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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy of a claim to gratness
Over forty years ago a new English teacher at my school answered a question asked by an eager student. The question was, "What do you think is the greatest novel written in English?" He didn't think for very long before replying, "The Heart Of The Matter."

We academically-inclined youths borrowed Graham Greene's novel from the library and eventually conferred...
Published on 20 Oct 2008 by Philip Spires

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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How on Earth did I get through this? (Part 4)
Here's another one I put aside at first but then decided, as part of a New Year's resolution, to return to and finish. When it didn't grab me from the start, as Graham Greene's novels normally do, it was partly because this particular Penguin edition has just about the smallest print it is humanly possible to put to paper and still read.

While beautifully...
Published on 9 Nov 2010 by Philip S. Walker


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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy of a claim to gratness, 20 Oct 2008
This review is from: The Heart Of The Matter (Paperback)
Over forty years ago a new English teacher at my school answered a question asked by an eager student. The question was, "What do you think is the greatest novel written in English?" He didn't think for very long before replying, "The Heart Of The Matter."

We academically-inclined youths borrowed Graham Greene's novel from the library and eventually conferred. There were shrugs, some indifference, appreciation without enthusiasm. We were all about sixteen years old.

I last re-read The Heart Of The Matter about twenty-five years ago. When I began it again for the fourth time last week, I could still remember vividly the basics of its characters and plot. Henry Scobie is an Assistant Chief of Police in a British West African colony. It is wartime and he has been passed over for promotion. He is fifty-ish, wordly-wise, apparently pragmatic, a sheen that hides a deeply analytical conscience. Louise, his wife is somewhat unfocusedly unhappy with her lot. She is a devout Catholic and this provides her support, but the climate is getting to everyone. She leaves for a break that Scobie cannot really afford. He accepts debt.

The colony's businesses are run by Syrians. Divisions within their community have roots deeper than commercial competition. There is "trade" of many sorts. There are accusations, investigations, rumours and counter-claims. Special people arrive to look into things. There's a suicide, more than one, in fact, at least one murder, an extra-marital affair, blackmail, family and wartime tragedy.

But above all there is the character of Henry Scobie. He is a man of principle who thinks he is a recalcitrant slob. He is a man of conscience who presents a pragmatic face. He makes decisions fully aware of their consequences, but remains apparently unable to influence the circumstance that repeatedly seems to dictate events. He remains utterly honest in his deceit, consistent in his unpredictability. His life becomes a beautiful, uncontrolled mess. His wife's simple orthodox Catholicism contrasts with his never really adopted faith. He tries to keep face, but cannot reconcile the facts of his life with the demands of his conscience. His ideals seem to have no place in a world where interests overrule principle. He sees a solution, a way out, but perhaps it is a dead end.

For twenty-first century sensibilities, the colonial era attitudes towards local people appear patronising at best. Perhaps that is how things were. But The Heart Of The Matter is not really a descriptive work. It is not about place and time. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the events and their setting provide only a backdrop and context for a deeply moving examination of motive and conscience. And also like a Shakespearean tragedy, the novel transcends any limitations of its setting to say something unquestionably universal about the human condition. Forty years on, I now realise, that my new English teacher was probably right.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book you will want to read again and again, 4 Aug 2011
By 
Gitau Githinji (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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The Heart of the Matter achieves the rare feat of being a riveting page-turner and, at the same time, a thought provoking, serious novel. It is curiously reminiscent of George Orwell's Burmese Days. In both books the hero is an English colonial official in a tropical country with a harsh, unforgiving climate. Each of John Flory of Burmese Days and Henry Scobie of The Heart of the Matter stands out from his contemporaries because of his inherent goodness, his sense of belonging in the colonial outpost and his lack of condescension towards the natives. Where the two novels differ is the fact that The Heart of the Matter is essentially a book about Catholicism.

Scobie is a the Deputy Commissioner of police in a nameless, underdeveloped country in West Africa during World War II. For fifteen years he remains scrupulously honest and incorruptible despite ample opportunity for self-enrichment in the murky commercial environment of the colony. Business is conducted by thoroughly dishonest Syrians who love nothing better than a bent policeman in their pay. Notwithstanding many entreaties from Yusef, a fat, unscrupulous Syrian merchant, Scobie keeps himself clean.

He feels trapped in a loveless marriage to Louise, a pathetic, unattractive, tearful woman, who causes him nothing but anguish. His stern Catholicism does not permit him to contemplate divorce from her and he suffers feelings of guilt about being in some way responsible for her piteous state. Louise's continual weeping and moaning about her unhappiness and the bitter feelings of pity this evokes in Scobie leads him down the path towards self destruction. To ease her suffering - and his own - Scobie compromises his high principals and takes a loan from Yusef to send Louise to South Africa.

In Louise's absence, Scobie falls in love with yet another pathetic woman called Helen Rolt - Scobie seems incapable of falling in love with a woman unless he pities her - and by so doing seals his fate.

Scobie is a complex character imbued with contradictions. He does not like to cause suffering but yet is a senior police office officer in a West African colony; he yearns solitude and peace but yet can't bring himself to untangle the mess his life is in between two damaged, needy women; he is a strict Catholic who believes in eternal damnation but yet commits mortal sin and cannot seek absolution by making confession; he pities a man who has committed suicide and then by his own hand places himself beyond the reach of God's mercy.

The Heart of the Matter explores the extent to which pity and love can come into conflict with the strictures of the Catholic Church. Scobie is a good Catholic who is bitterly tormented by the enormity of his sins. He feels he has failed the women he loves, himself and even God. In the end he comes to accept that God is powerless to protect him from eternal damnation and offers himself up as a sacrifice for Louise, Helen and God himself.

Like he does in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, Graham Greene forces one to rethink Catholicism. Is God's mercy powerless in the face of the rules of the Church? Can God protect and forgive the persecuted and weak, however sinful they may be? If suicide, for instance, is so damnable, what about God's own suicide on the Cross?

Greene offers no answers to these questions. Instead he has given us a book to delight in and think about over and over again.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting exploration of the birth of corruption, 11 April 2001
By 
mzyszs@nottingham.ac.uk (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
The brittle and sparse nature of Greene's writing does surprisingly well at conjuring up the heat, repression and the inner workings of law enforcement in Africa. It draws the reader into the mind of the perfectly moralistic and "right" police officer Scobie, so strongly that the reader encounters their own moral tug of war, with the boundaries between right and wrong becoming clouded with circumstance and passion. The writing, subtly and cynically, leads the reader to an intensity of indecision and frustration at the ensuing events and emotional ruin desribed. It is a gripping story, which thrives on its interwoven sub-polts and humane descriptions.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant tale of a man's chosen path to damnation, 10 Oct 2011
By 
This review is from: The Heart Of The Matter (Paperback)
It is widely considered Greene's best. Some 65 years since publication, new readers confronted with so much Catholic fear and agony may, give up on it. But it is also a surprisingly easy to read account of a failed marriage after the death of a child, in a 24/7 stifling, socially-suffocating environment in West Africa.
Its venue is Freetown, Sierra Leone (SL) during WW II. Mostly hot and humid, with the occasional big rat in the bathroom, hungry ant colonies in the kitchen, malarial mosquitoes attacking after sundown. Class-based differences among British colonial staff cause a poisonous climate rife with gossip. German submarines endanger shipping routes. Syrian traders are suspected of diamond smuggling and dealing with the enemy. At nightfall the harbour is closed and a total black-out is enforced.
This book's sad hero Henry Scobie, SL's Deputy Police Commissioner, has spent 15 years in SL. And been married for 14 years with Louise. They are a devoutly Catholic couple. Early on the reader learns that Scobie has been passed over for promotion. Why? Plenty of gossip and rumour, but Louise could be the main reason: Scobie loves his job and feels himself at home in SL, but Louise is seen as a snob. Unlike other wives, she has no war-time job. She thinks she is hated by everyone who matters, resents her husband's poor salary and contentment with his job, his failure to progress to the top and the poor living quarters assigned to them since their last leave.
In what follows, corruption is one of the many themes Greene probes. This review is an introduction to the first 50 pages of one of the greatest books written in the 20th century. Follow Wilson, who is a spy sent from London and Scobie's run of disastrous moral choices. The pair may symbolize Graham Greene's own struggle with his own espionage job and Catholicism. Highly recommended.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How on Earth did I get through this? (Part 4), 9 Nov 2010
Here's another one I put aside at first but then decided, as part of a New Year's resolution, to return to and finish. When it didn't grab me from the start, as Graham Greene's novels normally do, it was partly because this particular Penguin edition has just about the smallest print it is humanly possible to put to paper and still read.

While beautifully written, of course, it is not Graham Greene's most impressive and convincing novel. The main character, Scobie, is a police inspector in some fictional West African British colony at the outbreak of WWII. This very much reflects Greene's own experiences at the same time. Still, I find it hard to believe in this social environment where no one seems to care or worry even remotely about the situation in Europe. The exact time frame isn't quite clear, but we do move from 'The Phony War' (after the German invasion of Poland) into talk about the Vichy Government (apparently the neighbouring colony is French), meaning that we are well into Battle of Britain times. You would think these people were at least occasionally debating things at home, worrying about relatives, not to mention the fact that at this point it looked very much as though the Germans would win the War. Even from a one hundred percent egotistical point of view this would have changed everything for them. Yet Scobie and his fellow Brits live in their own little world of intrigue, jealousy, matrimonial quibble and career struggle (it's as though they already know it will all end with an Allied victory, as indeed Greene knew at the time he wrote the book). On top of that Scobie, a middle aged married man, falls in love with a nineteen year old girl, still emotionally shaken from the loss of her husband. He doesn't refrain from having sex with her on their first ever one-to-one meeting, and subsequently on numerous occasions. We assume he must enjoy it since he continues the relationship, but in between he gets submerged in guilt and worries about how he will be spending his afterlife according to his faith.

Mentally, Scobie is under attack on several fronts. He is deeply in love where he shouldn't be, he is marred by his extremely active conscience and by his religion. Here we find another of the novel's weaker point. How a man of this kind can bear being a police inspector is a bit of a mystery, as this part of his life is severely underrepresented in the novel. Criminal justice can't avoid at times being rough and unfair, particularly in an environment like this. Furthermore, at no point does Scobie doubt the British government's right to rule rigidly over other people thousands of miles from the home land. I suppose you could say all that is irrelevant since this is a psychological novel, not a political story. Still, there must be a limit to how much you can isolate the two. Certainly in later novels, such as 'The Quiet American', Greene manages masterly to combine them.

What this novel has, however, is a lot of insight into the Catholic mind. To an outsider it looks inconsequential and hypocritical, as represented by Scobie's young mistress, Helen, a daughter of a Church of England minister. Her lack of understanding adds to Scobie's desperation, to a point where you get the feeling that behind all his correctness and goodness there is also an element of self-righteousness. For him to exist he needs to do everything morally and formally right, and as soon as the small breech is opened the whole construction on which he has built his life crumbles, mentally and physically.

Then there is perhaps the real theme of the novel; the theme, perhaps, that has appealed to aging university tutors over the years; the theme which Anthony Burgess in his short Ernest Hemingway biography describes as 'the middle-aged man's desire to be born again', i.e. to take a young mistress. Hemingway, in his novel 'Across the River and into the Trees', utilised this theme as a platform for a storyline around the same time as Graham Greene. It's not an easy theme at all. Old men with young female lovers are generally ridiculed: he's having a midlife crises, she's looking for a father figure or perhaps even for his money. However, this is a serious trap for aging men to fall into, and Greene is not at all wrong in suggesting that the outcome can be suicide. There is a feeling that on some partly unconscious level he wrote this novel to warn himself of a dangerous situation, yet when later on he used the theme repeatedly there seemed to be no moral second-thoughts involved. Make of that what you want. (Incidentally, Burgess suggests the aging male artist approach the problem as Hemingway seemingly did: by making her his muse and keep sex out of the relationship.)

In conclusion, I would say that unless you are particularly interested in the issues of Catholic guilt, some of the secondary themes in this novel are probably better dealt with in other Graham Greene novels such as 'The Quiet American' or 'The Human Factor'. Still, even non-perfect Greene is better than no Greene at all and despite its shortcomings this is a wonderfully written story delivered in straight-forward, lucid, unpretentious sentences as one would expect from one of the very best authors of this era.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love, morality and Catholicism in Africa, 7 Feb 2003
It is the details of THOTM that stand out long after the novel has been finished- the search for war-time diamonds by sifting tons of flour on cargo ships, the sacred stamp collecting book grasped by Helen, one of the survivors of an escapee transport. Greene weaves these insights into a story of moral right and wrong, different types of love and the powers that be (whether army, police or God).
The main character, Scobie's, final loss is offset by his wife's buffoon of an admirer, Wilson, and Greene proves himself adept at both comedy and tragedy. But the main "feel" of the book is Scobie's battle between his own true feelings of love and natural morality versus the hierarchy of his police job, the events of war and his Catholic belief. Scobie's Catholicism could be exchanged for almost any religious belief and still have the same effect but the Catholic idea that all life is sacrosanct adds pathos to the climax of THOTM.
Greene grabs the reader's attention early on by ridiculing Wilson but gradually Scobie becomes a more sympathetic character and our interest in the book lies with him and Helen. Greene, however, was never happy with this novel saying- "The scales to me seem too heavily weighted, the plot overloaded, the religious scruples of Scobie too extreme" (Ways Of Escape). Nevertheless, THOTM remains one of Greene's most popular works along with The Third Man and The End Of The Affair and continues to haunt and amuse those who read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very thought provoking but irritating novel., 2 April 2014
I am half way through reading Graham Greene's complete works. As that would suggest I am a great admirer of his talents as a novelist and artist, yet this is my least favourite of his books read so far. And although there are many of his works still to read, I doubt another one will irritate me as much as this. I admire it too, don't get me wrong, it is extremely disquieting in fact. But my overriding impression is one of huge annoyance, anger even. Why?
I am a lapsed Catholic, and so this brings to vivid focus everything I hate and reject about the Catholic Church. The absurdity and implacability of the dogma. Whilst at the same time reminding me of what I have lost, and maybe still yearn for at a sub conscious level, although definitely not intellectually. A complicated brew! But that is just me. What of you? If you are an atheist I don't think this novel will make any sense to you at all. If a devout Catholic it will speak to you in a way that few other works of fiction can. At a profound, visceral level like it did me. So it is certainly a remarkable book in its ability to inspire deep thought and high emotion in some readers (but definitely not all).
I won't provide any spoilers and I do recommend people to read the book. If you are an atheist the only way you will make any sense of it all is to assume the hero goes mad in the end. It is the only way you will be able to suspend your disbelief at the absurdity of the plot, and the lack of believability of the hero's actions. (Which even Greene himself fessed up to in later life). If a believer you'll love it all probably so enjoy! Apart from Scobie, who is uniquely egotistical and hypocritical and impossible to warm to, you won't find an interesting character in the novel. Bar Yusuf. He is brilliantly drawn, one of Greene's very best, in fact. Fantastically slimy he drips off the page.
Enough, I am done with the book, and will never read it again. Uggh! But don't listen to me, read it for yourself and make up your own mind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine writing and a compelling story-line, 17 Mar 2014
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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For the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene. I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around 4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.

And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him. I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.

Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police. Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor. Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business. Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.

Scobie feels himself responsible for Louise’s state of mind. She is a depressive, with little to keep her occupied from day-to-day. In today’s terms Scobie has moved into a position of co-dependency where his own happiness depends on his ability to keep Louise happy. Having lost her only child to sickness, Louise’s life revolves around her love of her religion, her love of poetry and the vagaries of her social interactions with the other colony women. Scobie and Louise now have little in common but Scobie is only at peace so long as he can keep Louise from sinking into despair.

When Wilson, a new officer joins the colony, Scobie invites him to dinner and is delighted to find that he and Louise have a mutual love of poetry. The young officer seems quite taken with Louise and it is a mark of the state of their marriage, that Scobie encourages their relationship and is pleased to see his wife going for walks with her new friend.

At the same time, we read of Scobie’s dealings with Yusef, a Syrian trader and black marketeer who is intent on embroiling Scobie in his schemes. A man of considerable wealth and influence, readers realise immediately that Yusef has the potential to be Scobie’s downfall, with whom Scobie should “sup with a long spoon”. Scobie is well able to manage the relationship with Yusef, but when Louise needs to go for an expensive sabbatical in South Africa, Scobie turns to Yusuf for a fixed interest loan with no strings (this last feature an impossible dream of course). Before long, Scobie finds himself compromised by his relationship with Yusef. There is also a small matter of Scobie’s developing relationship with a young ship-wreck survivor called Helen Rolf, who Scobie helps while Louise is away in South Africa.

In a sense, the details of the story are secondary to Greene’s profound exploration of religious faith as experienced by Louise and Henry Scobie. Louise is the classic “cradle Catholic” with a simple devotion to the Church and its rules. Scobie however, as a convert sees far more into the moral complexities of real life. When Helen, the shipwrecked young woman that she finds it easy to forget her dead husband, Scobie comforts her with words which reveal far more about his own marriage than any counsel offered by the church,

The book progresses as it must to its inevitable conclusion (which I won’t describe here) and by the end I was left feeling how few of today’s writers tackle such complex themes in such short novels. I haven’t touched on many of the other characters, events and episodes which are covered here, but am struck by Greene’s economy of words which enable him to paint a vast canvas in a few brush-strokes. I can see I’m going to be reading quite a few more of those Kindle Vintage Greenes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review, 14 Mar 2013
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This review is from: The Heart Of The Matter (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book, more for the style of writing than the content.
I would not recomend it to anyone with a depressive disposition.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as it gets!, 16 Nov 2012
By 
Donald Hughes (Ruislip) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Heart Of The Matter (Paperback)
This is my favourite Greene novel. Everything is described so realistically: the heat; the dead-end marriage of Scobie and Louise; her devout Catholicism matching his anaemic attitude to religion; how even the most honest man can be corrupted by circumstances and how he jumps from one hopeless woman (his wife) to another (Helen his mistress). I was particularly intrigued by Yusef's attempts to be a true friend.

Louise, being warned of his affair, returns from S.Africa and Scobie has to face up to his responsibilities. After agonising over his sinful past, and possible loss of eternal salvation, engineers an entirely convincing solution.

A remarkable book
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The Heart Of The Matter
The Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene (Paperback - 7 Oct 2004)
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