The End of the Affair

[Contains plot spoilers–although I don’t think it would ruin your enjoyment of the book if you read this first.]

In January 1946, Maurine Bendrix rekindles his acquaintanceship with Henry Miles. A year and a half before, Henry’s wife Sarah had broken off her affair with Bendrix and Bendrix has had no contact with either of them since. When Henry confides that he is worried about Sarah, Bendrix’s jealously reawakens, and he sets out to discover the new object of Sarah’s affections.

The End of the Affair is the story of God destroying the love between two people in order that they might learn to love Him. (Bendrix, admittedly, does not get as far as loving God by the end of the novel, but has made steps in the right direction.) It’s an extended commentary on what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain:

“Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. […] What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?”

In an article on First Things, which I found insightful thought I didn’t agree completely with it, Benjamin Myers writes “Sentimentality offers us the dubious chance to feel while bypassing the messiness of any real human engagement: not too much feeling but too thin an experience.” The End of the Affair is not sentimental, and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s a mainstream novel—and a classic at that—while most Christian novels today wouldn’t have a look in with a secular audience.

Sarah’s struggle is brutally hard. For much of it, she feels that she has given up Bendrix for God without getting anything in return—in other words, that she has thrown away human love, but that she still does not love God or feel loved by Him. At one point she writes, “While I loved Maurice, I loved Henry, and now I’m what they call good, I don’t love anyone at all. And You least of all.”

Because of such authenticity, when she does write of her love for God, it feels genuine rather than sentimental:

“Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time? Did I touch You when I touched him? Could I have touched You if I hadn’t touched him first, touched him as I never touched Henry, anybody? […] You were there, teaching us to squander, like You taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.”

The End of the Affair is rich in themes to explore–Sarah’s spiritual journey, Bendrix’s character development, the nature of love and hate, and the similarities between The End of the Affair and Brideshead Revisited come to mind–but this is long post enough. I’ll let Bendrix have the last, haunting word:

“For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you [i.e. Sarah]—with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell—can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won’t leap.”

What’s in a Name?

A year or so ago I scrolled through bestselling books on Amazon, and wrote a piece which I never posted commenting on some of their titles. I’d seen another blogger do something similar and I liked the idea. I never posted it at the time, but I’ve spruced it up and I present it now. I haven’t checked the bestsellers list again, so no doubt it is hopelessly outdated. If the bestsellers then are still bestsellers now, let’s just say that they’ve done well for themselves. (Disclaimer: I am judging these books on titles, not on content. In fact, I have no idea what most of them are about.)

Zoo

Unless this is a picture book for two-year-olds (in which case, you have my blessing), it just doesn’t cut it.

Elizabeth is Missing

This title manages to give away a lot and yet remain flat and stale. When Elizabeth Went Missing would be better—it would spark the question “What happened when she went missing?” and prompt readers to discover the answer.

The Sunrise

Em, yes? We have one of those every day. This is probably intended to be an evocative rather than a curiosity-inspiring title, and I’ll admit it’s pretty enough, but it lacks concreteness. How about Sunrise over Niagara, or something with a hint of sadness like The Last Sunrise? Can you feel the difference?

Finders Keepers

This title does make the potential reader ask questions (“Who finds what?” “Who keeps what?”) but to have a cliché as the tile of your book? I’m not convinced.

The Children Act

This is eye-catching because it sounds like a work of non-fiction. Then you realise that it’s a novel and you know that weighty things are at stake, even though you don’t know exactly what.

I Let You Go

You did? Why? Tell me more, and while you’re at it, please pass the tissues.

A Man of Some Repute

This is not only an intriguing title (why only some repute?) with an elegant, old-fashioned feel, but there’s a lovely iambic rhythm to it.

All the Light We Cannot See

Beautifully evocative and rhythmical, this makes me wonder what this light is and why we can’t see it….

 

In conclusion, dear authors and publishers, when it comes to the titles of your books, a rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, but if you’ve christened it a birthwort rather than a rose, I may never venture near enough to smell it.

Just Write

Autumn is here. I’m wearing long-sleeved tops now. Here in the living room we have our first fire of the season. Red, yellow, and orange sheens are appearing on the trees, signs that another year is about to die a gloriously vibrant death.

Yet autumn, that season of endings, is also a season of beginnings, at least for students. Pre-schoolers, sixth formers, undergraduates—they’re all sharpening pencils and hauling around books again. This year, I’m back in their number, embarking on a new beginning of my own: an MA in English Studies. Who’d have thought?

As I’ve been wrestling with my first piece of writing, I’ve been reminded again of how crucial it is for writers to just write. It’s not an original dictum, but it’s certainly one that’s proved true in my own experience. Do you feel that you have nothing to say? Write, and you will discover what to say. You will discover what you think. Do you cringe as you read that first paragraph, tempted to hit delete and start again, and then again, so that the screen in front of you is always white, pristine, perfect, empty? Write. What you write isn’t meant to be good yet. The time for pruning, for editing, for self-criticism, will come, but you cannot polish something until you have something to polish. Just write.

As an undergraduate, I could begin with a topic that made me groan, a topic about which I felt I had nothing to say, yet by forcing myself to write, however unpleasant the process, and then by shaping and editing, I would end up with an essay I was satisfied with. I know I’ll find that again as a postgraduate. I’ve had to tell it to myself already: just write.

My friend Sarah and I send each other weekly writing prompts. We wrestle, sometimes (often?), with our topics, produce pieces late and with apologies (“It’s not very good, I know”), but we make ourselves do it. We’re learning the importance of humbly embracing the fact that we’re not always very good writers—that we may never be the kind of writers we’d like to be—but that this writing process is good for us all the same. I believe it was Jennifer Trafton who spoke of how writing teaches you humility, and it’s true. It’s painful to see the disconnect between what your writing is and what you want it to be.

“If I can’t win, I won’t run!”, says Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. “If you won’t run, you can’t win”, his girlfriend retorts. It’s the same with writing. The temptation can be to say that if we can’t write something amazing, we won’t write at all. But if we don’t write anything, we can’t write anything good. So let’s shut out the voices that shame us as we sit in front of our blank screens and just write.