Reread #3 wrapup: The Heart of the Matter

by david

(New to this? I’m rereading my favorite books that I hardly remember.)

OK. The Heart of the Matter. High fives all around. With the exception of the anti-malarial drinking, which I said was a grasping guess, I was pretty much across the board accurate in my memory (although accurate in the way any horoscope seems accurate—I was terribly vague).

That said, three things stand out on the reread:

1) I really felt like I was reading it for the first time. I just had no idea at all of what was coming. So high fiving behind us, I need to reiterate that this whole project is still foundationally sound: I don’t remember a damn thing.

2) Wilson is one of the scariest characters in all of fiction because it would be so easy for anybody to become Wilson. Out of his element, embittered, abusive of the tiny scrap of power he has, lacking perspective, smart but unaware of all the things he doesn’t know and understand, and most of all lonely. Perhaps there’s something in his character that would have made him turn out this way in any circumstance, but his removal to an unfamiliar African colony on a fool’s errand he’s ill-suited for seems like something worse than a death sentence. He’s bound to live the worst of his many possible lives.

3) I don’t think it’s possible that I read this novel with the same view of Scobie as I have now, and I don’t think it’s possible that my earlier reading was sensitive to Graham Greene’s own view of Scobie, which is unmistakably negative. I honestly don’t remember what I thought of him, but I seem to recall thinking of him as noble in some way. On the fresh reading, it’s noble only in a way that is simultaneously patronizing and childish. Yes, his self portrait is a noble one, but it’s based on an idea that everybody around him has their reality shaped and guided by his actions. People will only be happy if he makes them happy. People will only suffer if he causes their suffering. All the weight is on him. His trust in others is largely transactional. As the colony’s policeman, this isn’t a terrible approach, but as a husband, friend, or really anything else, he’s a disaster. His walking around bent with the weight of the world on his shoulders is actually a weird strut. He wonders why Louise can’t be happy. Maybe she can’t. But he’s in no position to ever figure anything out, because all he wants to do is paper it over. He’s obsessed with peace. Peace is not happiness, and chasing it as he does only creates waves of violence around him. Surely I must have gotten some of this the first time around, but it felt like new information this time: it isn’t the story of an impossible situation, it’s the story of a man who makes every situation impossible.

Also, I wasn’t impressed with Graham’s build up to the final scene with Ali. It seemed too sudden and as if the emotional tie between the men was suddenly much stronger than warranted by what we’d seen so far. Certainly, Scobie’s grief is understandable, and the betrayal is clear, but I’d have thought, in retrospect, that we’d have seen something more, some great act of trust between the men that makes the betrayal deeper. But that’s a quibble, something to offer in a workshop when the story’s too good.

Really happy to have returned to the book. On to the next!