Novel Interrupted: Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter debuts in 1948. It has been five years since a Greene novel appeared on the scene (1943’s The Ministry of Fear), but the first feature film of a Greene novel (Brighton Rock) is released in 1947. Whatever his literary reputation is at the time, it has been interrupted by the war. Wars are great interrupters.

The Heart of the Matter is divided into three books, and in those books are the further divisions of parts and chapters and sub-chapters that Greene loved. The Heart of the Matter feels like a novel written over a long period of time, and the pace and some of the plot points give a reader clues to the author’s state of mind and state of work.

A science teacher once told me that science’s impact on people was important, but not as important as war. War, more than anything, influences society, dictates who lives and dies, who thrives and who is diminished. Art suffers under war, and artists in wartime, the good artists who exist to make some sort of testament to society, have to contend with a society in chaos.

So The Heart of the Matter is a war novel, even though it is set in a far outpost of the war, in a thinly disguised Sierra Leone. The novel’s first book is terrific as a stand-alone work, of a failing marriage between Scobie, a colonial policeman, and his flighty wife Louise, who is justifiably out-of-sorts in Africa, and perhaps suffering belatedly from the death of their daughter.

A fool draws from fiction facts of its author. Greene was in Sierra Leone for the war, and it is quite possible he fell out of love with his wife there and began his affair(s) with younger women. Who knows or cares. But the five year creation-gestation of The Heart of the Matter is curious and interesting, because the book becomes a different sort of book in its second section, and if I had to guess I’d say he wrote it much later than the novel’s first section.

WWII impacted writers and publishers. You can see scarcity’s impact in the cheap paper quality of books of the times (my first edition of Brideshead Revisited is printed on what resembles newsprint.) And authors like Bruno Schulz and Irene Nemirovsky didn’t make it out alive. But the war also gave those who survived it time, time to work, and time to think about the work they did.

Greene never wrote the same after the war, after The Heart of the Matter, after the first section of The Heart of the Matter. Gone from Greene were the loose rambling stream-o’-consciousness homage of Brighton Rock or the cold semi-noir tone of The Ministry of Fear.

His postwar novels became more polished and neat–they are the neatest novels that I enjoy, compact and yet worldly, of the world and its complications, yet unambiguous. Most great novels (and novelists) are a bit messy around the edges, with scatterings of asides and ambiguity that engage a reader, that leave some resolutions up to a reader to decide. But Greene defied that conventional wisdom, thankfully, and produced great novels for another ten-plus years, all quite different from the novels he wrote before the war. His books tightened up, yet his characters bloomed and became unforgettable.