Paul Bryant's Reviews > The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
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Feb 27, 2010

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Read from February 27 to March 09, 2010


*** Spoilers ahoy but we're all friends aren't we?****

As our tale opens, Major Henry Scobie is stuck in a you never close your eyes anymore when you kiss my lips type situation with Mrs Major Henry Scobie aka Louise and there’s a big thought bubble coming out of both their heads which says Where did our love go? Well, after 15 years, what do you expect darlin? Then this new character strolls in called Wilson and he clocks Louise and he’s all there she was just a walkin down the African colony singin doo wah diddy diddy she looked good she looked fine and I nearly lost my mind and before you can say another pink gin dahling? he’s telling her Mrs Major Scobie, my world is empty without you and she’s now then Wilson, you cahn’t hurry lohve, no, you just got to wait. Dahling.
So she decides she wants to visit South Africa, as you do in the middle of World War Two, because it’s automatically sunshine there. So then the Major’s like what? No! Love is here and now you’re gone what a bitch but then this shipwreck happened, not a metaphor a real one, and the young Keira Knightley (I think we could get Keira - couldn't we?) winds up widowed and prostrate in front of him and it’s oh what a night late September in 42, what a laydee, what a night and he’s a bit Dawn Go Away I’m No Good For You but she props herself up on her one good elbow and says stay...just a little bit alongerrrr, another pink gin Major? And as soon as she’s vertical again love is like an itching in her heart tearin it apart and she gets Major Henry to scratch it which he does with aplomb.
And the pink gin rains down for forty days and forty nights. But even though tourism must have been discouraged during a period of total war, Louise aka Mrs Major Henry Scobie sails back from South Africa and she’s all let’s hang on to what we’ve got and his mind gets all messed up, every day he’s falling in and out of love with the one or the other, but because of the big religious thing he has going on (I should have mentioned that) he’s living in shame. He’s careful but he’s waiting for that moment when Mrs Major Louise will tell him as he dons his solar topee and heads off towards the nissen huts baby baby I’m aware of where you go each time you leave my door - I watch you walk down the African colony knowing your other love you’ll meet and so forth. He knows it’s in the post, then there’s Keira feeling like a rag doll telling him one minute go on, get outta my life you don’t really love me you just keep me hanging on then the next minute ooooh dob me one Major I hear a symphony coming out of your fleshly parts you knows I do . Poor guy doesn’t know if he’s on his elbow or his arse and the religion appears to be no help. Anyway he decides to walk like a man for a change and take drastic action. I shan’t give the ending away but I will say this much – it turns out that big girls don’t cry much. If at all.


I got to feeling a bit guilty about the above review, thinking well, maybe Graham Greene deserves to be taken just a little more seriously, because, God knows, his books are serious stuff. So I must say that this novel is pretty good stuff and even quite compelling, but I had a crucial problem with it. The central crisis, the horrible dilemma he contrives for his man Scobie to find himself in, is religious. I can’t discuss it without giving the whole show away, so **big fat spoiler warning in dazzly orange lights** . Scobie believes to the core of his very self that if he takes Communion without having confessed his sins and received absolution and – crucially – without a genuine desire not to commit the said sin again – then he will be damned to hell for eternity. Ironical twists abound, as you may well expect – the woman he’s committing his adulterous sins with and with whom he fully intends to continue, because he loves her, is a non-believer and thinks his convictions are quaint. He doesn’t love her less for that - in his eyes God hasn’t, for inscrutable reasons, given her the grace to see the truth. So, he’s driven to go to Mass with his wife to avoid her being suspicious. And go he does, and gets his soul damned to hell as far as he's concerned. For all eternity! He says : “What I’ve done is far worse than murder- that’s an act, a blow, a stab, a shot : it’s over and it’s done., but I’m carrying my corruption around with me.” I mean, really? Is GG seriously saying that going to Mass and taking communion if you’re still intending to carry on sleeping with your mistress is far worse than murder? Really? That’s crazy you know. So if I can't take that very serious point in this serious book seriously, then maybe I the Non-Believer have to turn away muttering "It's Chinatown, Jack, leave it" like a gumshoe too far over his head in other people's business.
Of course it turns out his wife pretty much knew all about the affair so this abandoned act was really not needed. So there was the irony. There was I say plenty of that sloshing around.
However, I could read it as a novel which was an intensely observed case of mental illness and gross self-delusion. Scobie is about as wrong as a person could be about the situation he finds himself in, so maybe GG is implying that he’s wrong about God too, that the ugly version of God Scobie appears to believe in which God is half cruel puppetmaster and half lascivious voyeur of human pleasures and sins and repentances, a very repulsive version, is as wrong as his presumptions that both his wife and his mistress actually care about him. The speed with which they drape replacement male companions about their persons after Scobie’s demise appears to give the lie to that one.
This novel hangs in the air like cordite after you’ve finished it with its awful pathetic denouement. So, it's pretty good.


While I was reading it something bugged me which is a general point about novels. Authors like to drop nuggets of wisdom into their prose and sometimes I think they should be told to stop because their nuggets aren’t actually wise at all. Examples from this book – these are from the narrative, not from dialogue, so they’re as it were spoken by GG himself –

“Happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness” (p87) [who says it is? I don’t - do you?:]

“He listened with the intense interest one feels in a stranger’s life , the interest the young mistake for love.” (p126) [oh yeah, do the young mistake it like you say? or would they think this intense interest in a stranger’s life was merely really creepy?:]

“Every monologue sooner or later becomes a discussion” (p242) [no it doesn’t:]

“We are all of us resigned to death : it’s life we aren’t resigned to.” (p242 – two on one page!) [and, er – no, I’m NOT resigned to death AT ALL, where did he get that idea from?:]

Possibly this nugget-dropping is an old-fashioned… fashion… which modern writers don’t do. I haven’t made a scientific survey. But if they haven’t stopped nuggeting, they should because it’s not big and it’s seldom clever.

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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Tara I read this when I was 19. It struck all sorts of good chords for me, at the time. I should reread this.

David What's a solar toupee? Maybe Scobie-Do is a reincarnation of the Sun King. Or the whole novel is just a fever-dream of Madame Pompadour after she was bitten by one of the spiders nesting in her beehive.

Paul Bryant It's that hat all the white guys wore. Gets a name check in Noel Coward's Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Not often seen on the streets of Baltimore, I'd hazard.

message 4: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander Refreshing review---never thought of viewing GG through a Valli and Co lens. Made me laugh out loud---thanks!

message 5: by Paul (last edited Mar 11, 2010 02:26PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks... you know what you should do now... vote vote vote! (he said shamelessly)

message 6: by Jen (new)

Jen Greene does have a habit of leaving nuggets lying around his prose. I haven't read this book, but have read four other Greene works. The fourth nugget on your review doesn't seem too bad, though. If you just put your lovin' hand out to it, it might meet you.

message 7: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Apparently it is sola toupee! I had no idea:

Continuing on in general cluelessness this morning, I was MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH this review thinking 'But this is strange, I remember this book completely differently' before I realized I was, in fact, thinking of the Human Factor. //FACEDESK So, now you have RUINED Heart of the Matter for me, but I voted for you anyway.

I think (being v ignorant of religion) (God I'm just bent on confessing my stupidity today) the thing about receiving communion in a state of mortal sin is that it's supposed to join you in union with Christ - it's not us being added to God, but God being added to us, if that makes sense. If you take communion without being in a state of grace, or having confessed, or without genuine contrition you are actually committing a sacrilege - I think mainly because of transubstantion, the wine and wafer become the body of Christ &c &c.

I personally think most of this is fiddly early Church law and has not that much to do with actual Christianity (did everyone confess before the Last Supper? noooo) but when I bring that up actual Catholics get cross and tell me I'm missing the point. So yeah, I have the same problem you do in that with Greene sometimes I have the feeling he's telling me I'm missing the point and I'm like, no, there is no point to miss, but then again, I'm agnostic ('You had no faith to lose And you know it' - thanks, St Bob).

I like the idea Greene is saying maybe that kind of view of God is mistaken - I don't know. I really shall be disappointed if after your review I read this and there are in fact no pink gins.

Krok Zero I like Greene's "nuggets," actually -- they kept me interested in this one when my attention might otherwise have wandered.

James "This novel hangs in the air like cordite after you’ve finished it with its awful pathetic denouement."

Well said.

message 10: by Kip (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kip This novel is written in third person subjective/limited, so the 'nuggets' you hate aren't just the pronouncements of the author (although they may be and probably are (in part) in the case of this novel and this author), but within the context of the text they are specifically the opinions of the character at that moment in time. They don't have to be universally true and I don't understand why you'd want them to be. You may disagree with these "nuggets" (nothing wrong in that), but that's just your subjective view point too. You seem to dismiss them in greater absolute terms than GG delivers them. They're true enough for that character (even if they are wrong) and possibly the author and other readers. Many were certainly true for me. It seems to me you're not engaging with the novel as it is but as you'd want it to be. Just saying "no they don't" seems not to be understanding the novel or to be frank to even attempting to understand it - and it certainly doesn't convince me. A novel is not written to be agreed with or liked. Heart of the Matter is, what I call, a philosophical novel: the story, plot, characters, etc are largely irrelevant - it is a place where GG explores his own concerns. Indeed, the novel is GG having a "discussion" with himself and is very much not a "monologue." I doubt even GG agreed with every word of it. He was a cynic and a Catholic which is obviously going to cause much food for thought - this is why his novels are so good imo. I'd suggest that all intelligent non-dogmatic monologues become discussions, as a monologue that doesn't evolve into something more is just monomania. In defence of one of the "nuggets" you dislike: you say that GG is wrong when he says "He listened with the intense interest one feels in a stranger’s life , the interest the young mistake for love," but it seems to me that you're reading this like it was a pronouncement of fact in a work of non-fiction. Scobie is a man burned out by life, old before his time. It seems to me totally reasonable that he might be more than a little cynical about the naivety of youth, the mistakes he's made... Maybe you're too young to get this, I don't know, but the fault doesn't lie with GG or the novel imo.

message 11: by Paul (last edited Sep 24, 2012 12:17PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant I really never thought of that before, that these aphorisms are actually proceeding from the sensibility of one of the characters. I checked two of my examples above, and you're completely right about "We are all of us resigned to death", it's Scobie thinking that; so in that case he is making a generalisation which is clearly false but understandable because of the situation he's in on p242. However my first example needs a context :

The liner came in on a Saturday evening; from the bedroom window they could see its long grey form steal past the boom, beyond the palms. They watched it with a sinking of the heart - happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness - hand in hand they watched their separation anchor in the bay. "Well," Scobie said, "that means tomorrow afternoon."

The aphorism to me appears to be an authorial comment on why the characters' hearts are sinking, and may be sarcastic, of course, in this case, but nevertheless it does seem to be GG speaking here, not either of the characters.

I quoted four of these aphorisms, there are various others sprinkled around. As I say I think it's something authors don't feel they can do anymore.

message 12: by Jimmy (new) - added it

Jimmy I'm in agreement with Krok: I appreciate Greene's intermittent philosophizing. In the hands of a writer as stylistically economical as Greene is, those ponderous aphorisms don't seem intrusive to me. I find it quite remarkable that he manages to squeeze them into the narration, while keeping a steady pace on the progression of the story.

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Hey Jimmy, just as a general question, have you noticed contemporary writers doing the aphoristic thing?

message 14: by Kip (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kip I think you're right, its not as common as it used to be. I'm not sure why... possibly modern novelists are less prone to using the novel as a place to explore their pet theories. I'm not a huge fan of modern novels, so I'm liable to generalise and say contemporary authors have little to say. however, I think the answer may lie with the ubiquity of post modernism. I think metaphor was the rhetoric of choice for early-mid 20th C authors, but with post modernism nothing is certain and with that has come irony as the rhetoric mode of choice. GG type speculations don't fit so well today. personally I think its a loss. Beyond cultural theory and prosaic stuff like socio-politics the modern novel has little depth or interest to my mind. I'm nit saying that every novel should do this, but for none to do it... what have you git left... of course I could be wrong here... just speculating in ignorance really as I don't read enough contemporary novels to know. apologise for any typos, I'm typing this on my mobile and the text box is so small I can hardly read it

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant Although various of the "maximalist" type of contemporary author like to think they can encompass the complexities of modern life, your DFWs and Franzens. But I think that any philosophical slogans or statements therein will be intended ironically, as you say.

message 16: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice I haven't read this but I read your review anyway, Paul, since I don't believe I'm going to get to read every book that's ever been written anyway -- meaning I didn't mind it being "spoiled" -- and in fact it probably wouldn't be. Very creative review. I love your rolling out the western cannon of classic rock-n-roll.

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