Friday, June 17, 2016

Graham Greene

Despite the praise that's been heaped upon The Heart of the Matter, I must say: it didn't move me - much. 

For one, the plot of Greene's novel seemed somehow predictable: a sallow colonial officer, tempted by love, confronted by conniving locals. It was as if I'd read the book before. In fact, the plot's not so dissimilar from Orwell's Burmese Days, which was published about a decade before. 

But more than that, I found Heart to be unbalanced, uneven. About two-thirds of the way through, Greene initiates a decidedly Catholic interpretation of events. Not that I have an inherent issue with that: but the pivot comes out of nowhere, and Scobie's sin, his adultery is suddenly cast through a religious lens. 

That, as I say, was unexpected: not least because, until that point, Greene had assembled a traditional narrative, without much by way of interior dialogue or anguish. That change comes as Scobie contemplates his end. Dialogue with God, the role of prayer: these and other dynamics disrupt the rhythm set earlier in the novel. And it's interesting: once Scobie meets his end, Greene transitions back to this rhythm, this more traditional narrative structure. It's as if order has been restored: both in terms of anguish as well as in terms of literature. 

To be clear: it's not that I disliked Heart, because there were sections toward the middle that were quite well done. I think, ultimately, it was the sorrow of it all that got to me, and the tendency by Greene to relegate human error to the realm of sin. For me, error is a form - however misguided - of action. There's a fine line between the two. 

In the end, Scobie presents his sacrifice as an attempt to reduce suffering in the world: but again, for me, it does the opposite - it allows suffering to hasten a sort of religious sacrifice. And this is a message to which I cannot altogether relate. 

The last word is reserved for Greene:

"...There seemed to be no reason so far as she could see to deny anyone anything any more for ever." 

Dire, indeed. 


  1. Hi Jesse,
    I haven't read The Heart of the Matter since college. But I remember the sadness, which I found appealing (adolescence, I suppose, though it is also, for me, the appeal of Brideshead Revisited). We Catholics are often thought to suffer from a sense of guilt. Not this one. But a sense of sadness over what Philip Larkin called "the good not done, the love not given time, torn off unused," that is something else. That is for me what sin amounts to.

  2. Thanks for the commentary and insights, Frank. As always, very well appreciated. --Jesse