dull bromides of teenage existence to emerge as worldly adults. This is a sorry habit, but if practiced early enough, a useful one. This and many other wonts lurk beneath the surface of this acclaimed novel.
I was prescient enough to append to these pages a brief review of its more recent film version, but, wonderful to say, the two works differ sufficiently as to skirt repetition. Our year is 1946 and our narrator is Maurice Bendrix, a bitter, slightly lamed writer in his early forties; his age is never specified, although his first work came out twenty years before. Bendrix's main compulsion will be the five hundred words he completes five days a week, churning out just enough to produce a book a year, including edits and promotion. What he gains from such a vocation – either monetarily or in terms of artistic satisfaction – is never quite revealed to us. Bendrix drinks, smokes, strolls about as many writers do sniffing for inspiration from the streets they trust, and eats at his favorite clubs to imbue his day with some faint structure. We hear not a word about his family or his childhood; they are both probably entombed in his earlier novels. We learn only from his phrases pleached with disgust for the superstitions of mankind that he has no faith – neither in himself nor in the general sense of the word – and has "never seen any qualities in [himself] for a woman to like." This self-loathing may be the only thing he has in common with the lovely Sarah Miles.
Sarah is the wife of Henry, a senior civil servant, which just happens to be the subject of Bendrix's latest project. It occurs to us that this may not be the first time that Bendrix has seduced a woman to obtain a more precise character sketch, and the questions asked over dinner little dissuade us:
What time did Henry have breakfast? I asked her. Did he go to the office by tube, bus or taxi? Did he bring his work home at night? Did he have a briefcase with the royal arms on it? Our friendship blossomed under my interest: she was so pleased that anyone should take Henry so seriously. Henry was important, but rather as an elephant was important, from the size of his department; there are some kinds of importance that remain hopelessly damned to unseriousness.
We know, however, that unseriousness will never apply to the plight of Bendrix and Sarah. Sarah, who has had so many lovers before Bendrix that she makes comments about one stair in her house "that always squeaks"; Sarah, who enchanted Bendrix by evincing a happiness that can be detected "in drunken people, in children, seldom elsewhere." Henry turns out to be a plodding old bore who has not made love to his wife since – well, and here is where the contradictions abound. As Bendrix's dormant passions gain the better of him, he begins to weigh each phrase and gesture as if they were encoded manifestations of Sarah's plan of farewell. At one point we are told that Sarah and Henry might never have consummated their marriage; at another, that Sarah, long since unfaithful in frivolous flashes, stopped being with Henry once her assignations with Bendrix became the lifeblood of her days. By definition the lover's role cannot be reconciled with jealousy, as that is often exactly the emotion that the adulterer wishes to escape. But such logic has never impeded Bendrix, a solitary lout who writes with the passion he cannot rightly express. The affair progresses as do the attacks from the continent, until one June day in the horrendous year of 1944, a bomb obliterates the lovers' sanctuary, leaving our novelist under a pile of rubble and his coy mistress pleading to powers she may not understand for something she could not have possibly wished.
For all its precision and understatement, The End of the Affair may challenge the tether of your annoyance in two aspects. Portions of Sarah's diary are impounded and interset against Bendrix's neat, prim prose, with the obvious aim of providing an unyielding contrast. While these sections are too large and, indeed, too vital to be skimmed, they provide an unpleasant speed bump on the smooth, slick road of the narrative. Bendrix only adverts to entries between their final weeks together in 1944 and the present, and it is suggested by Parkis, the private eye hired to follow her, that Sarah was not particularly disciplined in keeping her journal up to date. The other matter pertains to the bounteous references to the Creator, who must really be considered the third party in the relationship, Henry as estranged as the umbrellaed spectator at a distance from the couple in the legendary movie poster (this could well be Parkis, if unlikely). Readers of these pages will not doubt my views of the subject; but the obsession of faith has been portrayed with far more tact and restraint. Yet that is not to say that Sarah's convictions about what this life could possibly mean – which form, after all, the basis of Bendrix's faith in her – are not crucial; they most certainly are. Sarah will experience what is commonly dubbed a crisis of faith, although such a title implies that faith topples into the ugly costiveness of agnosticism, when fairly the opposite occurs. Sarah's doubts decuple as do Bendrix's, but the difference lies in what they doubt. Bendrix doubts Sarah, doubts her glance, her body, her lips; while Sarah doubts everything except Bendrix. There is also the perhaps apocryphal tale spun by Sarah's mother when she finally meets Bendrix about a summer long ago in France that seems to speak of destiny, or at least of a circle closed. But then again, why would he believe anything that he couldn't see with his own two, narrowed jaded eyes? Perhaps because henceforth in every book he will ever read or write, he will only see one face.