Adultery Why Does It Inspire Such Great Literature?

Article excerpt


EVER since Homer wrote about Helen of Troy's sexual betrayal in the Iliad, the epic themes of Western literature have been deemed to be love, war and adultery.

I would argue that adultery has had the most significant impact on modern literature. Certainly it is the case with the author Graham Greene.

During the spring of 1947, only months after he started the affair with the American beauty Catherine Walston which was to inspire his 1951 novel The End Of The Affair, Greene's wife Vivien returned one afternoon with her son Francis to the family house at 15 Beaumont Street, Oxford.

There, she discovered her husband and his new mistress (a recent Roman Catholic convert, married with four small children) standing on the doorstep.

Greene explained they had just returned from a holiday on the west coast of Ireland and that Catherine was 'exhausted'. He asked if it was 'all right' if she could spend the night? Oh, and could Vivien possibly make some supper?

When I interviewed Vivien recently for my book that investigates the blend of fact and fiction in The End Of The Affair - released yesterday as a Neil Jordan film - she told me that she found it 'terribly insulting for Greene to bring his mistress to my house'.

Still, she dutifully made up a bed for her rival. The next morning, Catherine shocked Greene's wife by brazenly kneeling next to Vivien at a Roman Catholic Mass.

Prior to Greene's affair with Catherine, the wife of a millionaire socialist farmer who became Lord Walston in 1961, Vivien knew he had been conducting an affair with another

woman, a children's book illustrator called Dorothy Glover, who used to hide his trousers after having sex, so that he couldn't leave her flat in Bloomsbury, Central London.

When I asked Mrs Greene how she could put up with such behaviour, she replied: 'That's how writers behave. If you marry an artist, painter or musician, they are not like an ordinary person.

They have their work, which means more to them than any general human attachment.' Cyril Connolly famously said that the true function of a writer was to write a masterpiece, and that no other task was of any consequence.

But is this really true?

GREENE himself certainly seemed to think so, acknowledging in a frank letter to his long-suffering wife, shortly after he left her, why adultery has so often proved to be bad for marriage but good for literature.

'The fact that has to be faced, my dear, is that by my nature, my selfishness, even in some degree by my profession, I shall always and with anyone have been a bad husband. Unfortunately the disease is also one's material.

Cure the disease and I doubt whether a writer would remain.' Greene always used to say that 'childhood is the bank balance of the writer'. But, from 1947 onwards, when he began his affair with Catherine, adultery arguably became the life force.

In his life and in the lives of the characters Greene creates, adultery seems to offer the hope of a new narrative; another chapter in one's life.

I have seen a list, written on stationery from the Europa Hotel in Venice, of the names of

44 different women with whom Greene had slept, which he gave his mistress Catherine.

In The End Of The Affair, it is no coincidence that the middle-aged writer Maurice Bendrix first meets Sarah Miles, his neighbour across Clapham Common, because the author wants to use her husband Henry's dreary life as a civil servant in a novel he is writing.

In the novel, Greene draws on the memory of his wartime affair with Dorothy Glover and his later affair with Catherine Walston.

In the latest film, which is mostly true to the novel, there is a dramatic sex scene between the two lovers, which was taken from Greene's experience of making love in Glover's flat in Gordon Square. …