The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

published 1951

We saw each other for the first time, drinking bad South African sherry because of the war in Spain. I noticed Sarah, I think, because she was happy: in those years the sense of happiness had been a long while dying under the coming storm. One detected it in drunken people, in children, seldom elsewhere. I liked her at once because she said she had read my books and left the subject there—I found myself treated at once as a human being rather than as an author. I had no idea whatever of falling in love with her…

What a summer it was. I am not going to try and name the month exactly—I should have to go back to it through so much pain, but I remember leaving the hot and crowded room, after drinking too much bad sherry, and walking on the Common with Henry. The sun was falling flat across the Common and the grass was pale with it. In the distance the houses were the houses in a Victorian print, small and precisely drawn and quiet…

[A private detective gatecrashes another drinks party, many years later]

Parkis said, ‘it really was very easy, sir. There was such a crush, and Mrs Miles thought I was one of his friends from the Ministry, and Mr Miles thought I was one of her friends.’
‘Was it a good cocktail party?’ I asked, remembering again that first meeting…
‘Highly successful I should say, sir, but Mrs Miles seemed a bit out of sorts. A very nasty cough, she’s got.’

[later on, remembering…]
‘She was a very fine lady, sir,’ he said, reproachfully. ‘She asked me the way once in the street, not knowing, of course, my reason for being around. And at the cocktail party she handed me a glass of sherry.’

‘South African sherry?’ I asked him miserably.

‘I wouldn’t know, sir, but the way she did it—oh, there weren’t many like her.’

commentary: One of the strange things about this book is that although the narrator, Maurice, is obsessed with Sarah Miles, and says ‘I do not want any other woman substituted for Sarah, I want the reader to see [her]…’ there is then very little about her appearance or clothes – very disappointing from my point of view. Later in the book Maurice goes into some detail about the clothes of a fleeting but memorable character, Sylvia with her black corduroy trousers, and even Sarah’s husband Henry has a ‘black
The actress Sarah Miles
superior hat’. All Sarah has is a fur coat, a wet coat [plot item], and some ‘tough knotty hair’ – I always imagine her as looking like the actress who shares her name [ie Sarah Miles] or else Julianne Moore in the excellent 1999 film version.

And yet Greene is relying on every other character, and the reader, sharing Maurice’s obsession with and love for Sarah, and it is a close thing, as Greene doesn’t give you much to focus on. But the writing and the details are marvellous, with some beautiful sentences.

The actress Julianne Moore, playing Greene's Miles

After Maurice has been mean to Sarah on the phone (and he does rather specialize in horrible behaviour) there is this:
I sat with the telephone receiver in my hand and I looked at hate like an ugly and foolish man whom one did not want to know. I dialled her number, I must have caught her before she had time to leave the telephone, and said, ‘Sarah. Tomorrow’s all right. I’d forgotten something. Same place. Same time,’ and sitting there, my fingers on the quiet instrument, with something to look forward to, I thought to myself: I remember. This is what hope feels like.
And Maurice does know that he is not always likeable:
It’s a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved, when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.
I once wrote a piece for the Guardian newspaper on sad lines in books, and said that although Greene is famous for the last line of Brighton Rock in that respect, this from End of the Affair was much more heart-rending - far more real, expressing a feeling you think someone might actually have had:
We had only just lain down on the bed when the raid started. It made no difference. Death never mattered at those times—in the early days I even used to pray for it: the shattering annihilation that would prevent for ever the getting up, the putting on of clothes, the watching her torch trail across to the opposite side of the Common like the tail-light of a slow car driving away.
And, in case you started getting romantic thoughts about torches [= American flashlights], he also explains the difficulties of women working as prostitutes near Piccadilly in wartime:
You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off…. A woman flashed on her light and said, ‘Like to come home with me, dear?’ I shook my head and walked on. Further up the street a girl was talking to a man: as she lit up her face for him, I got a glimpse of something young….
The evocation of Blitzed and blacked-out London is marvellous, although the triple time scheme is infuriating: it jumps around, and sometimes I had to re-read a section once I realized that I had placed it wrongly.

My copy has a rather stern and unhelpful introduction from Monica Ali: She doesn’t like the occasional joke in the book, whereas I think those moments are very important (including the sherry obsession, above).
He repeated, ‘I will take everything off your hands,’ repeated it in a tone of admonition as though he were addressing Lady Macbeth and promising her some better process of sweetening her hands than the perfumes of Arabia.
And I love the young boy who has to pretend to be ill for a vital piece of trickery, and keeps saying firmly when offered water that some orange squash would be nicer.

I don’t seem to have said anything much about the plot or content. It’s the story of an adulterous affair, mostly in wartime. And religion comes into it. It’s a very different book from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, much featured on the blog, but Waugh and Greene are the two great Roman Catholic authors, and some of the religious discussion cuts across both books – can you bargain with God? And ultimately it’s a book is that it is by turns infuriating and sublime.

There is also another favourite blog theme – staged divorces with faked adultery in seaside hotels, as featured in Sarra Manning’s House of Secrets, in Waugh, in Dorothy L Sayers, in AP Herbert’s Holy Deadlock.

Thanks to EW for picking out the quote…

I chose the dress above for the second cocktail party: it is from the Imperial War Museum collection, - life on the home front, and London designers getting going again in 1945. This is a dinner dress by Peter Russell. The photo is used with the kind permission of the IWM, and with this attribution: © IWM (D 23778), as requested by them.

For more books by Graham Greene on the blog, click on the label below.


  1. Oh, that quote, Moira! It really is a sad line. You know, I hadn't thought about how very well some authors do that sort of sadness, but some of them really do. It's interesting, too, what you say about Sarah - how little there is physically about her, although she is described through several lenses. Like you, I prefer just a little more description (although at the same time, not overburdening narrative). Still, that's an interesting bit of authorship.

    1. I know - I think Graham Greene was one of the all-time greats, and could do whatever he wanted and take the reader along. And he described emotions so well - sad and happy...

  2. I have not read this and I've owned several copies of the US edition over the years. Each time I was going to read the book my mercenary bookselling self possessed me and I sold them for hefty sums capitalizing on the movie that was well received back in the day. I'm talking about the Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore version not the earlier one with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson. I saw the Fiennes/Moore movie and it left me devastated when the unexpected ending came. Always intended to follow up that viewing with a reading of the book, so many details clearly not able to be included in the movie. I do remember the flashlight (torch) singlallin business though. Greene converted to Catholicism didn't he? His religious takes are stronger (sometimes vehement) than Waugh's IMO.

    1. I loved that film: I was living in America when I saw it, and it was such an authentic picture of London (despite being set years before I was born!) that it made me quite homesick. They used a church that was actually where it should have been, if you see what I mean, the church from the book.
      I have just had a fascinating chat on Twitter about the Catholicism in End of the Affair, and comparing Greene's views with Waugh - it's such a pity you don't do social media John! I know there are bad elements, but when it works it is great, you would enjoy....

  3. I have this and a few others from Greene on the shelves. It's been a while since I read anything from him, probably too long.

    1. You might prefer one of the more thriller-type ones, but I'm betting you like his style. What have you read?

    2. Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American

    3. Nothing but the best for you! He was a great writer, and they are both splendid examples.

  4. I have not read much by Greene, but I should and you have convinced me that this should be one of them.

    Lovely post, and again, lovely images for it.

    1. Thank you! You would love the War and post-War setting I think.

  5. "Staged divorces with faked adultery in seaside hotels"--that always makes me think of Fred & Ginger in "The Gay Divorcee"!

    1. Oh goodness, yes, exactly! Always a surprise that a film of that era could take such a light-hearted look at it.

  6. Just came here via @backlisted - great discussion and a fascinating post. I've read The End of the Affair several times and just finished listening to Colin Firth's audible version - it's brilliant. I'm going to have to see the movie again now. I remember hating it. Don't they completely change the ending?

    1. Can't remember!
      I was a big fan of Greene when I was a teenager, read them all, and liked the Big Books, the showy ones - Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter. But when I re-read now, it is something like the End of the Affair that will grab me - a short book about relationships, but close to perfect.


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