Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter: A Review
“Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim.” — Graham Greene
The great writers capture insights that many have experienced but in a new way that makes other writers think, “I wish I had written that.”
Somewhere around my mid-thirties I took an interest in the novels of Graham Greene, in part because of the themes and in part because of his great skill as a writer. On my personal bookshelf you will find The Third Man, The Tenth Man, The End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case and The Human Factor among others.
The stories take place in a variety of interesting locations about the world — Vienna, Vietnam, Mexico, Africa, Havana, France, Haiti. Meaning, dignity and ethics are recurring themes. In short, whatever the external setting, it is the internal landscapes of the heart that Greene lays bare.
Only later did I learn that Greene was a British intelligence officer, as was Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carre and, some say, Somerset Maugham.
The Heart of the Matter is the story of Henry Scobie, a police officer in British West Africa during the World War II era. His life is constrained, or defined, by moral complications, not least of which is the fact that his intellectual wife Louise hates it here in this remote place.
Despite their lifeless marriage their Catholic faith keeps them knit together. Drop in some additional characters — an inspector and spy who falls in love with Louise and shares her appreciation for poetry, and a young woman who Scobie befriends, and so finds his weakening faith challenged — along with other ethical compromises, and we have a story that reveals much about human nature.
In his 1971 autobiography A Sort of Life, Greene shares that on several occasions he was so despondent that he played Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver. In other words he was personally familiar with the internal terrain Scobie inhabited. (He titled his book A Sort of Life because autobiographies are always selective as regards what they leave out and put in. Annie Dillard made the same observation.)
People respond differently to places. Scobie’s wife hated the colony where they were living. He, on the other had, felt this way:
“Why […] do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, while on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.”
Happiness is another theme in the story. Scobie observes that “no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.”
Scobie, in an effort to do something right, carries out something wrong. As the saying goes, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Caring too much is Scobie’s Achilles heel. As a result, “He entered the territory of lies without a passport for return.”
At some point Greene makes this heartbreaking observation:
“It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of a man have been carried out in fewer years?”
Potent and insightful book about life. Recommended. Five stars.