Ted's Reviews > The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
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bookshelves: lit-british, classics, have

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork …
'He certainly loved no one else," she said.
'And you may be in the right of it there too,' Father Rank replied.

In between these bookend sentences lies the rest of The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene's 1948 novel, set in not-quite-darkest Africa during World War II. The novel became a best seller when it came out, and is high enough on the pantheon of notable fiction that it has its own 8-screen article on Wiki, from which comes …

the first edition cover

What do these sentences tell us about the story? Well, Wilson (one of the main characters) has pink knees. Why is this significant? Because the novel is set in British Sierra Leone – not a part of the world where one would have pink knees for long, if wearing the old colonial-style garb. (view spoiler) So Wilson has just arrived. Why? That will be revealed by Greene in his own good time.

And the sentences from the end? Well, only if I were to tell you who the woman Father Rank (not a main character at all) is speaking to (which I won't – though she is a very main character), and also tell you who the "he" is that she refers to (which I will – his name is Scobie, the character about whom the story is told), would you begin connecting the dots.

Let's back up (or go forward, whatever you like). I read this book almost a year ago now. I will assert, bravely, that I still remember most of the main thrust of the narrative. Almost anyone who reads this review could be astonished to learn (unless they don't care) that it was the first Greene novel I've ever read. So I was quite receptive to it, having a few others yet unread, and wanting to get started on his writing.

Greene is generally acknowledged as one of the top English fiction writers of the 20th century. He was very popular, and felt by many to have a certain "moral" depth not shared by most other popular writers. He was known as a writer of thrillers, which he didn’t dispute – but also of "Catholic novels". This he did dispute, claiming that he was someone who wrote novels who simply happened to be Catholic. (This of course neglects the fact that many of his greatest novels portrayed Catholic characters in situations and dilemmas which might seem most poignant to Catholic readers, even if they appealed to readers of other persuasions.)

The Catholic novels which to some critics form the core of his writing, are: Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). In Wiki's Personal Life section on Greene, we find this. This points out some of the issues which for years must have dogged Greene as a Catholic writer.

I must say the story kept me reading. My book has loads of passages marked for quotation, one of which is this from very early.
In the evening the port became beautiful for perhaps five minutes. The laterite roads that were so ugly and clay-heavy by day became a delicate flower-like pink. It was the hour of content. Men who had left the port for ever would sometimes remember on a grey wet London evening the bloom and glow that faded as soon as it was seen: they would wonder why they had hated the coast and for a space of a drink they would long to return.
But as the story developed I became unconvinced as to the main character. My own Catholic upbringing, beginning a personal era which ended long ago, yet seemed to tell me that something was amiss. Ultimately I must agree with George Orwell's judgement on the novel, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, and which is something of a spoiler, so be forewarned. (view spoiler)

The edition I have has an introduction by James Wood. I expect that I stopped reading this quickly, when I sensed that, for me, Wood was approaching spoiler territory (view spoiler). I will be reading Wood's intro soon, however, and may add a comment about it to this review.

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Reading Progress

December 19, 2011 – Shelved
February 27, 2012 – Shelved as: lit-british
March 12, 2012 – Shelved as: classics
June 27, 2015 – Shelved as: have
February 3, 2018 – Started Reading
February 3, 2018 –
page 51
20.0% "Despair is the price that one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation."
February 14, 2018 –
page 99
38.82% "'Good-bye, dear.'
'Good-bye.' That was the real good-bye, the handshake with Halifax watching and the passengers from England looking curiously on. As the launch moved away she was almost at once indistinguishable ... The dream had finished: change was over: life had begun again.
He let himself into the empty house - he had forgotten the deep tones of silence, a quality of security and impregnability in it."
February 27, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Great to be reminded of Scobie, Ted, a character I read about when I was very young yet whom I've never forgotten. I especially haven't forgotten how irrational he was in dealing with the dilemmas he created for himself constantly but I suspect that's why I still remember him so well. So I think I disagree with Orwell. Scobie worked for me, irrational and messed-up though he was.

message 2: by Ted (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ted Fionnuala wrote: "Great to be reminded of Scobie, Ted, a character I read about when I was very young yet whom I've never forgotten. I especially haven't forgotten how irrational he was in dealing with the dilemmas ..."

Yes, it's difficult to decide about his criticism of the character. (Even though I agree with him.) That is, what things matter about a character in fiction? Does every character have to behave rationally? Obviously not, I would think. So I suppose it comes down to the individual reader's reaction to, and acceptance of, the character. It is fiction, after all.

The other part, however, is that Greene was presumably quite serious about how Scobie's religion affected his actions. Whether the author himself would have hoped that this came across as a completely well-founded view I don't know. To me it doesn't.

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