Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

greene heart matterFor 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.

Street scene - Sierra Leone

Street scene – Sierra Leone

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.

15 comments to Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

  • Similar to yourself, it is a long time since I immersed myself in Greene. I wonder how much, if any his sideline as a cinema reviewer affected the popularity of his books with filmmakers. This was my favourite only first journey through Greeneland.

  • I haven’t read Greene in ages, but do remember enjoying his writing immensely. I’d forgotten about how many of his works were turned to film – wow! Heart of the Matter sounds like a book that I must read. I’m glad you wrote about Greene – it reminded me of what a great writer he was.

  • Brian Joseph

    I have found it to be a very rewarding experience to go back and reread great works that I read when I was young.

    I have not read Greene but I want to. This one sounds like it has characters and plot that would very much appeal to me.

  • Like you, I read Greene many years ago and when I was young and probably not in a position to fully appreciate what he was about. All I remember about this particular novel — if I’m not misremembering — is Scobie (I believe) thinking how in such a hot climate how unappealing the joining of two bodies was (“that anyone should care”…something or other).

    Greene wrote about sex a lot, as I recall, and sex was the chief, almost the only, source of sin in Catholicism in my Catholic experience back then. From your excellent synopsis, it sounds as if there is a great deal more to him that I missed or didn’t have the maturity at the time to understand.

    But I do have to confess to an impatience with converts, Waugh being another, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in converts to other religions: they get to cherry-pick the best of the religion while the others, what I insist on calling the “real” Catholics or “real” Jews or whatever know what the religion is about for the vast majority of those born into it. There was appallingly little, for instance, in my Catholic experience, of Christian charity (at least not until John XXIII made his brief appearance); a good deal of Judeophobia even though the world was well aware of what the Nazis had got up to a few years earlier; an obsession with Catholicism being the “true faith”; constant harping on sin and hell, with terrifying stories of the torments to be endured there, even for indulging in one fleeting sexual thought…. In fact, it was a very self-obsessed culture, with a huge burden of responsibility laid on very, very young shoulders for their soul’s salvation from hellfire, and that almost always endured for sexual sinning.

    I mention this because of what I said about converts being able to avoid all this and get to enjoy (if that word can be used, especially in the case of Graham Greene) only the uplifting parts, though Greene did seem to take to the sexual aversion naturally, didn’t he.

    Despite my cavils, I look forward now to rereading Greene thanks to your review.

    -Tom Hubschman

  • This is one of my very favourite books, Tom, so much so that I re-borrow the audio book read with such perfectly controlled anguish by Michael Kitchen almost every year.

  • HI Lisa – I think I’ve been away from Greene for far too long. Now they’re all available on Kindle at a reasonable price, I’m going to work my through them all again. I definitely see things in them now which I missed years ago. Wonderful stuff.

  • Hello Thomas. Very interesting comment – thank you for that. My experience of going on a theology course led by Catholics (I am not Catholic) is that the older Catholics had no idea how much their religion had changed over the years. Despite the apparent dogmatism of the Vatican, the actual implementation of the faith seems to be far more pastoral in nature than in days gone by. Many people were quite astonished to learn that Catholics can now marry outside the faith without being criticised for it by the Church for example. A new convert will learn from the new Catechism, which is a very different document than former versions. Like everything else, Catholicism changes, and as John Henry Newman wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”.

  • Hi Brian – if you’ve not read any Graham Greene, I think you’re in for a treat.

  • Hi Nadia – thanks for visiting. It was certainly an uplifting experience for me and after a period when poor books queued up to be read and discarded it felt so good to read a few paragraphs and sigh with satisfaction at the quality of the writing.

  • Hi Seamus. Thanks for visiting. You could well be right about his job as a cinema reviewer being a key factor. He also wrote film scrripts apparently.

  • A coincidence – I posted on ‘Travels With My ‘Aunt’ today. ‘My favorite Greene is ‘Brighton Rock’, but ‘The Heart of the Matter’ is right up there with about a dozen of his other novels.

  • Amazing – I’ve left a message on yours

  • Peter McShane

    It’s always fascinating to re-enter Greeneland. I think this novel and The Power and the Glory are his finest achievements. They resonate strongly if, like me, you were brought up as a Catholic, and have wrestled with its tenets ever since.

  • Kat

    Great review! I do want to read this, and I know we have multiple copies even, but somehow Greene has never appealed to me as he does to my husband. Greene reminds me a bit of Maugham, with all the exotic settings, though the Catholicisism is one reason Greene has never appealed to me too much. In The End of the Affair, well, did that ending have to happen? (I’m born a Catholic but…)

  • Hello Peter – nice to hear from you again! Thanks for the comment. The Power and the Glory is the next Greene on my list. Hope all is well with you, Tom

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