The Review--One Recent Release and One Classic Revisited
May/June 2006 Edition
Secret Lovers in War-Torn Europe
Reviewer: Stedman Mays

Recent Release
book cover - THE MERCY ROOMTHE MERCY ROOM by Gilles Rozier. Translated from the French by Anthea Bell. Little, Brown, 2006 (the novel was first published in English as LOVE WITHOUT RESISTANCE in Great Britain in 2005; originally published in France as UN AMOUR SANS RÉSISTANCE by Éditions Denoël in 2003). Hardcover. 145 pages of the text of the novel, which is set in an easy-to-read font with ample margins and line spacing.  Estimated length of the novel: around 38,000 words.

Is it possible to have sex with someone who has no gender? I suppose in theory a lover's body could be disguised in some weird way or you could remain blindfolded during sex and not know who's doing what to you, but almost all of us like to know who we're dealing with in the bedroom. We don't want the identity of the person we're sleeping with to be a guessing game. As we undress to make love, our awareness of our partner's body is part of what turns us on.

People discuss their sexual orientation in terms of gender--whether they're predominately attracted to men or women, or whether they're those rare animals who consider themselves bisexual in equal measure. No matter what type of person we're drawn to emotionally and psychologically, just about everybody desires specific physical characteristics that can be classified as male or female.

In Gilles Rozier's novel THE MERCY ROOM, we are asked to go on an erotic journey with an unnamed narrator who remains ambiguous in terms of his or her gender. There are sex scenes throughout the book that give no definitive indication of whether he/she has the body of a man or a woman. We do know that her/his sexual partner is a man, and it is clear that our narrator gives oral sex to the man and is penetrated by him. So most readers would perceive the narrator as either a woman or, to use the slang term for the "passive" gay male partner, a bottom.

The backdrop for this intriguing gender ambiguity is a small town in France during the Nazi Occupation of World War II. Our unnamed narrator's lover is Herman, a handsome Jew who's being secretly kept in the cellar of the narrator's home to avoid persecution. Even the narrator's family is unaware of their secret guest. The narrator visits Herman in the cellar from time to time to clean out his chamber pot, feed him, and snatch a steady diet of sex into the bargain.

Herman seems quite smitten with the erotic charms of our ambiguous narrator as well. But their relationship is much more than just sex. They discuss literature and compare notes on the classics. The narrator teaches German literature and works as a translator. She/he learns a bit of Yiddish from Herman. The two characters thus seem to learn from each other and become teachers of each other, both cerebrally and physically. There's a repeated analogy between the act of sex and the act of reading texts ("Herman...devoured my books by day and me by night"). It's almost as if erotic desire and the desire to bond by discussing books are one and the same for our narrator and Herman.

THE MERCY ROOM is a mystery on some level, because as a reader I kept wanting to solve the mystery of the narrator's gender. Rozier's novel is a high-concept thwarting of the reader's desire to pinpoint the gender of the narrator. And this is a difficult balancing act that the author handles quite well. I found myself having to constantly question my own assumptions about the clues as to the narrator's gender. The author teases the reader and frustrates attempts to get the final answer. I had to give in to the fuzzy ambivalence, and there's something aesthetically satisfying and complete in the gender issue never being resolved. I longed to know the gender, and yet it was ultimately perversely pleasurable that I was denied closure on the issue.

There are less satisfying things about the telling of the tale, however. In particular, the author seems to go slack in two scenes--the first being a suicide early on in the story, and the second being a murder near the end. The tone of the book is one of admirable restraint, for the most part, but at times, such as in these two scenes, the restraint seems more like glibness. In fact, the entire relationship between the narrator and the person who commits suicide seems unconvincing, aside from the suicide scene itself (actually the narrator comes upon the body after the suicide has been committed, and her/his chilly demeanor when describing the scene seems false to me, even though she/he is remembering something that happened long ago). Likewise, the murder later in the book seems too easy and pat and miraculously unmessy.

But the open-ended gender of the narrator makes for an interesting reading experience. THE MERCY ROOM shows no mercy to the reader who wants to put the final piece in the puzzle of the narrator's gender, but the arousal of curiosity is an art in and of itself. To pose a question similar to the one I began this review with, Is it possible to enjoy reading about someone whose gender remains unknown? The answer is yes, although one wishes THE MERCY ROOM was as meticulous in its exploration of the narrator's feelings as it is in its cat-and-mouse teasing regarding the narrator's sex. 

Classic Revisited
book cover - THE END OF THE AFFAIR THE END OF THE AFFAIR by Graham Greene. Penguin, 1975 (first published by William Heinemann Ltd., 1951). Paperback. 186 pages of the text of the novel. Estimated length of the novel: around 75,000 words.

Sudden breakups are always painful, no matter how conflicted the relationship was. The moment of being cut off by someone you've loved is one of the most difficult things you can go through. Even if you've seen the end coming and you are the one cutting the other person off, it hurts and the hurt lingers.

Graham Greene's THE END OF THE AFFAIR is the story of the dissolution of an adulterous relationship. Maurice (pronounced "Morris") Bendrix, a critically acclaimed British novelist on the brink of major fame, becomes obsessed with the beautiful Sarah Miles.

Bendrix is single and rents an apartment on a small park (a "common") in London. On the opposite side of the park live Sarah and her husband, Henry. Henry Miles works as a civil servant in an apparently lucrative and prestigious position in the government bureaucracy, and his house attests to his success in both the Ministry of Pensions and later in the Ministry of Home Security. But the problem is, Henry is something of a bore. After ten years of marriage, Sarah sees him as a friend rather than a lover (he seems to provide "home security" for her but little else). The rakish Ladies' man Bendrix instantly sparks Sarah's romantic interest.

With the air raids and bombings going on outside the rooms where the adulterous lovers meet for trysts, Bendrix and Sarah engage in a smoldering and passionate affair that takes them through the darkest days of World War II. But the war conflict outside mirrors the jealousies, suspicions, doubts, and spiritual struggles (both for and against belief in a higher power) that erupt explosively from time to time in their tormented triangular relationship. Greene's depiction of the affair and its emotional aftershocks for the trio of characters is intensely engaging. It is arguably the most nuanced and probing novel focusing on an affair in the canon of postwar literature.

Unsurprisingly, given its cinematic potential, THE END OF THE AFFAIR has been adapted into an excellent film. The director Neil Jordan's hypnotically sensual movie of the same title, released in 1999, contains riveting performances from the three principals--Ralph Fiennes as Bendrix, Stephen Rea as the cuckolded Henry, and, most memorably, Julianne Moore as Sarah. Her spiritual crisis is imbued with an erotic energy that is palpable. Her underplaying is the perfect foil for the more theatrical twists in the plot. She almost seems to melt into celluloid before our eyes. Roger Pratt's cinematography eschews realism, creating a a haunting, dreamlike world that captures the ephemeral quality of memories played and replayed multiple times in the recesses of the psyche. Greene's book is mostly a series of recollections, told in first person by Bendrix and by Sarah's discovered diary, so the visual dynamic of the film--often shot in heavy rain, fog, dust, debris, deep shadow, with pivotal scenes repeated and shot from different angles--seems to suggest the haziness of multiple perspectives.

There is an earlier black-and-white film version of the book from 1955, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Van Johnson as Bendrix, Peter Cushing as Henry, and Deborah Kerr as Sarah. The 1955 version is inferior to the 1999 version and doesn't have the sensual immediacy of the later film. But the 1955 version is not completely without merit. For example, there're more dialogue dedicated to Sarah's spiritual struggle in the earlier film, as there is in the book, and this important element is underemphasized in the script for the Julianne Moore version (this may be due to Jordan's radical alteration to Greene's character Richard Smythe, with whom she does a lot of her wavering and soul-searching). The earlier film is also more severe in its treatment of the later moments of the lovers' relationship, whereas the 1999 film inserts a sentimental escapade at a seaside resort (in a complete departure from the book) that borders on schmaltz.

And neither the 1955 script nor the 1999 script does full justice to the Henry Miles character, who figures much more prominently in Greene's novel, especially the last third. The theme of male bonding takes center stage. With Sarah out of the picture (in body if not in spirit), Henry invites Bendrix to move into his house, and the two of them set up a Boston marriage between two men. Greene's text is sensitive to the ways in which a seemingly passive character manipulates situations to get his own needs met at the expense of others. It eventually dawned on me as I was reading the novel that Henry ultimately seems to be the one calling the shots on some level. Another deficiency of the film versions is that the prepossessing charm of Bendrix is downplayed almost to extinction. The Bendrix of the movie versions doesn't seem to be having the degree of caddish fun that Greene's character has.

There are minor flaws in Greene's book as well--such as some plot twists involving miraculous healing that might have been more convincing and some backstory about Sarah that is revealed by supporting characters who needed more development. Nevertheless, THE END OF THE AFFAIR stands as one of the most compelling portraits of a love triangle that has ever been published. And in the Western literary tradition, in which love triangles are rampant, that's high praise. Graham Greene, according to his biographers, lived through some quite interesting long-term adulterous affairs himself, and he apparently was able to use bits and pieces of the raw stuff of his experience for the purpose of sublime imaginative storytelling.

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