The second season of Showtime’s The Affair premiered at the beginning of October. In the show, Noah, a forty-something apparently-happily-married novelist, goes to Montauk for the summer with his wife and kids. He meets Alison, who is also married, about ten years his junior, and still grieving the tragic death of her young son years earlier.
You can gather from the title where it goes from there.
Nothing innovative about this plot, but each episode is split into two halves—one from Noah’s perspective and one from Alison’s. Often both halves retell the same events but with subtle changes to account for differing recollections. In Noah’s memory, Alison is seductive and playful: In Alison’s, Noah is swaggeringly confident. Noah’s wife is much more attractive in Alison’s memory than in Noah’s. Events happen in different orders; people speak with different tones of voice. And so it goes.
When I started watching The Affair, I was just finishing Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair. I’d find myself out for a run contemplating the characters and mixing up Greene’s Sarah with Alison, or his Bendrix with Noah, superimposing the actors’ faces over the novel’s characters.
The Affair is certainly not based on or even inspired by Greene’s novel, as far as I can tell. The subject matter is the same, of course. The End of the Affair starts after Sarah leaves Bendrix. He suspects her of having another lover, and wants to find him. What he discovers is her diary, which re-narrates events he thought he understood in ways that make clear what’s actually going on: Her new lover is God, and she is determined to keep a promise she made to God in return for Bendrix’s life.
It’s well known that Greene loosely based Sarah on his own mistress, Catherine Walston, and their affair continued after the novel was published. (Frankly, I can’t imagine what she was thinking.) Greene was also a Catholic convert, though not a terribly happy one. His relationship to the Church and especially to God was marked by struggle.
Both the show and the novel have narrators who, like Greene, are writers: Bendrix is a writer of history and Noah of fiction. Both of their vocations play a part in how they narrate their stories. The End of the Affair doesn’t include a happily-ever-after exactly (the title should clue you in there), and from the framing device used in The Affair, I’m pretty sure the show won’t either.
More interestingly, though, both rely on characters’ overlapping narratives and a nonlinear structure to construct the story. A number of commentators on The Affair have suggested that Noah and Sarah are purposely obfuscating details as they retell their stories to a third party, for reasons that become clear when you watch the show.
I’m less sure of that; I think we might be getting their actual recollections of events, as “truthful” as they can manage. If you’ve ever tried to tell a story at a family gathering, you know that no two people remember the same events the same way. This is the primary problem that memoirists deal with: the risk of their memories not matching someone else’s, and the difficulty of figuring out how to navigate that conflict.
The show works hard to keep us dislocated in time, just as Greene drops us into the story near its end and loops back a few times. In both the show and the novel, we’re not just seeing two sides of the same story. We’re seeing time compress and expand, jump backwards and forwards, be narrated and re-narrated in ways that don’t always make it clear whether we’re in the present or the future or the past. So a happy scene, then, may not mean a happy ending, nor is a stretch of despondency the final word.
At the very start of the novel, Bendrix (and perhaps Greene) tells us that “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.”
This restates St. Augustine’s perspective on narrative; Greene obviously knows his Augustine, because late in the book, a priest summarizes him further: “Saint Augustine asked where time came from. He said it came out of the future, which didn’t exist yet, into the present, that had no duration, and went into the past which had ceased to exist. I don’t know that we can understand time any better than a child.”
It struck me as I finished The End of the Affair that it was, of course, about where an affair ends, but it was also about “the end” in the sense of telos, the way the Westminster Catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Bendrix and Sarah’s affair had an end written into its beginning—one that landed, though not all too comfortably, in God himself.
The end of Noah and Alison’s affair is still unclear: both where it will end, and what its end is.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She taught the “Spirituality and Food” seminar at the Glen Workshop in 2015 and tweets at @alissamarie.