Friday, October 21

Considering Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter"

I have no interest in novels that hinge on acts and practices of infidelity. That, along with the excessive praise, pretty well guarantees that I will never read Franzen's Freedom. The Heart of the Matter hinges on a practice of infidelity, but it's written by Graham Greene, and I would read 560-page novel about the men of the IRS if Greene wrote it.

What turns me off from stories of infidelity is how small they are. One or both partners are tired of the other. They are no longer the person they married. They are not living the life they had wanted. They need to make a drastic change. They have sex with someone else. They may or may not repent and return to their partner, but it doesn't really matter. It's petty and disgusting.

Through Greene, though, with Scobie and Louise and Wilson and Helen, though, there are stakes. There is the sense of a whim at the beginning of the affair, but it has consequences that matter to Scobie. It is nothing less than the fate of his immortal soul at stake as well as the emotional lives of the two women he loves. I appreciate that about Heart. Things matter in it. Scobie cares whether he takes the Body in a state of grace and how he upholds all his responsibilities and the duties of his job. If there was any irony on the part of the hero, I do not remember it. He has honor. It was refreshing.

To be sure, Scobie has a God complex. He has the arrogance to believe that his decision alone will determine the ultimate and unending happiness or pain of two women, but he is rescued by his absolute earnestness. There is nothing false or prevaricating about him. It's a razor edge that Greene follows to write Scobie. It would take only a suggestion of a complaint on Scobie's part that he deserved the promotion to commissioner or that he didn't deserve the travails thrust upon him to turn him into the sort of man that whines he is the nice guy that always finishes last, but Scobie maintains his dignity throughout in a place that is too often petty and evil. I, too, have a hard time holding much against a man who wonders whether, "If one knew ... the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?" and actually lives according to it, able to forgive even the man who openly and without dignity pursues Scobie's wife.

And the writing is just brilliant. The chapter where Scobie and Yusef wait for the arrival Ali is breathless.

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