The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

Only his own heart-beats told him he was guilty-that he had joined the ranks of the corrupt police officers-Bailey who had kept a safe deposit in another city. Crayshaw who had been found with diamonds, Boyston against whom nothing had been definitely proved and who had been invalided out. They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name it’s price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, or even a smell remembered.

I’m going to absolutely give away the ending in this review, just so you know.

Scobie. Why did you do it? I kind of think I know, it’s not what James Wood told me it was, although I agree with his premise in his finale revealing introduction, in fact James Wood. Why did you do it?

Scobie is a great name, I couldn’t tell you why but it’s probably one of my favourite names in literature, something from my whimsy side there. Scobie is a straight up police officer in an un-named West African state during the war. He is overlooked for promotion and is split between the happiness of his job and the struggle to make his wife Louise happy. He finally achieves this by sending her away to South Africa where she is far removed from the bitchiness of their small circle. Before she goes though the newly arrived Wilson declares his love for her, and she rebuffs him.

Once Louise has gone it seems things will be better for Scobie, despite the suicide of another officer, he no longer has to coax Louise to a semblance of happiness, the heaviest of his responsibilities.

He could see in the driver’s mirror Ali nodding and beaming. It seemed to him that this was all he needed of love or friendship. He could be happy with no more in the world than this-the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness. If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him-that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.

Then the survivors of a ship wreck appear and Scobie, whose heart is drawn towards the unremarkable, falls for a young widow, Helen, who brings up a passion and love that long ago disappeared into familiar comfort for Louise. As Scobie flounders in his new found feelings, clashing as they would with his Catholic faith, he loses his anchor and starts to list in his own world, and slowly, inexorably, draws towards Yusef the Syrian merchant, who helps him in his own way. His is also under the watch of Wilson, who has an ulterior motive behind his arrival as a clerk.

He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word ‘pity’ is used as loosely as the word ‘love’: the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

After the affair lasts some time, Louise suddenly announces she is coming home and Scobie ends his relationship with Helen, but is understandably wracked by guilt as Louise wants to start afresh and thinks that confession for them both will help. As he flounders more and more, Yusef inadvertently pushes him over the edge and he sees only one way out.

EPIC SPOILER ALERT. And it’s here that I have a problem with James Wood’s introduction. He reveals that Scobie commits suicide before the book even starts, as part of his critique of how Scobie is a flawed character by Greene’s standards. On the one hand I agree with elements of his premise, on the other hand, he’s told me the ending before I’ve read it, and after finishing I feel he has influenced how I feel about the book. Wood’s believes that Scobie would not in reality have committed suicide, as the feelings that would have caused him to divert down this route would have lessened over time, using an argument from George Orwell, (either he would have had an affair long before, and his guilt would have lessened, or his fear of adultery being a mortal sin would have forced him to stop) and so he would of survived his own emotional storm in the face of his staunch Catholic beliefs.
My own feeling is that it’s Yusef, one of my favourite characters in the book, who finally pushes Scobie when Scobie goes to him for help late in the book.
Scobie’s unravelling starts when he lets off the Portuguese captain by burning his letter, and continues when he asks Yusef for the money to send Louise to South Africa. I felt that while he proclaims his suicide will allow Louise and Helen to be happy, that they will be better off without him, it is a way to convince himself that the suicide will allow his God to forgive him. For me the cause is the corruption of himself, of which Helen is merely a part. The erosion of his scruples are what drags him down, and his lack of trust following his own betrayal, sends him to Yusef who causes him more pain, and he can simply see no way back.

But despite my petty annoyance at James Wood, I enjoyed The Heart of the Matter. Greene depicts his characters with the just right level of depth, and even characters such as Father Rank, Wilson or Yusef are painted with enough detail to allow them to greatly contribute to the story without being major players. Yusef especially I felt was a great counter point to Scobie, and a book centred around their relationship would have potentially been just as interesting.
I can’t say it’s my favourite Greene novel, and I would certainly recommend reading the introduction after you’ve finished, but if you like Greene, you’ll like Scobie.

He had known police officers whose nerves broke down in the effort to separate a single grain of incontestable truth; they ended, some of them, by striking a witness, they were pilloried in the local Creole papers and were invalided home or transferred. It woke in some men a virulent hatred of a black skin, but Scobie, had long ago, during his fifteen years, passed through the dangerous stages; now lost in the tangle of lies he felt an extraordinary affection for these people who paralysed an alien form of justice by so simple a method.