Sunday, December 4, 2011
The novelist Maurice Bendrix's love affair with his friend's wife, Sarah, had begun in London. One day, without warning, Sarah had broken off the relationship. It seemed impossible that there could be a rival for her heart.
A classic book that I've heard of for years, but had never picked up. Finally I got around to listening to it on audio. What a surprise, this was not what I expected at all. It's the story of how Maurice Bendrix, a novelist in post WWII-London, copes with the end of an affair with a married woman whom he was seeing for two years. She breaks it off unceremoniously, no explanation, no scenes, no recriminations - nothing. He's in the dark and mistakenly assumes she has gone on to someone else. Most of the story is from Maurice's point of view. It's aftermath, his questions of faith, God and the Catholic Church are all covered as he comes to terms with and learns the unexpected truth behind their break-up. A masterfully done audio, narrated by Michael Kitchen. The bitterness and sadness conveyed by Maurice is real and palpable, I felt like Maurice was telling his story to me.
Maurice is bitter - very bitter. He loved Sarah Miles, the wife of an acquaintance who lives nearby. Their affair lasted for nearly two years, but they began to bicker and doubts of each other's love began and unexpectedly she stopped seeing him after an air raid in which he nearly died. Like that - it's over. Maurice has tried to forget her and get on with his life, but once he runs into her husband, Henry, a mild mannered man who is clueless in regard to his wife's extramarital activities all those old feelings were dredged up again. Running into Henry that night in the rain, leads to having a drink together which then leads to Henry admitting he suspects something is going on with Sarah and wonders if he should hire a private detective to follow her. Someone discreet. He's been given the name of a reputable service that specializes in this sort of thing. But, the thought of it is so distasteful to him, he wants to forget about it. Yet Maurice has the bug now. His own selfish desire makes him offer to hire the detective for Henry. As if he's doing Henry a favor. Henry says he'll think about it, but Maurice goes ahead anyway. He is obsessed with the idea that Sarah has moved on to someone else and he wants to know who is the man she is sleeping with now. Is it the man she left him for?
Events do not turn out quite the way Maurice expected, although the detective makes it possible for him to get hold of Sarah's private diary. Maurice unashamedly reads it, going over the time of their affair and afterwards and realizes he had been completely wrong about her. She writes she still loves him, always has. Still desperately in love with her - he cannot wait to tell her so. She can leave her husband and they can live happily ever after...
Of course this doesn't happen. Irony comes into play. We learn that Sarah left Maurice because she believed God had saved him from dying in that air raid. She prayed to God and promised she would leave him and go back to her husband if only God would keep him alive. The question is, did Maurice die in that raid or not? Sarah was convinced he was dead at one point - and then he wasn't. She was convinced God answered her prayer and brought him back to life - so she kept her promise and left him. Maurice had been unaware of all of this until he read her diary. Once he learns the truth he calls her, he must see her! She resists, she is unwell, she tries to put him off. She has vowed to God not to see him. He won't take no for an answer and tells her he is coming right over. His call drives her out into the rainy dark night to avoid seeing him, despite her bad cold.. I bet you can see where this is going... Events lead to the worst possible thing that can happen and Maurice and her husband, Henry must both deal with it. The questions of religion, God and the Catholic Church, in particular, are brought up. Is there a God? Sarah had been a non-believer up to this point (though she had been baptized a Catholic, but didn't know it). Maurice doesn't believe in anything and detested the pious priests in their hassocks, preaching truth and goodness - all sanctimonious bullshit, as far as he was concerned. He blames God... for losing Sarah.
This was really a great story, primarily because of the heartfelt emotions we experience through Maurice. I don't think I've ever read another book that conveyed such an intense sense of loss from a man's point of view over a broken love affair. On audio, I felt like I knew Maurice. I could turn my head and he's be there smoking a cigarette, taking a deep drag and continuing his monologue of what happened to him. First his anger over having her leave him for, what he is convinced is another man. Then his morbid curiosity to find out who she is sleeping with and what she is doing now through the services of the nice but somewhat bumbling detective and his young son (a very interesting and worthwhile diversion to the overall bitterness of the main storyline.) Then, the revelations of her diary and the aftermath and ensuing tragedy that happens next. It was like a Hardy novel!
Overall, this is a worthwhile read, I highly recommend it on audio, it is very strong yet arms length in that late 1940's British way. It's hard to describe. Repressed emotion, quiet intensity. Still waters run deep. Maurice never breaks down and cries over Sarah, but he is distraught and bereft, but also so angry and bitter! Who can blame him? The irony is astounding as well as the philosophical aspect of whether there is a God or not? A memorable book. Read it.