Monday, May 23, 2011

The end of the affair and Oranges are not the only fruit

I picked up a copy of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" in a small bookshop off of Khao San road. The shop had reasonably priced used books, roughly the same price one would pay in the states. One of the drawbacks of Thailand is the expense of books as most are imported, and there is a small used book market. That market also mainly contains crappy pulp espionage Tom Clancy style books and or romance as that's what people read while on vacation.

Greene returns to the theme of affairs in "The End of the Affair," which is a running thread in all the fiction that I've read by him. The story follows Maurice Bendrix, a slightly crippled writer who while working on a novel falls in love with a married woman, Sarah. Their love affair is troubled by Sarah's refusal to separate from her boring husband, Henry. Bendrix is a jealous lover and their relationship is plagued by his emotions. Set in World War II in London the climatic change in the novel comes about from a bombing. Sarah and Bendrix are at his home and Bendrix goes downstairs, a bomb hits. He is injured and temporarily trapped underneath a door. Sarah in a fit of panic prays to god to save Bendrix. Her lover is saved and as part of her prayer Sarah has promised never to see Bendrix again. Her devotion to god and her desire to keep her promise to the almighty sets the tone and subsequent dilemmas for the second half of the novel as Bendrix tries to reunite with her. The novel's ending is predictable but what is particularly irksome is the religious tract feel of the story. Instead of being a fictional tale about the sorrowful end of a relationship the novel turns into a polemic about belief in god. Several miraculous events unfold relating to Sarah and her faith which turns everyone into big old Jesus believers. Blech!

Reading about Greene makes me not surprised in the least about this latter turn, as authors' writing is influenced by their lives. Greene was a Roman Catholic himself and had an affair, in fact the book is dedicated to his mistress at the time.

Continuing on with the overally religious is Jeannett Winterson's "Oranges are not the only fruit," a book I shamelessly stole from one of my Thai roommates (sorry man I'll pay you back for it?). The novel is a bildsungsroman about a young girl whose mother is fanatically religious. The mother's social circle is confined to her church group who routinely chastise others for their sins. The mother is heavily influenced by missionary style beliefs and has a strong pentecostal background.
The essential tension comes about because of the young girl's (and narrator) affair with another girl. Under the guise of being especially devout the two girls spend all their time together, eventually a relationship blooms. Unfortunately the lesbian flower of youth is crushed by the hammer of religion as the mother and her cronies find the passion of the two children intolerable. The two girls are torn apart, yet the cycle happens to the narrator again, and again as she become mores cognizant of her sexual desire for women.

The narrative is non-linear with several side tales told about a young woman and a wizard along with knights of the round table. Heavy on the religious symbolism the book is quite layered but what ultimately shines is the simple desire for a more diverse world in which people's desires can be accepted. The title of the book comes about because of the mother's insistence to feed her daughter oranges. The fruit is the only food available until the close of the book when the daughter has come of age and separated herself, to some extent, from the confines of her mother's religion. The mother comes to an uneasy acceptance of her daughters carnal passions by not mentioning them whilst still going out to save the world from sin.

"Oranges are not the only fruit," is Winterson's first novel, published at the age of 24 and like Greene's novel is at least semi-autobiographical. Winterson grew up in a penecostal family. A devout child, Winterson began to deliver sermons and proselytize by the age of six. Ten years down the road she realized that she was a lesbian and left home which mirrors the narrative of the novel. We write about what we know, and we only know what we live.

Winterson includes a handful of poetic and interesting lines that I liked which are included below:

"I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had. Some people's emanations are very strong, some people create themselves afresh outside of their own body. (p. 164)"

"Time is a great deadener; people forget, get bored, grow old, go away. She said that not much had happened between us anyways, historically speaking. But history is a string full of knots, the best you can do is admire it, and maybe knot it up a bit more. History is a hammock for swinging and a game for playing. A cat's cradle (p. 166)."

"There's no choice that doesn't mean a loss (p.167)."

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