For the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene. I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around £4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.
I think I read almost all of Greene’s novels and travel writings way back in the 1970s and 80s, which is so long ago that I could probably write a one-sentence synopsis of each book but no more. While I remember Greene as a very cerebral writer whose novels make profound statements about the purpose of human existence, perhaps his greatest legacy is in the cinema, where so many of his books inspired films such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Gun for Sale, The Honorary Consul and others too. Quite a powerful list of credits for someone who wrote complex novels in which literary quality is a major feature.
And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him. I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.
Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police. Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor. Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business. Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.
Scobie feels himself responsible for Louise’s state of mind. She is a depressive, with little to keep her occupied from day-to-day. In today’s terms Scobie has moved into a position of co-dependency where his own happiness depends on his ability to keep Louise happy. Having lost her only child to sickness, Louise’s life revolves around her love of her religion, her love of poetry and the vagaries of her social interactions with the other colony women. Scobie and Louise now have little in common but Scobie is only at peace so long as he can keep Louise from sinking into despair.
He could even work better while she talked than when she was silent, for so long as his ear-drum registered those tranquil sounds—the gossip of the club, comments on the sermons preached by Father Rank, the plot of a new novel, even complaints about the weather—he knew that all was well. It was silence that stopped him working—silence in which he might look up and see tears waiting in the eyes for his attention.
This relationship continues to be explored throughout the book, giving rise to some classic Greene insights into human relationships,
If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him—that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.
I have never had to live with a depressed person but Greene is adept at expressing the mental anguish of those who have to come home to face another’s despair:
People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery. He forgot Fraser: he forgot everything but the scene ahead: I shall go in and say, ‘Good evening, sweet heart,’ and she’ll say, ‘Good evening, darling. What kind of a day?’ and I’ll talk and talk, but all the time I shall know I’m coming nearer to the moment when I shall say, ‘What about you, darling?’ and let the misery in.
When Wilson, a new officer joins the colony, Scobie invites him to dinner and is delighted to find that he and Louise have a mutual love of poetry. The young officer seems quite taken with Louise and it is a mark of the state of their marriage, that Scobie encourages their relationship and is pleased to see his wife going for walks with her new friend.
At the same time, we read of Scobie’s dealings with Yusef, a Syrian trader and black marketeer who is intent on embroiling Scobie in his schemes. A man of considerable wealth and influence, readers realise immediately that Yusef has the potential to be Scobie’s downfall, with whom Scobie should “sup with a long spoon”. Scobie is well able to manage the relationship with Yusef, but when Louise needs to go for an expensive sabbatical in South Africa, Scobie turns to Yusuf for a fixed interest loan with no strings (this last feature an impossible dream of course).
We now discover that Louise’s friend Wilson is an intelligence officer whose business is to report on every official in the colony and before long, Scobie finds himself compromised by his relationship with Yusef. There is also a small matter of Scobie’s developing relationship with a young ship-wreck survivor called Helen Rolf, who Scobie helps while Louise is away in South Africa.
In a sense, the details of the story are secondary to Greene’s profound exploration of religious faith as experienced by Louise and Henry Scobie. Louise is the classic “cradle Catholic” with a simple devotion to the Church and its rules. Scobie however, as a convert sees far more into the moral complexities of real life. When Helen, the shipwrecked young woman that she finds it easy to forget her dead husband, Scobie comforts her with words which reveal far more about his own marriage than any counsel offered by the church,
It’s the same with everybody, I think. When we say to someone, “I can’t live without you,” what we really mean is, “I can’t live feeling you may be in pain, unhappy, in want.” That’s all it is. When they are dead our responsibility ends. There’s nothing more we can do about it. We can rest in peace.
The book progresses as it must to its inevitable conclusion (which I won’t describe here) and by the end I was left feeling how few of today’s writers tackle such complex themes in such short novels. I haven’t touched on many of the other characters, events and episodes which are covered here, but am struck by Greene’s economy of words which enable him to paint a vast canvas in a few brush-strokes. I can see I’m going to be reading quite a few more of those Kindle Vintage Greenes.