Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene is a writer who never disappoints.  Nevertheless, of his many novels published in the 20th century, only one—The Heart of the Matter—makes the Modern Library’s list at #40.
            Written and published at the tail end of World War II, set in Africa with British characters, this is a story about moralism. It involves a main character who commits acts against his core beliefs and then makes an ultimate decision that he understands to be a generous one designed to set things right again. The paradox is, however, that it represents a special kind of self-absorption: the superior notion that he has the right to determine what is best for others.  This is the attitude of the so-called “white man’s burden” espoused in tandem with imperialism.  This man, therefore, is a metaphor for the British in Africa.
            This novel is more than a fable or allegory.  A signature style of Greene’s is that his novels tend to have a detective-story feel, and also have something of an O. Henry twist to them. The story unfolds as if a mystery was presented to be solved. He writes with the sensibility of a filmmaker: the stories present themselves visually and viscerally. They are easy and engaging reads, while also intellectually and morally involved. 
            Greene published between the early 1920s, when he was himself only in his 20s, and the early 1980s, within a decade of his death.  His stories are contemporary to his time. This makes him truly a writer of the 20th century. Greene is a go-to writer for me.  Each of his novels is fully absorbing, of the kind that you’d rather not break from until it’s done, and then rather not have it done.  There is a similarity to them that borders on formulaic (like a detective novel), but his eye for detail and the depth of his compassion save them from being mere entertainments (though they can be that as well).  The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, and The Third Man top my list of favorites from Greene’s hand.  But The Heart of the Matter was singled out for acclaim, perhaps because of the overt moral argument it presents. Like The Bridge of San Luis Rey (reviewed in the previous column), this novel is one about Catholicism. The dogmatic ethics contrast with the seemingly unruly native society, allowing the story to explore the nature of adherence and accommodation.
Some of the ideas that arise from this story are these: Pity has erosive effects. Sticking to rules doesn’t work in the real world, not for everyone at least, not when the society is heterogeneous and imbalanced, when some people are privileged and some are not. Rules-following might be a luxury of privileged people.  Religious dogma, particularly Catholic tenets, might be suffocating, unsuited to real life by real people.  Life is unpredictable, and a single person cannot know what is best for other people or even for himself, even when his faith in himself is unshakeable.  People are intriguing.  Those we have to live with are baffling.  People might not get what they deserve; they might well just continue on in a life unburdened by the demands of consistency. 
Mostly, though, this novel falls in the category of a good read. Greene’s writing is flawless. His characters are believable while also representing a new world for the reader. The themes make you think and the plots keep you engaged. And because of his prolific output, one Graham Greene can lead to another, which is a good habit to have.  

Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.