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on 20 October 2008
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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on 10 October 2011
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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on 9 November 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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on 11 April 2001
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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on 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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...if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?"

This novel's setting, at least geographically, a remote colonial backwater in British West Africa, is far removed from what most would consider "the heart of the matter." Yet Graham Greene uses the locale as the setting to explore despair, even the "ultimate despair" for which the Catholic Church grants no forgiveness, as well as failure, in the human heart. My copy of this work, whose cover I posted, a brilliant black and white photograph of a tropical deluge in what appears to be a small village, helps convey the conditions that could result in that ultimate despair.

Greene is one of the best known and prolific English 20th century authors. The settings for many of his works were impoverished developing countries, as the current euphemism has it. At least some really did develop, like Vietnam The Quiet American: Centenary Celebration 2004 and Mexico The Power and the Glory (Vintage Classics). Several are still stagnant, Haiti The Comedians, Cuba Our Man in Havana (Vintage Classics) and this one, on West Africa, based on Greene's stay in Sierra Leone.

Henry Scobie is the main character, a ranking policeman, among a small British community, during World War II. His wife, Louise, is a devout Catholic (Henry is a convert, and does practice). She is unhappy, and he seeks to send her to a less harsh setting is South Africa. Naturally there is a staple of expat life: philandering, real and potential, in a very tight and incestuous community, as it were. And finances haunt. Bon mots? "It's a wonderful excuse being Catholic' she said. `It doesn't stop you from sleeping with me - it just stops you from marrying me." For a practicing Catholic himself, Greene could take a cynical view of his religion.

Closer to the heart of the matter of the human condition: "When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...She sat there, reading poetry, and she was a thousand miles away from the torment that shook his hand and dried his mouth."

Uplifting? Hardly, the novel is a depressing read, and can only "uplift" one by comparing the grime circumstances of Scobie, as well as the rest of the community, with your present circumstances. As Greene says: "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either an extreme egotism, evil - or else an absolute ignorance."

My favorite Greene novel remains the ever so prescient The Quiet American: Centenary Celebration 2004. Being an "ex-", I found the Catholic themes of guilt, confession, et al., more than a bit tedious, and the submission of one's will and desire to the "man of the cloth," frankly, a bit ludicrous for not having been finally resolved. Nonetheless, it is Greene; he does write well, and he posits realistic characters in life-changing situations. 5-stars.
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on 19 April 2014
I read all of Graham Greene's novels many years ago, and this was one of my favourites. Although I often find that re-reading novels that I loved when I was younger can result in disappointment, in this case I still really enjoyed the book and understood what it was I liked so much about Greene generally and this novel in particular. He is able to convey the sense of sadness and human weakness better than almost any other novelist I can think of, and he is also quite brilliant at showing us how difficult it can be to judge between right and wrong.
As we are reminded in the introduction to this edition, there has been criticism of this novel because the main character, the policeman Scobie, seems inconsistent when it comes to his religious beliefs, and there is some truth in this, but I don't think it detracts from the quality of the novel. We are all inconsistent to some degree, and one of Greene's recurring themes was the difficulties of following a faith like Catholicism, which in a sense he uses to show how tough it is to live a `good' life, and how it is impossible to always do the right thing.
This is one of the best novels by one of the best British novelists of all time.
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on 16 November 2012
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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on 7 February 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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on 8 July 2008
This is a magnificent book. It starts quite ordinarily enough and takes its time to get going but the wait is worth it. The first third of the novel is solid character building; and what characters they are. Green has a real talent for creating amazing personalities who you want to know more and more about. The central figure of Scobie is of course treated in great detail but the other people in the book jump out vividly too. From the ineffective priest Father Rank to my favourite the disgusting scheming Yusef, right through to more minor characters such as Harris and his terribly shabby hotel room in which he hunts cockroaches; not one is badly drawn.

This book is regarded as one of Greene Catholic novels and while there is a great deal of Catholic symbolism and debate about the nature of religion and the ultimate fate of the soul I found it to be rather a story about morality. Scobie is very strict with himself, he is someone who wrestles with his life and his place in the world. I am an atheist and have no time for thoughts about eternal damnation and the like but Greene's skilful writing makes Scobie's self torture amazingly compelling reading. Visual images such as the following are just fantastic to read as Scobie tries to come to terms with the results of his actions.

He thought: my heart has hardened, and he pictured the fossilised shells one picks up on a beach: the stony convolutions like arteries.

I found the conclusion to the story to be entirely predictable but was not disappointed by this in the least. Hints are dropped very early on by events in the story as to what the end will be and the reader is drawn inexorably onwards toward the inevitable finish. Green doesn't flinch at the end.

I will certainly be reading more of Graham Greene's work in the future.
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