Tuesday 7 July 2009

'one can't be wise all the time'

The Heart Of The Matter
by Graham Greene

A few years back I picked up an old copy of Brighton Rock when I was staying with my Grandma, my first experience of Greene and I was surprised by how enjoyable and dark it all was. It was so easy to read I then gobbled up a few others in quick succession including The Quiet American, The Comedians, The End Of The Affair and Our Man In Havana. My recent house move has brought me within spitting distance (literally) of Berkhamsted School, founded in 1541, presided over by Greene's father between 1910 and 1927 and counting Graham himself amongst its illustrious alumni. So it seemed entirely fitting to read some more and my discerning 18 month old son picked The Heart Of The Matter as a gift for Father's Day (perhaps unaware of the themes of adultery and infant mortality contained within)

Sometimes by chance there can be loose connections between the books one reads and the steamy colonial location had me thinking of Hugo Wilcken's Colony, whilst one of the books overriding themes, pity, had me thinking of Stefan Zweig's warning of its dangers. From the opening sentence describing the 'bald pink knees' of Scobie as he awaits his gin and bitters (deliciously pictured above) there is a lovely sense of the colonial policeman, a man completely out of his element trying desperately to impose order, with power over others and yet never quite on top of things. In foreign climes corruption comes in many forms: power, body, faith. And yet Scobie is a man clearly enjoying his posting

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, 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, and on this side flourished all 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.

Whilst his colleagues and forebears have been corrupted by money he is clearly aware of his own shortcoming.

'They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn't name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, passed over for promotion, Scobie cuts a fairly sad figure. Pity will encroach on his ability to do his job, his relationship with his wife and keeps him always focused on the needs of others first.

Pity smouldered like decay in his heart. He would never rid himself of it. He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.

As you might expect from any novel by Greene there is plenty of wrestling with faith. The state of Scobie's own is neatly symbolised by the broken rosary he keeps in his desk. His difficult relationship with religion isn't hard to understand once you learn that he and his wife lost their daughter when she was just a young girl, Scobie spared the ordeal itself by distance(noted in his diary with the simple 'C. died') but cruelly taunted by two telegrams arriving in the wrong order: the first telling of her death, the second almost miraculously talking of the doctor's hope that she might survive. His memories of that painful loss resurface after a group of shipwreck survivors are found after enduring over a month on the open sea. Having escaped the immediacy of his own daughter's death he is forced to witness the last moments of a young girl from that group, challenging his own ability to keep faith.

It would need all Father Brule's ingenuity to explain that. Not that the child would die...but that the child should have been allowed to survive the forty days and nights in the open boat - that was the mystery, to reconcile that with the love of God.

But Greene makes clear how ingrained religious teaching can be. As Scobie embroils himself in adultery and corruption his real terror is of damnation, of receiving communion without having been absolved of his many sins. In his introduction James Wood mentions (along with almost all of the major plot points - making it less and introduction than a massive spoiler for fools like me who don't know the plot and read the introduction first) the massive inconsistencies in Scobie's character as first mentioned by George Orwell in The New Yorker. Wood's counter argument makes for very interesting reading, after the novel itself that is.

Greene may have written several novels playing with the same themes and ideas but the fact remains that he writes with an ease that makes each of them a pleasure to read, even for a faithless old atheist like me.


John Self 7 July 2009 at 11:25  

Ah yes, "the saint whose name nobody could remember". I think this may be my favourite Greene novel. So utterly bleak in the end that it's really quite bracing.

The other biggie that you need to read, of course, is The Power and the Glory. Oddly, I haven't read The Comedians, though a friend who has reckons it's where Morrissey got the name for his band (there are a couple of vegetarians in the novel called the Smiths, apparently).

Of his less renowned work, I'm a big fan of The Honorary Consul - it's closer in tone to being an 'entertainment' than his most famous books, but brilliant and compelling. I even enjoyed his lighter stuff like Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party, which is almost Dahl-esque, though I found Travels with My Aunt and The Human Factor entirely tiresome, even though the latter is reckoned by some to be his last great work.

You've put me in the mood to read some Greene now.

Trevor 7 July 2009 at 12:39  

Excellent timing, William! Kevin just brought Greene back to my attention on my blog's review of The Quiet American, and I have this and The Power and the Glory next in line. Your review makes me anxious!

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