13. Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948)

Burroughs was a fan of Greene’s and a regular reader of his fiction. He lifted shifty American diplomats from The Quiet American, wild boys from Brighton Rock (which he cut-up with A Clockwork Orange), and his whisky priest characters from The Power and the Glory.

He later considered Greene’s work to be “old fashioned”, and the writer himself to be quintessentially English in his refusal to think about the theory and technology of the novel. In The Adding Machine he depicts him forever talking about the weather and never, ever about writing itself – it just wouldn’t do, old boy.

“A typically Gatsbyean attitude.”

The Heart of the Matter stands out among Greene’s novels as Burroughs’ favourite. Or perhaps “favourite” isn’t the best way of putting it.

Burroughs seems to have heavily identified with Scobie, the novel’s protagonist who, due to one slip-up, caused by too much sympathy for a criminal, ends up damning himself, leading to further corruption, moral failing, and suicide.

Burroughs identified with Scobie to such an extent that, when the character was mentioned during the auditing process (this being during Burroughs’ Scientology years), his readings spiked. He had a deep psychic connection to the character. The events of Greene’s narrative, he felt, somehow formed part of his own life.

He had lived through the book psychically, and so internalised it and made it part of his own inner experience.

One might say that he did this with other writers’ he’d read. He admits as much when it comes to Denton Welch, and his lifelong obsession with gangsters is arguably as result of him internalising and living within Jack Black’s narrative in You Can’t Win.

But Greene’s Scobie is an unexpected persona. It’s not one of his public-facing ones, and yet it clearly ran deep.

Perhaps it is the sweltering atmosphere of unabsolvable guilt that Greene depicts? This would fit with Burroughs’ own sense of a life unfulfilled and regret over his own criminal acts.

Or perhaps it’s more romantic? Plenty of books are credited with sending Burroughs out to Tangier. Paul Bowles, Andre Gide and Gore Vidal all write directly about the place. Greene might join Rimbaud and Conrad as one of the writers using Africa as a metaphor for the soul; the Great Beyond.

There are Burroughsian moments in the book. Locals, for example, call rats “pigs”, to differentiate them from the local wild boy thugs, known as “wharf rats”, or just “rats”.

Ali, Scobie’s boy, shares a name and a role with countless Arabic boys throughout Burroughs’ writing.

There are countless examples of servant boys named Ali in literature before either Greene or Burroughs, of course; but that doesn’t rule out a direct influence.

The “old fashionedness” that he seems to deride in The Adding Machine is, I expect, also what drew Burroughs in. Following #ABurroughsSyllabus has demonstrated quite keenly to me how the writer, despite reading very thoroughly in areas you’d expect (violence, drugs, the occult), also had a love of polite literature; of Jane Austin, Henry James, Proust, Conrad and the rest of the great tradition.

Greene sits in a curious middle ground between these two types of reading. He is at once “old fashioned”, polite, English, and yet he also writes about the new and dangerous world; power games, spies, hidden empires, jungle outposts and the crumbling, desiccated state of authority and Control.

Burroughs comparison of Greene with Gatsby also brings the writer into Burroughs’ privileged space of the 1920s. Greene was ten years older than Burroughs, and so lived through the 1920s during his late teens and twenties (for Burroughs it was the site of his childhood).

Perhaps Burroughs is setting Greene up then, in his mind, as his immediate predecessor. The bridge between the polite literature of the past and his own works. That would explain his deep emotional connection to Scobie, and to Greene’s wider oeuvre as well. It would also explain his willingness to lift content from Greene while rejecting his style and form.

It’s an unexpected connection but a useful one.