AUGUST 5, 2012
“He sat down in his own room under the handcuffs and began to write.”
THAT PAIR OF RUSTY CUFFS hangs “like an old hat” above the desk of Major Henry Scobie in Graham Greene’s 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter. The shackles symbolize the sense of responsibility that hangs over Scobie as a husband, Catholic, and colonial police chief in British West Africa during World War II. But they also signal Greene’s own inescapable sense of responsibility as a writer. Like Scobie, Greene approached his work as a function of conscience as well as conscientiousness, a duty as prosaic as accurate note taking and as imperative as justice.
It was the prosaic sense of writerly responsibility that first drew me to The Heart of the Matter. As an author of historically based novels, I try to get my facts straight by reading the broadest possible variety of texts written by and about individuals who’ve lived in circumstances similar to those of my characters. Currently, I’m working on a story set in a colonial outpost during World War II; The Heart of the Matter is set in 1942 in a similar outpost in West Africa, where Greene actually was a wartime spy for the Allies. I turned to this novel in search of information and insight, to get a sense of the war as it was experienced far from the major battlefields and concentration camps of Europe and Asia. Greene’s work is indeed rich in precise period details. I learned, for instance, that a used Morris sedan in the colonies of the early forties could be purchased for between £150 and 400; that Brits in the tropics wore mosquito boots inside and out; that Band-Aids of that era were called Elastoplasts; and that “native saboteurs” in the colonies were both employed and feared as wartime mercenaries. But there was more. Much more.
The facts in Greene’s fiction resonate not just historically, but also philosophically and theologically. Political exigencies within the narrative become prisms for personal choice. Layers of power and official status vibrate with the moral uncertainties that rank and title can’t quite conceal. Information serves both a literal and a metaphoric purpose, as Greene’s interpretation distills from his wartime experience the deeper truth of what he called “the human situation.”
“This is the original Tower of Babel,” the local cable censor announces early in The Heart of the Matter. “West Indians, Africans, real Indians, Syrians, Englishmen, Scotsmen in the Office of Works, Irish priests, French priests, Alsatian priests.” Greene’s unnamed colony has no common language, color, caste, nationality, or loyalty. What it does have are divisions exacerbated by war and Empire that underscore the universality of human frailty. “A French officer in a stained white uniform” appears, for example, “courteous and unapproachable, but all the time his left eyelid flickered a message of doubt and distress” as he delivered seven stretcher cases, British survivors of a shipwreck, from Vichy territory just across the river.
In such a world it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish enemy from ally. A fat, sweaty Portuguese captain hiding a letter addressed to Germany persuades Scobie that the intended recipient in Leipzig, one Frau Groener, is merely the captain’s unfortunate daughter, “as graceless as himself […] a daughter who may save him at the last.” Scobie’s job is to report the letter, yet he burns it, in direct violation of his wartime responsibility. “Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful,” he reasons, “one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast.” See the enemy up close, strip away the trappings and the propaganda, and one must contend with conscience. For Scobie, the resulting conflict is an agony. For Greene, the resulting conflict is truth.
Despite the remote West African locale, all factions of World War II are represented in The Heart of the Matter. Even the Japanese make a fleeting appearance late in the novel, as Scobie notes in his diary: “Spent morning on larceny case at Mrs. Onoko’s.” A few pages later he writes, “Spent long morning at Azikawe’s store checking story of fire in storeroom.” These Japanese civilians, like the Vichy officer and the Portuguese captain, are as burdened by their vulnerabilities as they are by their affiliations with the enemy. And so Scobie suspends moral judgment against them all.
Through this suspension Greene makes a subtle yet impassioned plea to his post-war readers. “One can desire the peace of victory without desiring the ravaged towns,” Scobie argues with his priest in a moment of literary irony. For Scobie, the war’s end is still a conjecture, but for those who read The Heart of the Matter when it was published in 1948, victory was synonymous with Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where hundreds of thousands of vulnerable civilians with names like Groener, Azakawe, and Onoko were among those “ravaged” in the name of peace.
The lesson here is that a serious novel about wartime in a colonial outpost must speak to something larger than wartime in a colonial outpost. It’s not enough to get the details of time and place just right. Authenticity is one thing, but meaning quite another. A great book captures time and place in a way that will pulse with significance far into the future.
To this point, in his 2012 meditation on Greene, The Man Within My Head (Knopf, 2012), Pico Iyer observes that in every one of Greene’s books, “there is another text, written in invisible ink between the lines, that may be telling the real story, of what the words evade.” It is this other text that gives Greene’s work its true power and depth, its enduring meaning. Moral responsibility, conscience, and compassion are invariably central to this meaning.
What John Le Carré referred to as Greene’s “transcendent universal compassion,” Iyer has described as “the fellow feeling that one wounded, lonely, scared mortal feels for another, and the way that sometimes, especially in a moment of crisis, when we ‘forget ourselves’ (which is to say, escape our thoughts and reflexes), a single extended hand makes nonsense of all the curlicues in our head.” But never in Greene’s work is this hand extended by a saint. His characters are tormented souls and sinners all, cut from his own cloth. In Greene on Capri (FSG, 2000), a memoir of her 30-year friendship with Greene, Shirley Hazzard notes, “Graham’s lifelong preoccupation with the equivocations that beset all men and women, and his consciousness of his own contrariety […] gave the novels their distinctive voice.” Greene, Iyer adds, “was always in his books hoping to give us a sense of responsibility — of conscience — in part by bringing himself before an unsparing tribunal.”
Which brings us back to those rusty handcuffs in The Heart of the Matter. Scobie is Graham Greene’s fictional twin. Greene’s actual first name, like Scobie’s, was Henry. Like Scobie, Greene converted to Catholicism in order to marry, and was then unfaithful to his wife. He was plagued by theological doubt, an obsessive sense of obligation, and a guilty conscience, all of which are mirrored in his protagonist. Scobie is not just conflicted over the relative guilt or innocence of the captain carrying a contraband message, he’s conflicted over his love for his own mistress and for his wife; over his feelings of grief and relief at the death of his daughter; over his simultaneous love and distrust of his longtime servant Ali; and over his inability to loathe the young spy “with bald pink knees” who is intent on catching Scobie in an act of treason and on seducing Scobie’s wife. Henry Scobie is also fatally compromised by his devotion to God and his wary affection for the novel’s Mephistophelean figure, the Syrian trader Yusef. In a final paroxysm of despair, Scobie commits suicide to avoid taking sides between the opposing forces that are fracturing his conscience.
George Orwell, who reviewed the novel for The New Yorker when it was first published, found Scobie as a character to be “incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together.” James Wood, in his introduction to the 2004 Penguin edition, quotes and agrees with Orwell: “It is not so much Scobie’s lack of fear of hell that startles, but his willingness to surrender the very God he spends so much time praying to […] Scobie, as it were, by-passes self-sundering in favor of self-renunciation.” Neither Wood nor Orwell, it would seem, could fathom the lure of suicide or the anguish of a torn conscience. However, what seemed incredible to them was all too real to Greene. In Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Free Press, 1993), Kay Redfield Jamison writes that when Greene was an undergraduate at Oxford he aroused considerable concern among his friends by playing Russian roulette. Greene himself, in A Sort of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1971), recalled his first attempt:
I slipped a bullet into a chamber and holding the revolver behind my back, spun the chambers round […] I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. There was a minute click, and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position. I was out by one
What Greene found less than credible was the notion that the two halves of any human being ever could fit neatly together. In fact, the persistent internal misfitting of the psyche was a central constant in all his work.
In Greene’s view, even God is fallible, with a nature as divided and uncertain as our own. “We are part of the evolution of God,” he said, “and Hitler obviously aids the dark side of God, whilst Gandhi, John XXIII and [Cesar] Chavez aid the day side […] If God is torn as we are between the dark and the bright — and therefore suffers a certain division and anguish as we do — it makes Him a more sympathetic figure.” Through Scobie, Greene expressed an abiding distrust of any God who could cause the suffering of innocents, “who was not human enough to love what he had created.” Unfortunately, he found abundant evidence of this inhumane God in his lifetime, which encompassed the horrors of two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. In Greene’s experience, Hazzard writes, “pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.” Why? Because, in Greene’s experience, suffering was the gateway to compassion.
Greene made it his responsibility as a writer to express this suffering, in the sense of both enacting and squeezing the truth of it onto the page. With absolute intention, he kept himself mentally shackled to his desk every day of his writing life until he’d turned out his requisite 300 to 500 words (the daily number shrank as he aged, but his commitment never did). He felt similarly bound to his characters. “It’s like a strain on the eyesight,” he told Israel Shenker of the New York Times in 1971. “I find that I have to know — even if I’m not writing it [literally into the scene] — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing […] that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.” This intense scrutiny enabled Greene to be exacting with his factual details — and also to wring out of them their crucial double meaning. For what Greene watched most closely was the inner life of his characters. Each external movement had to be not only seen but also decoded as an expression of human truth.
For Greene, that truth inevitably was influenced by his own perspective, which in turn was influenced by his manic depression. He admitted as much in his autobiography Ways of Escape: “Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” The likes of Orwell and Wood might dispute the claim that features of mental illness are inherent in the human condition, but who could deny Greene’s bottom line? “There are so many things that bother one about the world,” he told Shenker. “Injustice, intolerance. And that it all comes to an end.” If Greene’s depression gave him a special appreciation for specific forms of human affliction, it also made him wise to the universality of suffering.
In The Heart of the Matter the hidden text wrestles hard with the question of personal responsibility for this suffering — particularly in the context of war. The word “responsibility” actually appears 34 times — almost as many times as the ticking of Scobie’s heartbeat (his nickname: Ticki) is alluded to. Greene thus suggests that to be alive in this world is to have responsibilities, not just to oneself or for those closest, but in relationship to the complicated truth of all humankind. What’s tucked between the lines is the enormity of the suffering that Scobie perceives yet cannot comprehend, let alone assuage.
The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night also gave an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter.
Remember that this novel is set in West Africa in the middle of World War II. Submarines are patrolling the Atlantic and sinking civilian ships, and far to the north European Jews are forced to wear yellow stars pinned to their coats. No direct mention is ever made in these pages of Kristallnacht, Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen, and yet, even in this fictional outpost, peace is an illusion. In actual fact, those stars represent the exact opposite of security and freedom. “How I hate this war,” Scobie thinks. No matter how far away human strife and suffering may be, “one still has one’s eyes…one’s ears…the restlessness, the haunting images, the terrible impotent feeling of responsibility and pity.”
As I return to my own novel-in-progress, that terrible impotent feeling has become a force that hovers over my desk, much as those rusty handcuffs loomed over Scobie’s: a double-sided reminder that writing is ultimately an act of human connection. Why bother getting the facts straight if I don’t employ them to dig beneath the surface and fully engage the reader’s “imaginative existence”? Why bother writing at all if I’m not willing to express in the process the truth of my own conscience? Why set a story in a colonial outpost during a historical war unless that story contains a subtext whose meaning transcends the limitations of history? What I’ve learned from Graham Greene is that a writer’s responsibility is always to reach for the heart of the matter.