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Monday, June 08, 2015

The Heart of the Matter (1948) by Graham Greene

Freetown, Sierra Leone, is the location of Graham Green's excellent 1948 novel, The Heart of the Matter.

Book Review
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
 by Graham Greene

  Sad John Scobie is a colonial police officer waiting out World War II in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  He's got all the accouterments that one would expect a mid 20th century colonial officer to have in a novel:   Dead child, sad wife, surly help, a shifty Lebanese merchant who is willing to help him but at what cost.   Greene's status as a Catholic novelist and- considering that every book he writes deals with Catholic characters grappling with questions surrounding their faith in the modern world- the sobriquet seems justified- means that his characters neatly avoid the existentialist dilemmas of less faith concerned protagonists in 20th century literature.

  Graham Greene is a bridge between the white male/England heavy past of literature and the multi-religious, multi-ethnic present.  He was also hugely popular, and The Heart of the Matter was hugely popular, selling more than 300,000 copies in hard back.  The Heart of the Matter almost has a formulaic quality- and I say this as a compliment- the same way that one might call a successful Hollywood film "formulaic" but acknowledge that the film demonstrates mastery of that formula.

  The formula I'm talking about is something different than the formula for the "colonial novel" of the type written by Joseph Conrad and George Orwell.   Those novels put the place first.  Here, Greene uses Africa as a minor character, with the emphasis fully on the relatable John Scobie and his moral dilemma.  His narrative also includes a twist ending and a dollop of racy sex type activity.  Which is all to say that The Heart of the Matter is both literary and entertaining, fun to read and thought-provoking.  A template for modern literature.  One thing Graham Greene isn't is cool.  His books aren't kept alive by a counter-cultural readership or read in literature class.  I would argue this makes his works ripe for repurposing, except for the fact that they are still under copyright and regrettably not in the public domain.

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