The Heart Of The Matter
The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene was my Book Club's choice this month. It is the third Graham Greene novel I have read after The End Of The Affair and The Human Factor. Having read those novels, I had some idea of what to expect here, and indeed the novel shares a number of deep similarities to The End Of The Affair.
Having since googled this, four of Greene's novels, including Heart Of The Matter and End Of The Affair examined Catholic themes with Heart Of The Matter being the final one. Some at my Book Club could not understand why the protagonist becomes so deeply religious towards the end, but I, having grown up in modern Catholicism with an awareness of its history, could.
The unforgiving Catholicism on show here, in the days of the Tridentine Rite and prior to the Second Vatican Council is one I think not easily understood by a lay reader, which I think makes the book lose something in translation to the non-religious or non-Catholic.
Aside from this issue the novel covers a number of other themes. First and foremost it is a novel about Colonials and Colonial society. Various Brits abroad, largely public school educated, despairing of the heat and disparaging of the natives, illustrating as they go via their behaviour the levels to which the British Empire damaged various nations and their peoples with their sense of paternalistic right and entitlement.
Our protagonist is Scobie, and our colony is a "West African State" later revealed by Greene to be Sierra Leone. Scobie is that rare thing, an honest man who likes the people and seeks to do the job well, something which makes he and his wife objects of unpopularity and scorn. As the novel turns, and Scobie is forced to act in an unprincipled way, his popularity increases, a remark perhaps aimed by Greene at the corrupt nature of those who enter Foreign Service.
It is a very male book set in a man's world and I found myself frustrated that we only see women in this book in the way Scobie views them, as needy and a burden. The two main female characters Helen and Louise are two-dimensional with only merest hints that they are more than Scobie is allowing them to be. Other men like Wilson, Bagster and Harris are priggish and annoying, and perhaps in some respects, stereotypes.
Despite this the prose itself is engaging, though the novel does not really become consistently readable until perhaps mid-way through. It has dated, but is also an interesting portrait of its time, both historically speaking and in terms of comparative literature.
It is an interesting book, and I enjoyed certain lines of prose very much, but this being my third Greene, I feel like I've got a certain handle now on the type of novel he wrote and can't say I'm eager to read his complete works.