Friday, January 6, 2012

Five books that inspired William Boyd

William Boyd is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including A Good Man in Africa, winner of the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham awards, and Any Human Heart, winner of the Prix Jean Monnet.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, Boyd discussed five books and authors that inspired him, including:
The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene

Your next choice is The Heart of the Matter. This is the story of a British colonial police officer, Henry Scobie, set in Sierra Leone. Was this an inspiration for your book A Good Man in Africa?

Yes it was. Again, I have deliberately chosen a book that I read when I was young and thinking about becoming a writer. I was born and raised in West Africa and there is very little English literature that deals with that part of the world. If I had been born in Rhodesia, South Africa or Kenya I could find masses of novels that dealt with colonial life. So The Heart of the Matter, which is set in Sierra Leone – a country I had visited several times before I read the book – was revelatory in that I saw the place where I lived in a novel. Again, it’s one of those moments as a reader and a young writer that’s quite extraordinary. I would read Greene’s descriptions of sunset in the tropics or bars in slightly shambolic African towns, and then go out and see them with my own eyes. It’s quite extraordinary to have that experience of being able to authenticate the novelist’s imagination and vision. That’s why the book had a huge impact on me.

The story itself is about this policeman Scobie. The mortal sin he commits by having an affair and not confessing seems to me to be completely absurd and bogus, but the setting of the novel and its machinations – the corrupt Syrian, the spying – are great. But what’s wrong with it is this terrible super-structure of Catholic guilt and sin that Greene hammers onto a very good novel about colonial life. Nonetheless, I think it’s a fantastically atmospheric and powerful read, and it really does hold up over the decades as one of his great novels. Greene, like Evelyn Waugh, is one of those writers whom I have become hugely intrigued by, and I have read everything written about him at great length. But it all goes back to that first reading of The Heart of the Matter when I was in my late teens or early twenties.

There is the sense in the book of Scobie’s life being out of his control, much like some characters in your own books who are buffeted by good and bad luck and managing the best they can.

I agree. I think that would be fine, except that Scobie also happens to be a devout Roman Catholic. It’s something that Greene used to make his fiction resonate in a way that, to me, as a faithless reader, seems completely and utterly bogus. It got him discussed as a Catholic novelist, whereas what he’s interested in is the seedy machinations of a policeman in a small colonial town who is broke, unhappily married and meets a young girl. All that sort of stuff was real grist to Greene’s mill. If you look at any of his novels you’ll see that this is what gets his imagination going. But then he thinks he has to make it significant in some way. At that moment, for me, the novel goes wrong and I just don’t buy it. But it doesn’t detract from the novel’s almost tactile power, a brilliantly rendered version of a life I had experienced in my own slightly tangential way.

Greene did say a few years after he wrote it that it may have been better as a comedy than a tragedy.

Everything he said or wrote you have to re-read and read between the lines. He didn’t say or do anything unknowingly. He was a highly sophisticated, manipulative person who knew exactly what he was trying to achieve with his various interviews and pronouncements. There’s no way that The Heart of the Matter could have been a comedy in the Evelyn Waugh sense. I actually don’t think Greene was a particularly good comic writer. He gets the slightly desperate seediness of life so well and I think his best novels, for me, are the ones that are to do with people trapped in situations where they can’t get out.
Visit The Browser to learn about the other books that inspired Boyd.

Greene's The Heart of the Matter is among Cynthia Ozick's five best books on innocents and innocence lost, Jeff Gordinier's five books that will make you question the wisdom of ever falling in love, and Carol Drinkwater's six best books.

Boyd's Any Human Heart appears among Eoin Colfer's six favorite books and on John Mullan's list of ten of the best novels about novelists.

--Marshal Zeringue