I was muddling around the house last night, doing nothing in particular, when I picked up the remote control and flick, flick, flick searched idly through the programs on show. I stopped at one, and after a moment sat down. It was around 9 I guess, it was just dark outside and the door to the terrace outside wide open. I sat feeling the cool air and in the background hearing the clop, clop, clop of the passing horse and carriage as I am now familiar with, and began watching The End of the Affair.
I had read the book of this years ago and been disappointed in it – much to my surprise. Graham Greene is one of the great authors of last century, and I have enjoyed others of his books – but for some reason or another, I could not get into this one, could not feel as the story demands the knife-edge of passion it portrays. For that reason, I had overlooked the movie when it had been shown before. Now, for wont of anything better to do, I sat down to watch.
The story is of a tragic romance, set in London through WW2 and after. Maurice Bendrix, the role Ralph Fiennes plays, is a novelist who falls in love with his best friend’s wife, as played by Julianne Moore. His love is reciprocated as they embark on a passionate affair while the good but dull husband, as played by Stephen Rea, frets that something is going on behind his back.
So far so predictable – but then comes the pivotal moment of the book and the movie. One afternoon they are having sex in Bendrix’s home when there is a V1 attack on London. For a few moments, they stay where they are, daring the rockets to come their way. Then Bendrix looks to see if they can go to the shelter in the basement. It is at that moment a rocket strikes, he is propelled from the stairs where he stands to the floor below. Going after him Sarah believes him dead. Returning to the bed they have just shared she gets down on her knees. She prays, at first simply, asking for Maurice to be given back to her, please, please… Then her prayers become more desperate, I’ll give him up if you’ll just spare him she promises – and at that moment she hears his voice behind her. There it is. She looks upon him. He has been saved – but now she must hold true to her promise. As she later writes, the day you were saved was the day I died. She dresses and leaves, determined to be true to her vow and not ever see him again.
For two years they don’t. He becomes bitter and obsessed. He hires a private investigator to follow her, and in the course of it comes into possession of her diary. There the truth is revealed. He dashes to her, she resists, but ultimately gives in to the passion she cannot deny. They leave together, to the beachside, to promises of divorce followed by marriage, of children, of a life lived happily ever after together – as if after all the struggle and strife that this is the poetic and fitting outcome, this the happy ending convention demands. But this is not to be.
She is dying, and soon learns she has no more than 6 months to live. That is the reality. They have only just found each other again when she is to be wrenched from his grasp. And so it is: the end of the affair.
As I wasn’t by the book I was moved by the film. It seemed authentic, the acting true and good, the writing crisp and incisive – I thought I must return to the book as so much seemed to have been lifted from it.
As happens so often, the experience of watching the movie left me with a residue of feeling that melded with things that were present already in my mind and was transformed by the process.
For the last week or so I’ve had a phrase in Spanish run around in my head – Cuando amor no es locura, no es amor (When love is not madness, it is not love). It is a phrase that describes what Bendrix feels, a certain madness that drives him to extreme lengths. There is something not altogether pretty in this, something unhealthy in the feverish passion that cannot rest. To steal a diary seems the lowest of acts, but in the context of obsession, of madness, it is perfectly understandable. As the phrase goes, all is fair in love and war – and in the grip of this madness, there is little that can be done.
I was reminded of a woman I once knew, from South America originally but now happily settled in Melbourne. I had met her once and flirted with her. We met again by accident some time later where she harangued me for having let her down – she had mistaken me for someone else. I laughingly denied her charges, claiming it was a case of mistaken identity, that I was not the man she thought I was – apparently my doppelganger had arranged to meet with her and had never shown. She hardly listened to me as she continued her passionate assault upon me, her dark voice assailing me. I continued to resist, fascinated by this vibrant woman, her flashing eyes, her dark Latin hair, the anger and passion that lit up her face and possessed her body as she leant into me. Ultimately I succumbed, ultimately I nodded my head, okay, okay, you got me, I said, now accepting the role she had thrust upon me, accepting the fault of the other man but now speaking soothingly as he might have had he been there, my voice calm, I bowed my head, ruefully I smiled, I apologised as slowly her passion receded like a spent wave, I spoke to her as one speaks to an enraged animal, confident now in myself, enjoying this, enjoying the effect of my words upon this mysterious woman, her body relaxing, her eyelashes fluttering at me, her eyes fixed but softening, so what are you going to do to make it up to me?
We did plenty as it happens, but only for a short while. In the end, she was too much for me. I was just a laconic Australian boy after all, albeit with a romantic streak, a sensual edge. She was volcanic. She possessed a florid romanticism, an extravagant sensuality; her passion was tinged with desperation, and her personality was measured in seismic shifts. It was she who introduced me to the poetry of Pablo Neruda:
I Crave Your Mouth, Your Voice, Your Hair
Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because —
because — I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.
Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.
Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,
because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?
We had little in common in too many ways, and she was too much for me, too exhausting, but I learned much from her – or at least was reminded of much I already knew but had forgotten: and this is the point of this post.
Everyone is different, and in partnering up they make up many varying combinations. It is not for me to say how other people should live, or what they should feel. I only know for myself that if I am to be with someone that I want to feel it – to know it – in the depths of me. I don’t believe in needing anyone – or anything for that matter – but to want, to want deeply and desperately and sometimes crazily is part of the human condition. I want to desire, and to feel it every day, as well as to feel all the much safer pleasures of companionship. This is one of the things that struck me in watching that movie last night – that to be a husband no doubt is lovely with the right woman, but that should never be at the expense of being lovers still. The moment you lose that edge the relationship becomes safe and safe is nothing.
Not everyone has the lover in them, even when they are thrust into that position. I believe we instinctively recognize and seek out those of like temperament. We gravitate towards those we can find some reflection of our selves, of our desires and aspirations. Do it right and we fit with that person tongue in groove, we move separately but in sync. This was at the heart of the tragedy portrayed in the movie last night – a woman of deep passion married to a man of stolid ambition, and yearning for the sensitive man of feeling she perhaps should have married. There is denial in all this though too. Sometimes it comes late, this recognition of true self, sometimes it lays dormant before it is brought to life by the right touch. And sometimes it is there from the start but denied, refused, unacknowledged.
It’s not for me to say what people should aspire to. I know what I want though. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it – as in all things, there should be a balance. The foundation is trust, affection, understanding, but on that foundation, there can be built a relationship of deep and abiding passion: let there be madness. I read a poem such as the one above and feel it in me broad and panoramic, I nod my head, I the laconic Australian who gives nothing away, feels this in his bones, yes, this is how it should be, forever and as if there is no tomorrow. I need that passion because it is in the fire of passion that life is found.
Life’s too short otherwise.