Book #86: The Heart of the Matter
I don’t know what I expected coming into The Heart of the Matter. I’ve already read The Power and the Glory, which I currently have ranked 27 out of the 85 novels I’ve read so far, and I knew Graham Greene was an exceptional writer. But I didn’t quite expect to like this novel as much as I did.
The Heart of the Matter is, simply put, a beautiful, elegant novel. No surprise here, since it’s on the Time Magazine list, this is a fairly dark book. Not in a dreary Blood Meridian, Money type of way. But more in somber, sadness. Like, if a novel could outline a person’s road to severe depression, this novel would be it. Or if a dreary rainy day could exist in novel form, it would be The Heart of the Matter.
To give you a brief idea of what the novel is about—it tells the story of Scobie, a major in the British army currently stationed off the coast of West Africa during World War I. He’s married to a woman, Louise, he doesn’t love and resents. A man named Wilson arrives on the island and has the hots for Louise, but just when he’s about to make his big move she decides to travel to South Africa for a indefinite getaway.
While she’s gone, Scobie falls in love with a much younger girl and then there’s infidelity and whatnot and lots of sketchiness involving loans, boats, diamonds, heartbroken lovers, and lots of Catholic symbolism—a common theme throughout Greene’s novels.
It’s no surprise, as you feel the novel trending in a bad direction the more you read, but things don’t end well for Scobie. That’s all I’ll say.
From a thematic standpoint, the novel illustrates the blurred moral lines we sometimes are willing to cross—and how, with each crossed line, it gets easier to cross the next one. In the end, a lot of humans can be crappy, selfish people.
As far as novelists go, Graham Greene is one of the best. His style isn’t that different than Fitzgerald. His prose is rich and poetic. But, to me, the characters in this novel have more depth than those in Gatsby—and, that’s saying something, since it’s my favorite novel in the universe.
I’ve shared this passage with you guys already, but I can’t resist sharing it once again. This is what Scobie is thinking before he crosses the line of infidelity:
In the future that was where the sadness lay. Was it the butterfly that died in the act of love? But human beings were condemned to consequences. The responsibility as well as the guilt was his–he was not a Bagster: he knew what he was about. He had sworn to preserve Louise’s happiness, and now he had accepted another contradictory responsibility. He felt tired by all the lies he would sometime have to tell: he felt the wounds of those victims who had not yet bled. Lying back on the pillow he stared sleeplessly out towards the grey early morning tide. Somewhere on the face of those obscure waters moved the sense of yet another wrong and another victim, not Louise, not Helen. Away in the town the cocks began to crow for the false dawn.
That passage illustrates why it’s so weird for a novelist like Graham Greene to be on the same all-time list as a writer like Theodore Dreiser—who was a great storyteller (An American Tragedy) but a clunky writer.
It’s late in the game, and I only have 15 novels to go, but this has to be one of the best. The Heart of the Matter is a beautifully written novel with rich character depth.
It’s sad. But that’s okay. Sometimes life is sad. Go read this novel.
Opening Line: “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”
The Meaning: The novel’s title comes from this line: “If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?”
Highlights: Just read the whole book. The whole thing is a highlight. I feel like the character of Helen, Scobie’s 19-year-old mistress, is written incredibly well. Her appearance on the scene really shakes up the story.
Lowlights: Wilson’s a jerk. That’s not a lowlight, just another well-written character. But he’s still a jerk.
Memorable Line: “Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, selfishness, evil — or else an absolute ignorance.”
Final Thoughts: Read this novel. I’ve got nothing else to say here.