The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. 1948. Viking Press, NYC (306 pgs)
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third-Person standard, near, but not close. The reader is able to know the thoughts of the character being followed, but to only observe other characters actions and words. That voice shifts from one character to another, but remains consistent, changing at the beginnings of the short chapters.
First Sentence or so: “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the iron work.”
What we learn in first paragraphs: Wilson is new in town, indicated by “his bald pink knees”. The streets of this British Colonial port town are a hub-bub of activity. He sits alone in a bar watching the passersby but has no interest in the black women in the street below and their “brilliant afternoon dresses of blue and cerise”. It is Sunday and the blacks are heading churchward. The white governmental-classes are at the beach several miles away. A bearded Indian offers to tell Wilson’s fortune. He feels “almost intolerably lonely” as a large vulture lands on the roof of the building across the street.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Early in the first ten pages we are introduced to Wilson and the tangled local politics from a man who joins him in the bar who is, ironically, a government official whose job it is to read the secret cable transmissions, but has no compunction about discussing them in public. This looseness reflects further as he gossips about Scobie, a high ranking police officer, who passes by, again ironically, as the vulture flaps its great wings.
The story shifts away from Wilson to Scobie, who, from these ten pages I assume, will become the main character of the story. (I’ll have to read past the tenth page to find out.) As we move away from Wilson toward Scobie, the focus of the narrative narrows from the largeness of politics and the city streets to a more personal description of a man “who is reducing”, giving away his things instead of accumulating. Scobie is informed that he has been passed over for the Commissioner’s position and the commissioner expresses his regret saying that Scobie is just and a, “…wonderful man for picking up enemies.” After the interview the narrative focus narrows further as Scobie interviews a young black women with a complaint. He want to help, but he has seen in all before and helping would probably cause more hurt than good. He dismisses her admonishing her to, “try and tell the truth,” and then watching, “her go out of the dark office like fifteen wasted years.”
Character: Interestingly, women play a large part in the thoughts and actions of each of the men indicated in the first ten pages. Scobie has regrets about bringing his wife to the tropics. Wilson is unaffected by the native women in the street. And yet, their point of view and the authorial narrative often refer to women both as setting and atmosphere as well as characters.
Setting: West Indian Coastal city after the war has started, presumably World War II. Climate is hot and sticky. Everyone sweats.
Plot & Expectations: Over the course of the novel I expect the plot will follow Scobie, Wilson and others as they negotiate class, bureaucracy, human need, dignity and the smearing effects of gossip. Scobie, a man of decent moral character, is on a downward trajectory and the plot indicates that we will follow his slide as a parallel to the sliding authority of the British Colonial government. It seems that each character, colonial and native, will wrestle with their ability to do good or get ahead in the world. Historically we are watching the end of World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire played out on an individual, human level in Scobie and the other characters.
Notes: I have not read a Graham Greene novel before so I was interested to find this hardcover in a garage sale box in the rain. It is interesting to note that the early narrative of The Heart of the Matter telescopes the readers attention from small to larger and then back to an intimate exchange. Greene introduces a character (Wilson), widens the reader’s view to include the immediate bar and street and the characters within Wilson’s visual scope, and then flies into Wilson’s imagination and his shame of being considered a poet. From this loft point he is interrupted by the arrival of another character who wishes to join him, during which they engage in the first dialogue of the story which slows the pace of the story to real time. The introduction of Scobie at the beginning of the next chapter follows a similar pattern, going from simple physical descriptions to Scobie’s larger thoughts and imagination. The scene ends in a dialogue scene with his Sergent about the girl Scobie will meet at the end of the scene.