The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
Before I discuss this rather odd, touching, yet ultimately annoying little book, I would like to point out a fact about my (so-called, inverted comma) book reviews that many people don't seem to grasp.
MY LJ-CUT. LET ME SHOW YOU IT.
Whether you think a book is fantastic or the worst thing since someone gave Charles Dickens a pen and said, 'Sit quietly like a good boy and write a story while Mummy rests', it is a basic tenet of politeness NOT TO SPOIL IT FOR OTHERS. God knows there are people who enjoy Dickens! So if I heedlessly revealed the plot of all his books before they'd had a chance to read them, they would be rightly - and UNDERSTANDABLY - pissed. Seriously, dudes. I'll make up my own mind on the literary issues in books; in the meantime, I'd like the chance to actually read for myself how they end.
This also counts if the book was published yesterday or in the year dot. I still haven't got through my thirty Vow books in the months since June; the chances are I've missed whole centuries of literature. And I bet I'm not alone.
I enjoyed the writing in this book. It's crisp, yet informed by experience. Buuuut ... the plot is wobbly. I kind of assumed Scobie was going to fall for a black woman. The blurb - damn those things! - also implied that he was an hard-boiled cop in the mould of Sam Vimes who lost his head over a woman. Given the times and contemporary racial sentiment, if the woman was black it would have heightened the tragedy. Otherwise, I'm not sure why it was set in South Africa at all. If it was set there - the fact was never made entirely clear. It took me AGES to figure out that 'the war' was in fact the WWII. I still don't know why it was wrong for the Esperanca's captain to send a personal letter to his daughter.
So on the one hand we have this limping love story, with the interesting stamp-collection issue that turned out to be a non-runner. (Although, oh, when he wrote 'I love you' on the back of the George stamp, I nearly forgave all.) Then there's Yusef's side-plot. I decided Yusef was in love with Scobie; there was simply no other reason for him to be so pally-wally, so concerned for Scobie's welfare. Ali's murder was utterly baffling; I still don't know why it was warranted.
Finally, the Catholicism. Oh, the Catholicism. It grew from a niggle Scobie had with Louise, who essentially forced him to convert, to being the be-all and end-all of his life - literally the end-all. It was like halfway through, Greene decided to turn Scobie into a tortured martyr. The mental agonies he suffered made me roll my eyes. I couldn't help it. As a card-carrying atheist, I felt all he needed was a good healthy dose of common sense. Besides, he really wasn't a Catholic if he committed adultery. He shouldn't have been able to contemplate it or, if he did, certainly not to act upon it. Obviously this outrules 90% of practising Catholics in any one place or time - but so it should. Hello, religion is a bunch of daft rules written by a bunch of daft old men before they invented the wheel, probably. This applies to all of them. And people tie themselves into such knots ... think of Scientology. We think it's insane simply because it's new; it is only in that respect that it differs from any other.
In essence, the religion ruined the book for me. It was like the obs lecture we got two weeks ago - very entertaining, informative and well-presented, in the way so few lectures are. The lecturer was advocating breast-feeding - again, point in his favour - until he threw in the bombshell. 'After all,' says he, 'that's the use God intended them for.' My friend leaned over and said, 'Did he really just use the G word?' I was so disappointed; the rest of the lecture's value was utterly negated for me. In the same way, Greene's G-word plot threw off the rest.
Mind you, it was pretty scattery anyway. Louise and Wilson's relationship read like a crack pairing on ff.net. Oh, poetry! Oh, let's kiss! Oh, let's get married! I guess he was trying to show how odd Louise's character was, but all he succeeded in doing was making me think he just didn't care enough to write it better.
He couldn't tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined - the taste of gin at midday, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.
We all know this feeling, but I think it's expressed artfully here. With a nice contrast from the ugly flopping bird. You go, ugly flopping bird!
He had a dim idea that if one delayed long enough, things were taken out of one's hands altogether by death.
Ha, an argument for apathy if ever I saw one! Scobie's greatest failing was apathy, something I usually abhor, but for some reason I couldn't hate him. Weird.
Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst; you didn't love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.
Reminds me of Ankh-Morpork! Only Scobie doesn't seem amused by it, just ... thankful for the lack of artifice? I can relate.
The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.
The sweat pored down his face and tasted in his mouth as salt as tears. 'Sleep.' He moevd the rabbit's ears up and down, up and down. Then he heard Mrs Bowles' voice, speaking low just behind him. 'Stop that,' she said harshly. 'The child's dead.'
OMG that whole scene made me cry.
He walked away, feeling an extraordinary happiness, but this he would not remember as happiness, as he would remember setting out in the darkness, in the rain, alone.
I don't know what to say about that - except that I often don't recognise happiness for what it is, and think that it's just rain.
'To start off happy,' said Harris. 'It must make an awful difference afterwards. Why, it might become a habit, mightn't it?'
He felt the loyalty we feel to unhappiness - the sense that it is where we really belong.
Christ had not been murdered - you couldn't murder God. Christ had killed himself
Interesting point, one I wish I'd come up with myself. Then again, suicide being the ultimate sin against despair has kind of gone out of vogue now. You wouldn't catch a priest refusing to bury a suicide in consecrated ground these days. As well it should be - it's all bullshit anyway. Dump me in the ocean, kthanx.
'The prayers we pray don't count, surely?'
'No, but when the moment of Grace returns the rise,' the captain raised his fat arms in an absurd and touching gesture, 'all at once together like a flock of birds.'
Pretty image. Of course, that's all it is.
It's a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love.'
V. true. Poor Scobie loved so long and so hard and so well, but he wasn't happy for a single moment.
Um. What was the point of this book?
Previously, on Book Glomp 2008:
Middlemarch | Invisible Monsters | A Thousand Splendid Suns | Love in the Time of Cholera | Oscar and Lucinda | Kim | Breakfast at Tiffany's | Atonement | To the Lighthouse | On the Road | Brideshead Revisited | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Bonjour Tristesse | A Passage to India | Three Men in a Boat | Vile Bodies | Prozac Nation