Book Review: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter - Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981) (Guess who took those tiny bites out of the cover of my book?)

The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1981)
(Guess who took those tiny bites out of the cover of my book?)

The convergence of literature and religion is something that has long interested me as a reader, a writer, and a Christian. It’s rare that I’m quite satisfied with the way Christianity and the Christian life and walk is portrayed in art (this was one of my primary complaints with such books as Good to a Fault and The Bishop’s Man) but Graham Greene* accomplishes this with skill and pathos. His portrayal of a man struggling with morality, damnation, faith, and trust is heartbreakingly real. This quote comes as the main character, Scobie, struggles in prayer over his final decisions:

No one can speak a monologue for long alone – another voice will always make itself heard; every monologue sooner or later becomes a discussion. So now [Scobie] couldn’t keep the other voice silent; it spoke from the cafe of his body: it was as if the sacrament which had lodged there for his damnation gave tongue. You say you love me, and yet you’ll do this to me – rob me of you for ever. I made you with love. I’ve wept your tears. I’ve saved you from more than you will ever know; I planted in you this longing for peace only so that one day I could satisfy your longing and watch your happiness. And now you push me away, you put me out of your reach. There are no capital letters to separate us when we talk together. I am not Thou but simply you, when you speak to me; I am humble as a any other beggar. Can’t you trust me as you’d trust a faithful dog? I have been faithful to you for two thousand years.

Scobie is a British police man in a West African colony during World War II. He’s been there for fifteen years. He’s scrupulously honest – refusing bribes and favours that many others take – and he does his job well. Yet he’s unpopular with the other officers and he’s passed over for the role of Commissioner in favour of a newer, younger man. His wife, Louise, unhappy with the colony and humiliated by this slight, pushes for Scobie to send her away. A break, they call it, a few months in another location before he joins her and they’ll be at peace again. Scobie doesn’t have the money for this but Louise’s persistence and his own desire both to make her happy and to be alone result in him borrowing the funds from a questionable source.

This is Scobie’s first misstep and from there the novel traces his steady, slippery fall into a murky region of immorality. Greene’s foreshadowing is stupendous, some of the best I’ve ever seen. Nothing heavy-handed but events unfold with a sort of inevitability that kept me reading and made me more sympathetic for Scobie than I might have been otherwise.

After Louise departs, Scobie is called to help deal with the survivors of a passenger ship attacked and sunk by enemy boats. (The war has this sort of peripheral but crucial role in the story.) Here he meets Helen Rolt, a very young woman widowed in the attack, and the course of his life is altered.

What they had both thought was safety proved to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity

Graham Greene proves himself as both a skilled writer and a man who understands the struggle, the tragedy, and the delight of religious faith. This is the second novel by Graham Greene I’ve read (I read The Power and the Glory years ago) and I will definitely be reading more.

 

* Irrelevant personal fact: When I was a kid there was a Canadian actor named Graham Greene who was on TV and I thought that he and the author Graham Greene were the same person for longer than I probably should have.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

  1. I’m so delighted you loved it! This is a book that vies with Bleak House as my favourite of all time. You probably know from my reviews that I’m not religious, but Scobie’s struggle with his faith is utterly moving and convincing, and in truth touches me far more deeply than many books conveying religious messages more conventionally. It’s been too long since I last re-read it…

    • That’s awesome that it’s one of your favourites! (I should read Bleak House one of these days too…I like Dickens a lot but haven’t read that one yet.) I’m glad to hear Greene hits the mark from various ends of the religion spectrum. I agree that he does much better than many religious books!

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