Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Heart of the Matter - Graham Greene

Graham Greene (1904-1991)

I am now completely enamored with Greene. I didn't want this book to end, or rather I wanted to crawl into the book, shake Scobie, give him a slap or two and say "Pull yourself together man! She's not worth it! They're not worth it!..." But instead, I was forced to sit idly by, while Henry Scobie came one step closer to his own crafted destruction, an accomplice to his despair and an accessory to his fate.

This is the second Greene book I have read, the first The Power and the Glory, left me somewhat nonplussed. The narrative was engrossing, but the characters seemed a little out of reach, a little underdeveloped perhaps, and even though they battled against their own private hell and against their own personal demons, neither felt tangible, their sorrows felt contained to the pages of the book, rather than the creeping sensation of Scobie's pain that wraps it's tendrils around your heart.

Henry Scobie is a Holden Caulfield type, alienated by his need to protect and care for those around him, his purpose echoes that of Holden, if he could stand on a cliff in a field of rye, catching the little children as they come hurtling towards the edge, that is what he would do, and in a sense does. His one definitive purpose is to cause his loved ones minimal harm, to protect them from the pain and heartache of the world, at whatever cost. As he plods through the drudgery and monotony of his daily life, his duties as a police officer of a small British colony somewhere on the west coast of Africa, create the backbone of his persona. He has been without leave for over 15 years, he endures the torpor, the isolation and all with the gravitas of a good catholic.  A man of character and honor, he has preferred his work over everything else, and as the book opens, despite his sacrifice and diligence, he has been passed over for the commissionership.

As he goes home to his nagging wife, the sweat drips off his brow, and he prepares himself for the habitual misery he has come to endure. His wife is dissatisfied with Scobie's ineffectual career, she desires prestige and a bit of conspicuous consumption here and there rather than the scrimping and saving and character without accolades. She is more disappointed than Scobie at his failure to obtain the commissionership and she, needing a change of scenery, adds her need to get away with some friends to the more luxurious South Africa to her repertoire of nagging.

Scobie has kept his life simple and straightforward up to this point, careful not to embroil himself in any untoward behavior, but he has no money and so one simple, careful step at a time he slowly becomes entangled in an unnavigable web of lies and dishonesty. And yet after the departure of Louise, it is not long before another has taken her place, another person he must provide comfort for and protect and when Louise unexpectedly returns, he must now balance the needs of all those he loves, like a tightrope walker, balancing between hope and despair. Unable to be honest with his wife, and unwilling to renounce his mistress he find himself committing the unpardonable sin, receiving communion in a state of mortal sin.

Now completely desperate to unshackle himself the constant never-ending demands of his loved ones and the incessant reminder of his damnation, and the shame of unrepentance, he decides to free himself. He carefully feigns illness, play acting angina so that Louise will receive the life insurance he has been quietly accumulating. His death will free Louise from the knowledge of his affair, the desperate fact that he loves another, simultaneously freeing Helen from the quiet charade of their love.

Yet, even this doesn't go according to plan, and after he has carefully choreographed everything down to the last seconds of his life, the moment he is gone, we realize Louise has known all along about the affair, and his carefully constructed journal entries only serve to toss suspicions on his sudden death.  Louise cannot believe her husband would throw away his life, that he would commit the one unforgivable sin for anything so purposeless as love...but life is short and she quickly moves on, exchanging Scobie for another man and leaving his fate to God.

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