Book two for my summer book study is Graham Greene‘s The Heart of the Matter. We’re supposed to read the novel two or three times. I just finished my first reading and while I doubted this could compare with Brideshead Revisited, this blew me away. From the start, Greene’s style impressed me.
Set in a sweltering unnamed British colony in West Africa, readers meet Henry Scobie, an average police officer who’s passed over for a promotion, which affects his wife’s social standing in this expat enclave. He is a loyal and sensitive husband who’s unable to help his wife, Louise, who suffers from the snobbish clique that is her only possible choice for friendship. The story seems like a simple slice of a humid, exotic life amongst expats, but it’s more.
I loved Scobie’s insights and thoughts about all the people around him, his own choices, Catholicism and God. And I respected how Scobie could always see more than one side of an issue, how he could put up with schemers, whiners, and losers. The only person he’s unable to forgive is himself, which leads to tragedy. The story of these rather ordinary people in a nothing town takes unexpected turns sparked by small changes and bad decisions.
An article in Sojourners magazine Deryle Davis illuminates Greene’s views:
Graham Greene always liked the idea of damnation. His contemporary George Orwell joked that, in Greene’s view, hell was little more than a “high-class nightclub” for distinguished sinners. Throughout the late English writer’s long career (Greene’s centennial was celebrated last year), he depicted many characters who viewed, and perhaps justified, their own sin as a vehicle for connecting to others. It was corruption that seemed to give the world a kind of identity, even a uniting principle. His characters lived and understood themselves in a fallen world where martyrdom was often the cost of salvation. No wonder Greene took French writer (and fellow Catholic) Charles Peguy‘s famous observation to heart that it is sinners and saints who best understand Christianity. In the existential landscape known as “Greeneland,” the two are inverses of each other, both attesting to the stricken state of creation itself.
The sinners far outnumber the saints in Greene’s work, however, and even those sometimes perceived to be saints, such as the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, are in reality very fallible creatures. (Greene himself said that Scobie had been “corrupted by pity,” a kind of misplaced compassion, that eventually led to his suicide.) Sin, for the novelist, was compelling because it was insidious and universal and had a kind of artistic appeal. If the lower depths of Dante’s hell were frozen, Greene’s were often damp, subtropical, and inflamed with the heat of human desire. His characters live out their purgatory in places like West Africa, Indochina, or Central America, exotic locales that offer both distraction from the pursuits of the soul and also enforced isolation with it.*
The ending is surprising and so masterfully done. Greene’s talent is that he can get you to care so much about people who don’t seem to be all that interesting. If you’d met these people in real life, you’d forget them after a week.
*Davis, Deryl. “Instruments of Grace.” Sojourners Magazine. 01 Jul. 2005: 38. eLibrary. Web. 30 Jun. 2011.