Thursday, August 12, 2004
A turbulent summer and the new rhythms of a job and commute have been good for reading, but not so good for getting the notes out. I'm mired in a few longer books (Holmes's bio of Shelley, The Idiot) and starting others willy-nilly. But I have finished a round of quite good reading--one excellent, one quite good, and one solid.

I was very struck by Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter (4 stars). I had read it before, in some ambitious and brainless moment as a teenager and remembered nothing about it--not even whether I had liked it or not. Now no longer so young and foolish, I found it really terrific--gripping even. Despite his reputation of ambivalence, I found that he is up to something quite specific--he creates out of our limitations the inevitability of faith--whether or not his characters respond to it with growth or fear--the traps of Scobie, his lack of energy and desire to be good and to avoid inflicting pain--the selfishness of Bendrix and his passions and impatience. It some ways it demonstrates the necessary evils in us--the spaces they carve out that let belief in--doubt amid goodness is thin beer.

The pathos of Scobie struck me:
He had prayed between the two knocks that anger might still be there behind the door, that he wouldn't be wanted. He couldn't shut his eyes or ears to any human need of him; he was not the centurion, but the man in the ranks who had to do the bidding of a hundred centurions, and when he opened the door, he could tell the command was going to be given again--the command to stay, to love, to accept responsibility, to lie."

And this:

He felt tired by all the lies he would have some time to tell; he felt the wounds of those victims who had not yet bled. Lying back on the pillow, he stared sleeplessly out towards the grey early morning tide. Somewhere on the face of those obscure waters moved the sense of yet another wrong and another victim, not Louise, nor Helen.

The darkness of difficulty of the ending felt real and substantial to me, and the ways in which Scobie drew nearer and fell away from his faith were beautifully drawn.

That led me in turn to The End of the Affair. (3.5 stars). It was a less even book than The Heart of the Matter. The opening is excellent, and the setup is a terrific one. If it is as autobiographical as people claim, it must have been a wild time to be Greene. I liked it less because it seemed to slip into complex contrivance about 3/4 of the way through as Sarah explored her faith with Smythe--as if Greene became more focused on the philosophical exploration and lost touch with the humanity of his characters for a while. This is a shading, not a train wreck--the book is a very good one, but not so powerful for me as The Heart of the Matter.

The third book in this installment was Pat Barker's Regeneration, and I'm still not entirely clear why I didn't like it more. I liked the premise (Siegfried Sassoon invalided to a mental hospital for objecting to the progress of WWI--his doctor, who agrees with him, has the duty to try to convince him to return to the trenches); I liked the setting--the combination of physical and mental horrors of the wounded soldiers and the ways they are making their way back to health; I think she is a skillful writer--economical and precise but without the coldness that those adjectives often imply. I have read some interviews with her, and liked how she spoke and thought about writing (and was looking for a special reading project--thinking of her trilogy). Perhaps Regenerationis improving in my estimation with a little digestion, but as I finished it seemed a good, solid book with a lot in it, but not extraordinary, not especially rich and transformative. I think it is a better book than that--perhaps in another few weeks I will have reconsidered it into excellence (3 stars).


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