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Audiobook Classics: The End of The Affair

Updated on February 6, 2014

This Is Why They Call It "Voice Acting"

Last year I interviewed a couple of professional voice actors, Simon Vance and Paul Costanzo, (I will publish those interviews here forthwith), who were both very careful to point out that if there is one talent required for narrating audiobooks, it is acting. Both of them preferred to be referred to as "voice actors" as opposed to "audiobook narrators", a distinction that is pretty self evident.

Sometimes a film actor, or a stage actor, of a combination of the two, will perform a book. Novels, mostly, but I also recall listening to Jack Nicholson read Kipling's "Just So Stories" when my kids were little and it stuck with me, especially the way he reads "Best Beloved" and "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin".

But I digress. If there's one thing that is most notable about Colin Firth's performance of Graham Greene's The End of The Affair, it's his ability to sound like that self-absorbed, sorry-ass protagonist-prick Maurice Bendrix. He makes Bendrix so detestable there were times at the outset where I wondered if I could go on. All to Firth's credit of course. He reads Sarah and Miles and the other characters with the kind of vocal distinction we might expect from an actor of such credentials.

Ah...but you're not familiar with this wonderful story? Read on...!

A "Catholic" Novel

The End of the Affair is thought to be one of Greene’s “Catholic” novels (he converted to Catholicism in his early twenties), though the only characteristic of the story that makes it Catholic vs. just generally Christian is that Sarah Miles converts to Catholicism just before her death. Either way, while it would appear that the primary plot element is based on “the affair” that Maurice Bendrix has with Sarah Miles, and more specifically how it ends, which in and of itself is a heartbreaking story, what the story is really “about” is faith, and not only believing in God but professing love for God and the notion that God’s love is the greatest love of all and can cure the sick and bring the dead back to life. The profound beauty and impact of the novel is in the way Greene tells this very simple love story (though Bendrix thinks he’s telling a “hate” story) and packs this profound, thought-provoking message that, like the speech of father Zoysima in The Brothers Karamazov, can’t help but cause the reader some serious pause.

Graham Greene

About Graham Greene

This from WikiPedia:

Henry Graham Greene, OM, CH, (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991) was an English writer, playwright and literary critic.[1] His works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Greene was noted for his ability to combine serious literary acclaim with widespread popularity.

Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Roman Catholic novelist rather than as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels:Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair.[2] Several works such as The Confidential Agent, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor also show an avid interest in the workings of international politics and espionage.

Greene suffered from bipolar disorder,[3] which had a profound effect on his writing and personal life. In a letter to his wife Vivien, he told her that he had "a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life", and that "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material".[4]William Golding described Greene as "the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety." [5] Greene never received the Nobel Prize in Literature, though he finished runner-up to Ivo Andrić in 1961.[6]

The Colin Firth audiobook

In Brief: About the Novel

If you haven't read "The End of the Affair" and you have an opportunity to listen to Colin Firth, by all means get the audiobook. The story as told by Mr. Firth will grab you where reading the novel may take some patience to get into it.

In brief, the story takes place in the years during and following the German blitz of London, and is told in first person by the protagonist Maurice Bendrix. The opening paragraph is one of my favorite openers of all time:

"A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say “one chooses” with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who -- when he has been seriously noted at all -- has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there. But if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, “Speak to him: he hasn’t see you yet.’ "(p. 1)

The story begins after Bendrix's affair with Mile's wife Sarah was over, and Bendrix in his mad jealousy had hired a detective, supposedly on behalf of Henry Miles, to find out who Sarah is sleeping with. We have no idea why Bendrix is so obsessed, other than he must be a born prick, because we have no idea what Sarah is like. 50 pages later Henry learns that his “friend” Bendrix had a two year fling with his wife several years ago, which prompts the description of “the end of the affair”, when a German “robot” explodes and Bendrix is mortally wounded and possibly brought back to life through Sarah’s promise to God to end the affair. Six months later, the detective Parkis discovers Sarah’s journal, and Bendrix takes it. His intention is to find out who Sarah has been sleeping with, and he does, but only after he realizes that Sarah truly loved him:

“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.” (p. 70)

Sarah’s diary is said to be some of Greene’s most powerful prose. It reads like a spoken monologue in the most dramatic sense, much of which is addressed directly to a God:

“...anything left, when we’d finished, but You. For either of us...You were there, teaching us to squander, like You taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left but this love of You. But You are too good to me. When I ask You for pain, You give me peace. Give it him too. Give him [Bendrix] my peace - he needs it more.” (p71)

Sarah's conversion to Catholicism and the notion that her prayers are responsible for not only saving Bendrix's life after the explosion, but also for the "miraculous" cures of the poxmarks on the face of Richard Smythe and the stomach disorder of Detective Parkis's son, are the crux of the story, which ends rather abruptly with this final plea:

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.” (P. 160)

An Audio Summary

Hope For Tired Old Souls

When I heard Colin Firth read those last lines I thought “oh for chrissakes throw the broken bastard a bone, will you?” but I realized that, even though Maurice Bendrix's heart, his romance, his physical passion, all of that seems lost in Sarah, we’ve seen this odd friendship grow - a fellowship of sorts, a lonely hearts club - spring up between the husband and the lover, both of whom have been abandoned for the love of God. They will share a few beers and more than a few laughs, which seems a fair substitute for the time being while they think about learning to love again.


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