Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

by Graham Greene, 1948.

Greene is an intimidatingly good writer. A lot of the truly classic authors carry with them a certain mystique, arriving with all their major plot details spoiled, a fancy edition with an introduction by someone else. Not that all such literary classics are great, or even good (see the next review) but this type of reputation more often than not indicates a strong accomplishment. Greene is an author of that stature, but I first encountered him as a more casual, as if less celebrated author, and to an extent that still comes through in the book editions I get, the lack of major literary discussion on him I come across, and even the name. "Greene", really? Is that the name of a literary giant?

Greene is the name of a literary giant. He's one of the best, and The Heart of the Matter is very much up to form. The pace works to deliver the core struggles of the character through the plot to the reader, at a certain point in analysis looking for something as a plot-element or a character-revealing element breaks down. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as The Comedians or the Human Factor, but it's an impressive work by any light.

Ultimately this book is an account of a man who commits adultery and then suicide, believing throughout that both actions damn his soul to an eternal hell. I'm quite a few degrees away from supporting a belief in adultery, suicide or damnation, yet I still found it a very moving story, one that benefits from rendering an alien form of thought as utterly credible to me. At times a good mainstream author can offer a more complex world-building experience than a lot of science fiction ones, here it brings home how strange and complex our fellow humans can be. There's always another narrative. This is something that all good writers have to tackle to some extent, but it emerges with particular force in Greene. In part this particular scenario probably benefits from Greene's own religious philosophy, but he's able to take the commitment very seriously. Scobie deals with his situation in some very destructive ways, but he retains his own viewpoint and set of justifications, and when his mistress claims he couldn't believe in damnation for his adultery, or his wife claims he couldn't have committed suicide, they're both wrong, and wrong in a manner that shows a crucial failure of imagination. Greene's accomplishment isn't merely that he represents Scobie as a highly sympathetic and moral man, but that he shows him to be as complex and self-regarding as any other, despite the intrinsic contradictions built into his final actions.

Though as I said, not entirely in his best. One defect with worldbuilding--using again a science fiction staple for this non-SF book, which seems consistently appropriate--here is not giving enough focus on the colonial scope. The book takes place in WWII British West Africa, and there's some very good scenes on the racial bias issues inherent to that situation, but the whole thing doesn't go nearly far enough for me, doesn't engage with the real ugliness and ambivalent passions promoted by this issue, in the way Orwell renders so well. Instead Scobie comes across as largely calm and unaffected by this issue, and there's a lot of untapped potential here. Still, this book is by my standards a masterpiece.

Reminded me of and was better than: Flaubert's Madame Bovary
Reminded me of and was worse than: Coetzee's Disgrace

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