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George Orwell Wasn’t A Fan Of This Graham Greene Novel

How would you like to have your novel—that novel you spent years working on—reviewed by George Orwell?

This would be like making your best risotto and serving it up to Gordon Ramsay. No pressure, right?

Well, Graham Greene, a famous author in his own right, experienced just that. When The Heart of the Matter was published in 1948, Greene was already an established author, having written 11 novels including The Power and the Glory.

George Orwell, though? Not a big fan—at least of this particular novel.

A few quotes:

 His latest book, “The Heart of the Matter” (Viking), is, to put it as politely as possible, not one of his best, and gives the impression of having been mechanically constructed, the familiar conflict being set out like an algebraic equation, with no attempt at psychological probability.

Orwell then goes on to summarize the plot and offers this zinger at the end.

I have not parodied the plot of the book. Even when dressed up in realistic details, it is just as ridiculous as I have indicated.

And these points, which I find interesting and valid.

There are other improbabilities, some of which arise out of Mr. Greene’s method of handling a love affair. Every novelist has his own conventions, and, just as in an E.M. Forster novel there is a strong tendency for the characters to die suddenly without sufficient cause, so in a Graham Greene novel there is a tendency for people to go to bed together almost at sight and with no apparent pleasure to either party. Often this is credible enough, but in “The Heart of the Matter” its effect is to weaken a motive that, for the purposes of the story, ought to be a very strong one. Again, there is the usual, perhaps unavoidable, mistake of making everyone too highbrow. It is not only that Major Scobie is a theologian. His wife, who is represented as an almost complete fool, reads poetry, while the detective who is sent by the Field Security Corps to spy on Scobie even writes poetry. Here one is up against the fact that it is not easy for most modern writers to imagine the mental processes of anyone who is not a writer.

Apparently everyone reads poetry in Graham Greene novels.

I’ll be offering more of my take on The Heart of the Matter in the next couple of weeks. But for a book that was mostly critically praised and made the Time 100 list, it’s intriguing to see Orwell’s less-than-optimistic take.

Full review here. 

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brandon #

    “Here one is up against the fact that it is not easy for most modern writers to imagine the mental processes of anyone who is not a writer.”

    That’s a great insight, and one that carries over to modern authors. I understand the reasoning behind “write what you know,” but there’s a point of diminishing returns for books with authors or writers as protagonists. I’m looking at you, Stephen King.

    Like

    April 1, 2016
  2. Bound to Be Me #

    Wow, I think that would be a big fear- having an author you really like tell you your books is not what you thought..

    Like

    April 1, 2016
  3. I love this post. ‘Just as in an E.M. Forster novel there is a strong tendency for the characters to die suddenly without sufficient cause….’ is my favourite bit.

    Like

    April 2, 2016
  4. This is very interesting. I haven’t read In the Heart of the Matter, but Orwell’s detailed comments hit on a point I sometimes get frustrated with – all the characters being too highbrow. It does make me wonder why Orwell would go to the trouble of writing a review, however. Was there a rivalry between the two writers?

    Like

    April 2, 2016
  5. That last quote about characters ending up in bed without sufficient reason makes me wonder. Perhaps Orwell wasn’t that good with the ladies. Of course, we know that Greene was.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 2, 2016
    • Also maybe Forster’s was just being realistic. Because it’s obvious to me that real people die without sufficient cause.

      Like

      April 2, 2016

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