A week ago I finished #68 from Time's list, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. This was the 2nd Greene book I've read from the list, so he joins Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner with this honor. I'm happy to report that this book was more enjoyable than Woolf and Faulkner's books combined. In fact, I think it's safe to say I'd rather read this book 100 times, than read those four books once.
Henry Scobie is a policeman, serving in an unnamed West Africa colony during the War. Scobie is, in many ways, a classic colonial Englishman, dedicated to Queen and country and proud of his English heritage and traditions. But unlike most of his contemporaries in West Africa, Scobie is also very honest; refusing bribes and for the most part doing what is "right." Or at least, what he feels is right.
Scobie is married to Louise, who, to put it bluntly, is an unpleasant person. Since the death of their child in England several years earlier, Louise has worn Scobie down, and while he cares about her well-being, and for her future, he no longer loves her. His devotion to her now is born from his devout Catholicism, which he converted to for her hand in marriage.
Scobie's sense of duty and lack of funds have combined to strand him at his West Africa post, with retirement seemingly as far away as it was 30 years prior, when his career began. But Louise, who has been unable to fit in with the other ex-pats, longs to move to South Africa.
In an effort to rid himself of Louise, while at the same time ensuring her welfare, Scobie plots to make such a trip possible. After being turned down by the banks for a loan, Scobie, against all his instincts, turns to Yusef, a local black marketeer, honestly borrowing the money at a fair interest rate. Of course a loan from a black marketeer never turn out to be that honest.
Soon Louise is sent to South Africa and Scobie remains at home, a weight seemingly gone from his shoulders, content that he has done the right thing. But when a boat washes ashore carrying castaways, including the young Helen Rolt, Scobie's life begins to spiral downward, out of control. He soon begins an affair with the young woman, while becoming further involved with Yusef. When Louise decides to return from South Africa, Scobie is forced to take a long look at his life and the life of the people he cares for.
The Heart of the Matter could only be described as a tragedy. At no point is there a sense that anything will work out for the protagonist, and as I read, I was left holding out with some kind of faint hope, that maybe things would work out for Scobie. Despite his flaws, Scobie is a good person, and makes for a very sympathetic character. As I read of his slow, but inevitable, decline, I couldn't help but feel pity for this doomed man.
The meat of the book concerns Scobie wrestling with a dilemma, he would like to do what's right, but is forced to try and do so in a time and place where the right thing to do is almost impossible.And while he doesn't want to cause pain to his co-workers, his wife, his mistress, or even Yusef, it seems every decision he makes only exacerbates the situation; like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Scobie may be the most tragic character I've come across through the first 68 books on this list. The combination of helplessness and righteousness make for a character I couldn't help but sympathize with. And Greene's wonderful exploration of this downfall, and the internal struggle he faces, made for a book I couldn't put down.
I was reminded of The Sheltering Sky while reading this one, as I felt the same sense of helplessness reading it. I know things aren't going to work out for Scobie, at the same time knowing there is nothing I could do about it. And I think this might be why it was such a good book; I knew what was going to happen (more or less), but was still desperate to find out exactly how it would happen.
My next book will be Possession by A.S. Byatt. The title is actually Possession: a Romance, which I suppose has me a little worried. But I'm probably a little worried because the mere mention of the word 'romance' has me thinking of Harlequin. I doubt this book is anything like a Harlequin novel, but I'm a little worried nonetheless.