The Heart Of The Matter By Graham Greene – Harsh In Theory, Forgiving In Reality

The Heart Of The Matter is Graham Greene’s 1948 novel about a senior colonial police officer working in a west African country during World War Two. Henry Scobie prides himself on his honesty. However, his unhappy wife, Louise, wants to escape from their stultifying colonial community and take a solo break in South Africa. To pay for Louise’s passage, Scobie compromises himself by accepting a loan from a dodgy business man, when the bank refuses him credit. While his wife is away, Henry falls in love with another woman. This results in much self loathing and inner turmoil, made worse by his Catholic faith which condemns adultery as a mortal sin.

In some ways The Heart Of The Matter reminded me of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book about a nineteenth century Nigerian chief living his life according to local social expectations, running into the values of European colonial missionaries. Scobie is constantly beating himself up about adultery, when the people he lives amongst don’t seem to know what adultery is. When a local person refers to their sister or brother, Scobie asks the standard question, “same father or mother?” He has got so used to the prevalence of half brothers and sisters, that he doesn’t give a second thought to the possibility of eternal damnation for their adulterous parents. And in his own culture, adultery is actually much more accepted than might be expected for a mortal sin. Scobie encourages his wife’s relationship with a sympathetic man friend because it lightens his emotional load. One part of his mind sees adultery as beyond forgiveness: another part doesn’t really mind if Louise has an affair as long as she’s happy and stops stressing late at night when he’s trying to sleep. And when Louise disappears off to South Africa, she hears about Scobie’s affair from a friend and decides she’d better stop being an absent wife and go back to sort things out. Louise is a devout Catholic, but the theory of adultery as a terrible crime fails to match her level-headed approach to the reality of her relationship problems.

The whole book revolves around this conundrum of the relative nature of vice and virtue, and Henry’s increasingly desperate attempts to balance one against the other, when it isn’t always clear which is which.

There is some interesting use of point of view in The Heart Of The Matter. The book actually opens not from Scobie’s perspective, but from that of a socially awkward undercover officer called Wilson, who has been sent out to check on the work of the police. In a traditional detective story, Wilson would have been the central character uncovering Scobie’s wrong doing. A rather peripheral character would have been the heart of the matter. But in this story there is no such centre. There is no authority to which all questions can be referred. Instead there is a pervading confusion, which in an arbitrary way, can condemn, or confer forgiveness on anyone.

This is an intense read, about an intense, kind hearted, highly self-involved person. But there are a few lighter moments. I enjoyed Scobie’s struggles to entertain a young boy in hospital, when the only books available in the library are heavy, worthy religious tomes – there is nothing so low-brow as a novel on the shelves. He does an admirable job of improvisation, turning a missionary’s dull autobiography into an adventure story about pirates.

The Heart Of The Matter does a similar job, turning a heavy tome about spiritual and moral crisis into a novel that might help its readers step back and see things in a lighter and more forgiving way. For the missionary types in this African town, novels are a vice. The Heart Of The Matter turns them into a virtue.

A Swim In The Pond In The Rain by George Saunders – A Deep Dive Into Writing

A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is a book version of George Saunders’ Syracuse University course on fiction writing, taught via a selection of short stories by nineteenth century Russian authors who serve as models for how it might be done.

I’ve read a number of ‘how to write’ books, and many of them warn against things like inconsistent point of view, or the liberal use of adverbs. A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is not so literal. It does have guidance on what makes a good story – give mind to escalation, try to make one thing cause another. But all this is sometimes contradicted by the Russian stories used as illustration. Both causation and escalation are, shall we say, enigmatic in The Nose by Gogol, where a man’s nose takes on a life if it’s own.

Even though it might seem that this book has no straightforward prescription, there is one piece of advice it gives consistently. A writer of fiction is often told to show not tell. This old chestnut is mentioned in passing, referring to Turgenev getting carried away with long physical descriptions in his story The Singers. But showing might not just be about descriptions. The Russian authors we read here are very good at showing complicated situations or characters from all angles, rather than telling a reader what to think about them. Chekhov’s Gooseberries, a story about the nature of happiness, has George commenting:

“The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.”

Our Russian mentors show that good writing, in accepting contradiction, does not push readers to focus on one side of an argument to the exclusion of the other. To me, showing rather than telling, is a straight-forward way of describing the light touch, naturally tolerant nature of good fiction, providing for thought and reflection rather than a set of conclusions.

I really enjoyed this book. I valued the description of writing as a process of many decisions about a sentence, giving the best chance of arriving at a good sentence. This certainly chimed with me. Early in my writing efforts I thought the need for endless fettling meant that I was a hopeless incompetent – but the encouragement here to revise, revise, revise reminded me of the relief I felt coming across a remark of Somerset Maugham. He was talking to M.M. Kaye, at that point a struggling writer, who admitted to spending entire days bogged down on single sentences. Maugham replied: “My dear young woman, that’s the only thing you’ve said to make me think you may be a novelist one day.”

The tone of this book is friendly. The author is someone leading a collaborative thinking effort, rather than telling us what to think. I had a similar tutor at university. She told us that Shakespeare, for all his fame as a great writer, is not actually saying anything. As with Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, Shakespeare shows us complications but does not tell us what to think about them. All we can do is “maintain the paradoxes” as my tutor said. I didn’t think of that tutor as professor so-and-so, because for all her knowledge, she was more in the business of showing us things to think about, rather than professing – which is the fanciest form of telling. Her classes came to mind as I read A Swim In The Pond In The Rain.