the Penguin 20th Century Classics cover of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter (1948)

The Heart of the Matter

  • Author:  Graham Greene  (1904  –  1991)
  • Rank:  #65
  • Published:  1948
  • Publisher:  William Heinemann
  • Pages:  272
  • First Line:  “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”
  • Last Lines:  “Father Rank said, ‘It may seem an odd thing to say – when a man’s as wrong as he was – but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.’  She had denied just now that she felt any bitterness, but a little more of it drained out now like tears from exhausted ducts.  ‘He certainly loved no one else,’ she said.  ‘And you may be in the right of it there too,’ Father Rank replied.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  James Tait Black Memorial Prize, All-TIME List, Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century – #40
  • Film:  1953  (***.5)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1999

The Novel: There are those like Joyce and Rushdie whose religious upbringing informs their work, or Roth’s whose is inescapable, but there may be no greater writer than Graham Greene whose choice of religion is more explicit in his work and in none of his novels it is on display like in The Heart of the Matter.  Just look at the line early in the novel.  Scobie, the policeman protagonist, is checking the cabin of a ship for contraband during the Second World War in a British colonial town in West Africa.  Scobie has discovered an illegal envelope and is trying to decide what to do with it.  The captain of the ship, desperate to escape trouble tries talking him out of it but Scobie will have none of it.  Then we have this exchange:

‘I shall pray,’ the man said without hope.

‘Why not?’ Scobie said.

‘You are an Englishman.  You wouldn’t believe in prayer.’

‘I’m a Catholic, too,’ Scobie said.

In those four simple lines Greene cuts to the heart of the his character and his feeling of isolation.  That an Englishman in the mid 20th Century would have no belief in prayer is taken for granted.  That being a Catholic would overcome being an Englishman, that this would seem a contradiction some 400 years after the founding of the Church of England says so much about the time and place.  Of course, that Catholicism doesn’t stop Scobie from having an affair when his wife goes off to South Africa on holiday.  In fact, it leads to one of the more poignant moments in the novel: ” ‘It’s a wonderful excuse being a Catholic,’ she said.  ‘It doesn’t stop you sleeping with me – it only stops you marrying me.’ ”

Scobie fits in very well with many of the other protagonists of Greene’s best work – the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, Bendix in The End of the Affair, Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American – in that he is a man whose moral code weakens, often the result of a woman and his belief in God is shaken.  If you only knew Greene from his work and not his biographical history you would think that perhaps he was raised Catholic and moved away like Joyce.  In fact, Greene didn’t join the church until he was 22 and remained a Catholic the rest of his life.  His religion informs his work.  He finds, in his characters, the limits of religious belief: “He didn’t drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of sin as virtue.”

His Scobie is also a man out of place, again a mark of Greene’s characters: “If home for him meant the reduction of things to a friendly unchanging minimum, home to her was accumulation.”  In The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American and even Travels With My Aunt, Greene explored the lack of national identity for those British citizens abroad, their lack of focus in the ever changing 20th Century as the British Empire came to its dusk.  Yet he never wallows in sentimentality either: ” ‘Love isn’t as simple as you think it is, Wilson.  You read too much poetry.’ ”

Of the best writers of the 20th Century, Greene is perhaps the least appreciated.  He does not seem to be taught very much in spite of his masterpieces (three novels in my list plus close finishes from Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory).  Several excellent film versions of his work were made in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s but Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and Our Man in Havana have all been difficult to find until recently.  He was passed over for the Nobel Prize, most notably in 1974 when he, Nabokov and Saul Bellow were finalists and all rejected in favor of two Swedish writers who were relatively unknown and happened to be on the Nobel Committee.  I myself never read any of his novels until The Heart of the Matter ended up on the Modern Library list.  This novel is a great place to start reading Greene but don’t stop there.  There are so many other great works to explore.

The Film: already reviewed here