Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

"It isn't beauty that we love, he thought, it's failure--the failure to stay young forever, the failure of nerves, the failure of the body. Beauty is like success: we can't love it for long."

Despite being an unabashed Graham Greene fan-boy who absolutely adores many of his novels and style of writing--elegant prose, vivid descriptions, the use of irony, pithy aphorisms, accomplished story-telling with interesting and complex characters--it pains me to admit that I found The Heart of the Matter (1948) to be extremely disappointing. Don't get me wrong, it is not a terrible read since there are some redeeming qualities (the writing is superb, as to be expected) but this is one of the author's weakest efforts, which often comes across as a trite platitude about religious hypocrisy and colonialism--two recurring motifs that appear frequently in his works. 

The story revolves around a veteran colonial officer named Scobie (I kept calling him Scooby-Doo, heh) who works in an unnamed West African colony during WWII. Bound to his duty as an officer and Catholic faith, he is unhappily married to a snobbish wife and yearns to send her away so that he can finally achieve peace of mind in perpetual solitude. She tends to be only concerned with socializing with other foreign elites, drinking a lot of gin (then again, most of the characters in the novel are always drinking gin or some alcoholic beverage) and flirting with other men. On the other hand, her husband works long hours maintaining order in an "uncivilized" land where crime and deviance is abundant, especially diamond smuggling. The story finally picks up some steam when Scobie gets himself tied up with a garrulous and devious Syrian named Yusef in order to get the necessary funds to send his wife away. Good riddance. Perhaps it would have been easier for him to get a divorce but Scobie is a Catholic and this religion has some very strict marriage doctrines. Soon after his wife is out of the picture, Scobie finds himself attracted to a young female convalescent and they eventually start an affair. The horror! Adultery is a terrible sin and similar to other Greene novels, the protagonist finds himself torn between love (or is it merely lust?) and his faith. Unfortunately, just as Scobie and his new lover are beginning to get serious with each other, his wife suddenly returns. Surprise! Now Scobie finds himself caught between two women, overwhelmed with guilt and sin. Not to mention, that devious Syrian won't get off his back and there is something very strange about the new government official in town named Wilson...

Greene sets up a very entertaining premise but the story is tedious, stagnant without any meaningful progression; the characters dull and uninspired. Much criticism towards Greene has been directed towards his misogynistic portrayals of women and while I do not always agree with this particular sentiment, this novel unequivocally depicts women as feeble and completely subservient to men, especially the character of Helen, Scobie's mistress. At one point she even agrees to be his "whore" if it will make him happy (her words, not mine). Even though Greene will likely never win over feminists anytime soon, his depiction of hyper-masculinity should be considered within the historical time period that he was writing: even though women from the 1940's had gained a tremendous amount of rights and independence than the previous generation at the turn of the century, they still lived in a male hegemonic society (perhaps one could argue that this is still true today in the 21st century but that is another can of worms). Please let it be noted that I am in no way defending the use of gender inequality often found in Greene's writing but merely stating the importance of historical context. 

Since the protagonist and the rest of the characters are poorly developed and unconvincing in their respected roles, it is difficult to form any sympathy towards them at all. Thus, the story is rendered inconsequential and drowns in its own sententiousness. Only two minor characters seem to be have any remote semblance of  authenticity: Harris and Wilson. This would be a much better novel if these two gentlemen were the main characters instead of Scobie since they were one of the few delightful aspects that actually made the story tolerable. Their distinctive personalities compliment one another, they each have interesting back-stories that are not fully explored and their relationship together is comical. Also, is it just me or is Harris subtlety portrayed as a homosexual in his flamboyant behavior and strange attraction towards Wilson? So, the story would then be a buddy comedy about a British government agent and his gay best friend fighting crime and corruption in Africa during WWII. Sounds like a blockbuster to me! 

Furthermore, Greene is unable to effectively tie together all of the loose narrative threads, which left me scratching my head in confusion and disbelief. Not to mention, the climax of the story is baffling in its absurdity. Scobie's marriage, his love for Helen and Catholic faith all hang in the balance but I will not spoil the ending. Let's just say that his "final decision" is ludicrous and laughably unwarranted. If only Greene had the decency to give Scobie the foresight to solve his mid-life crisis sooner so that the reader does not have to suffer through interminable pages of him wrestling with his inner demons. I actually had to force myself to finish the last section of the novel but at least there was a sense of relief at the end: I could finally move on to read something else now. Perhaps I am slightly bias but despite all of these faults, I cannot bring myself to give this book less than two stars because Greene saves it from being a total disaster with his captivating writing skills. Nonsensical plot aside, he has the tendency to infuse the prose with profound metaphysical maxims of philosophical ideas and ruminations about love, relationships, death, religion: life. Here are a few:

"He had a dim idea that perhaps if one delayed enough, things were taken out of one's hands altogether by death" (23).

"The word 'pity' is used as loosely as the word 'love' : the terrible promiscuous passion which so few" (159).

“Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, selfishness, evil -- or else an absolute ignorance.” 

“We are all resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to.”  (242)

I wonder if this novel will grow on me with time, but as of this moment, it remains a middle-tier work by an otherwise consistent author and not one that I would not recommend to those unfamiliar with his body of work.

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jason, I know you posted this a long time ago, but I just had my first experience with Greene, and I wanted to compare notes. Yeah, I didn't love this either. Based on your comments though, it seems I need to give Greene another chance...some other title. Any recommendations? My review http://tinyurl.com/lytlv8x