KDS (decemberthirty) wrote,

The sky wept endlessly around him; he had the sense of wounds that never healed.

In The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene tells the story of Henry Scobie, a police officer stationed in an unnamed British colony on the west coast of Africa during WWII. He is a lone honest man surrounded by spies, smugglers, and corrupt officials, and he defines himself by his honesty. Scobie is stuck in a loveless marriage to Louise; he pities her and feels he must do whatever he can to make her happy, but he longs only to do his work in peace. The drama of the book comes when Scobie's sense of responsibility for Louise comes into conflict with his honesty. He borrows money from questionable sources to send her to South Africa where she hopes she will be happier, and then falls into an affair with a young widow while Louise is away. Lies pile on top of lies, and Scobie begins a long spiral toward his downfall.

There were moments of absolute brilliance in The Heart of the Matter. More than once when I came to the end of a chapter, I had to close the book for a moment to absorb what I had read before going on. There were gorgeous sentences, unexplained details that were compelling in their strangeness, perfectly sketched minor characters, and insights that felt penetrating as I read them. Yet the parts, in this case, seemed greater than the whole. The book just didn't move me.

Some of that, I know, is due to me rather than to any failing of Greene's. My apathy towards all matters of religion is so strong that I can almost appreciate books that hinge on crises of faith. I found the plot totally engrossing for the first two-thirds or so of the book, but that only made it more disappointing when all of the intriguing and worldly elements of Scobie's tangled web--diamond smuggling and blackmail and Wilson the malevolent spy--fell away and were replaced with pages and pages of Scobie agonizing over his Catholicism and how he has damned himself by taking communion without making a good confession first. Sigh. Who cares? Scobie, obviously, and Greene, but not me. It didn't help that Scobie's tortured Catholicism seemed to come almost out of nowhere late in the book; I hardly knew he had a relationship with god until he was tying himself in knots over losing it.

Greene did a better job conveying Scobie's inner life in regard to Louise and Helen, the two women he is involved with over the course of the story. Scobie seems unable to feel love without it eventually congealing into pity; unlike his religious beliefs, this characteristic feels authentic and complicated. Still, I was annoyed by the treatment of the women. Scobie can't bear the thought of causing unhappiness for either Louise or Helen, but he seems to believe it's impossible that either of them might actually be happier if he left them alone to lead their own lives. It's one thing for a character to believe this; the fact that Greene seems to believe it too is a much bigger problem.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Heart of the Matter is Greene's handling of setting. His portrayal of a narrow, gossipy colonial society reminded me of A Passage to India, but Greene's Africa is more sordid and malignant that Forster's India. The very air of the novel feels unhealthy, and certain scenes are so vivid in their strangeness that the story takes on the feeling of a malarial fever dream.

Perhaps Graham Greene is just not the author for me. The only other book of his that I've read is The End of the Affair, and though I liked The Heart of the Matter better, both books had some of the same problems: a strong beginning that lost steam in the final chapters, an artificial imposition of religion on the story, characters that I can find interesting but can't quite care about...
Tags: graham greene
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