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.

The Shape of The Quiet American

I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles, wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans.

The dates of work on the last page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are March 1952 – June 1955. It seems a long time for this short novel, and that it takes me half a day to read it might belittle the three year effort. But I’ve read it many times, it is familiar as an old friend, and I’m presently reading it for a second time this year. Twice in one year?

One learns the title character’s name (Pyle) and status (dead) within the first ten pages of the The Quiet American. This is not a spoiler; the book is a journey, not a destination. I have dozens of thoughts about this novel, but I’m now enjoying it for its structure as much as its story.

Greene didn’t play much with continuity in his novels–part of his apprenticeship as a thriller writer likely shaped his linear habits. But his best novel The End of the Affair jumps from wartime and peacetime London in odd fashion, and The Quiet American, with its four parts and divvied chapters within, loops back onto itself like an infinity ribbon ∞, mixing past and present, city life and countryside wars.

There is plenty of detail and color to the Indochina warfare of the mid-1950s Greene describes, and the chapter cuts Greene makes–from a nightclub dance floor to a darkened coastal outpost battle in the northern part of the country–are severe and catch one by surprise. The novel’s structure is jarring in that way, but fluid in its overall graceful shape; imagine cracks in that perpetual ribbon.

One reason the haphazard scenes work without linear relation is that Fowler, the narrator, is a journalist, and one can imagine a journalist in Vietnam covering disparate events from one day to the next–a celebration Friday, a bombing raid Saturday. Fowler is also a bitter man, and that too plays into the shape, as bitterness has a short shelf-life, and needs breaks and air to work well in a novel. The sharp cuts, the lack of continuity, are excellent techniques if one has a compelling narrator like Fowler, who acknowledges his happiness is his woman and his opium pipe and little else; he is narrow minded, but a great watcher in a vibrant warring country.

I likely won’t read The Quiet American a third time this year, but there is still time to do so.