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The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Human FactorThe Human Factor is a novel about a very ordinary, almost nondescript, man who makes his living in the shady world of espionage.  It’s not your typical spy novel however. Clandestine meetings, secret messages and code names are not much in evidence; nor is the plot of the usual fiendishly complex kind and there’s a distinct absence of high octave action scenes. What we get instead is a more thoughtful novel about loyalty and betrayal.

In his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, Graham Greene said his intent was to show to people who were more used to reading about the antics of James Bond, that there was an unromantic side to the world of intelligence .

I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life.

And so he makes his central character a 62-year-old man who shuffles each day between his detached house in the market town of Berkhamstead and his small office in London. Maurice Castle is an officer in the Eastern and Southern Africa section of MI6 which might sound exciting but actually comes across as rather dull. It essentially involves reading and responding to the daily ‘bag’ of reports sent by various British overseas outposts. Castle is a man who likes his routine: a few inconsequential pleasantries with his assistant Davis; lunch at the same pub at the same time each day, a heavyweight novel to read on his commute home; a glass or two of J&B whisky each evening.  

Castle’s suburban life is not however as pedestrian as it seems. His wife Sarah is a black South African woman he met during his tour of duty in that country. Their son is not his though they keep up a pretence to the contrary. Castle drinks because he has a secret life as a double agent who passes on information to the Russians. It was the price he paid in return for help from a Marxist to get Sarah smuggled out of South Africa when their relationship fell foul of the South Afrian authorities. By the way, I’m not spoiling the novel by revealing this since it’s heavily signalled within the first few chapters.

Castle’s hopes of a quiet and uneventful life in the few remaining years before retirement are disrupted when suspicions begin of a leak in MI6. The head of security makes discreet inquiries; the signs point at Davis who is quickly despatched with the aid of mouldy nuts (they cause liver failure apparently). Castle of course knows the ‘evidence’ against Davis is spurious. The finger of suspicion is certain to turn in his own direction eventually but he may have time for one final act of betrayal; telling his Russian handlers about Project Remus, an alliance with America and Germany to deal with black unrest in South Africa. If he burns that bridge, there is no course open to him but to escape from England. But where will that leave Sarah and Sam?

Questions of loyalty, morality and conscience form the heart of The Human Factor.  Castle became a traitor not as a result of deeply held political convictions but out of a sense of gratitude to a former colleague, the communist who smuggled Sarah out of South Africa. Now he is forced to re-examine his motives and his loyalties. The death of Davis makes him suspicious about the morality of the institution for which he works. Project Remus makes him question whether the security service is more of a danger than the people it is supposedly fighting.

Greene is a master when it comes to portraying people confronting a moral dilemma but the character of Castle is not one of his finest. He comes across as a naive figure who thinks if his Russian controllers manage to get him out of England, that the British authorities will let his wife join him in Moscow. And yet he tells Sarah “As long as we are alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Hm, sounds like wishful thinking to me…

Castle is a sad figure but too distant a figure to fully engage our sympathy. Although we can appreciate his anxiety that the life he has enjoyed with his family is about to end, there wasn’t the depth of psychological analysis I’ve enjoyed in Greene’s earlier novels like Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair. There was one habit of Castle that did make me warm towards him a little: he reads the classics and is a frequent visitor to a delightful sounding bookshop in Soho where, during the course of the novel, he buys novels by Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope and Tolstoy.

It was an unusual respectable bookshop for this area of Soho, quite unlike the bookshop which faced it across the street and bore the simple sign ‘Books’ in scarlet letters. The window below the scarlet sign displayed girlie magazines which nobody was ever seen to buy — they were like a signal in an easy code long broken; they indicated the nature of private wares and interests inside. But the shop of Halliday & Son confronted the scarlet ‘Books’ with a window full of Penguins and Everyman and second-hand copies of World’s Classics.

Sadly as the novel progresses, I learned that he is not actually reading these books; just using them for codes to arrange information drops and meetings with his handler.

More interesting than Castle as a character is Colonel Daintry, an MI6 security officer faced with the task of tracking down the source of the leak. Greene shows us a painfully lonely man who is so out of touch with normal life that he’s never heard of Maltesers and doesn’t realise they wouldn’t be the appropriate gift to take for a weekend country house party. Daintry is separated from his wife, is barely in contact with his daughter, few interests outside of work and no social life. When his daughter announces her forthcoming marriage, Daintry is so devoid of friends that he resorts to inviting Castle to accompany him. Daintry is fundamentally an honest man who despite all his years in the service, still doesn’t understand how to play the system. One exchange with his senior officer, the new commander of the service, reveals the extent of his isolation:

I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’

‘No, bridge is my game.’

‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’

‘Is that important?’

‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’

Davis’ death horrifies him. He knows the man was killed because it would avoid further embarrasment for a service already discomforted by Philby and co. He knows too that there was but flimsy and circumstantial evidence the man was a traitor. The incident brings him to resign his post despite knowing it means  “he would exchange one loneliness for another.”  In some ways Daintry reminded me of the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day, a man who has learned to button up his emotions for so long that he cannot admit them even to himself.

The British intelligence service isn’t shown in a very good light in this novel. They’re frankly rather inept at discovering the traitor in their midst. With only two suspects they pick the wrong man because he drinks more than he should, takes reports out of the office to read over lunch and supposedly has a clandestine meeting at the zoo (it’s with his secretary rather than a handler). The service commander takes a very relaxed view of the affair, leaving the details to his underlings so he can continue to enjoy the quiet of his country estate. It stretches our credulity but then Greene wrote this novel with the benefit of his own years of service within MI6 so there is clearly a basis of truth.

The Human Factor isn’t one of Greene’s finest works but it’s well worth reading nevertheless.

Footnotes

About the book: The Human Factor is one of Graham Greene’s later novels, first published in 1978 when the author was 74 years old.

Why I read this book: I’ve read most of the novels considered to be his best output (the so-called Catholic novels like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and, my favourite The Heart of the Matter). I like Greene’s writing style so thought I’d make my way through his lesser known work. The Human Factor is one of the books on my Classics Club list.

From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

Armchair BEA 2014 kick off: introductions

Tbook heart armchairbeahis year’s Book Expo America kicks off today but since I can’t make it across the Atlantic for the in person event, I’ll have to content myself with joining in the armchair version.  I’ll be in good company since this virtual form of participation is a really popular idea, giving bloggers around the world a chance to connect and talk about the topic we all have in common − books and reading.

This is the third time I’ll have participated in Armchair BEA. As in past years the organisers have come up with some good topics for us to talk about on each day of the event. Hence you’ll see a lot more activity on BookerTalk this week. I’m also going to make a conscious effort to read more of the posts contributed by other participants.

To kick off, here is the post where we introduce ourselves with the aid of some questions from our hosts.

What genre do you read the most? 

My reading falls into three categories right now: novels that have won the Booker Prize; books that loosely can be called classics and novels written by authors from parts of the world outside my own experience. I do occasionally read non fiction but

What was your favorite book read last year?

I don’t use a star rating system otherwise this would be an easy one to answer, I’d just look up the books I awarded five stars. Looking at the list of what I read in 2013 it would be very difficult to choose just one title so I’m going to bend the rules a bit and select one favourite from each of the three categories of books I tend to read.

In my Booker Prize list, my favourite was John Banville’s The Sea. I know it wasn’t a popular choice for the prize but I loved the lyrical style of his writing.

From my classics club list I’m choosing Grahame Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It was actually a re-read which tells you something about how much I love this book.

From my world literature list I’m selecting Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the hardest book I read all year because of its subject but well worth the effort.

What’s your favorite book so far this year?

It has to be Emile Zola’s  L’Assommoir. This is the third book from his RougonMacquart series I’ve read and I was hoping it would be on a par with the other two (Germinal and La Bete Humaine) and it was.  An absolutely gripping novel about poverty and desperation in nineteenth century Paris. 

What is your favorite blogging resource?

Apart from the many, many other bloggers whose sites give me inspiration, some of the websites I make a point of reading will be familiar to most bloggers I suspect — like Book Riot or Publishing Perspectives. I also enjoy The Bookseller though haven’t taken the plunge to get a regular subscription yet; I just buy an edition if I see something that interests me.

Share your favorite book or reading related quote.

This comes from my favourite book of all time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book which if I were in the undesirable situation of being stuck on a desert island would be my must have companion.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

 

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Book Review

Power and gloryIn what many experts consider Graham Greene’s masterpiece, a human drama is played out against a background of opposing idealogies.

The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.

Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.

Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.

This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a  drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child.  In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.

Yet though acutely aware of his unworthiness, he still cannot abandon those who need him.

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.

His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.

He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.

The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.

If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.

The Verdict

A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved. 

Revealed – results of Classics Club Spin #4:

GrahamGreene

Graham Greene

The roulette wheel for the Classics Club spin-along finished with the ball landing on number 10.Which means I will be reading The Power and the Glory by Grahame  Greene. Phew! I said yesterday that I was hoping to avoid Robinson Crusoe so I’m pleased I avoided that – I will read it at some point but I’m not in the mood for it right now.

The Power and the Glory will actually be a re-read but it’s some thirty years now since I read it and I can’t remember much about it beyond the fact it was about a moral crisis suffered by a priest who is trying to avoid capture by the Mexican authorities. Grahame  Greene was one of the authors on the final year syllabus at university, a time when all our energies were going into revision for finals and had little time for scrutinising texts in much detail.

I’ve always felt since that I didn’t do justice to Mr Greene. Fortunately Simon of Savidge Reads gave me the impetus to put that right with the  ’Greene for Gran’ readalong he organised this summer as a tribute to his book-loving gran. I ended up re-reading The Heart of the Matter, one of his ‘Catholic novels’ which proved a superb experience.

The Power and the Glory is on the Time list of the best 100 novels published in English since 1923, in which it is described as a novel of “intricate moral landscapes, where corrupt characters might still be capable of goodness and virtuous ones indulge their virtues murderously.”

Sounds good doesn’t it?? Some leading figures in the Catholic church didn’t think so – the Cardinal of Westminster summoned Greene to a meeting so that he could read him a letter from the Holy Church condemning the novel and insisting he re-write it. Greene refused.

The rules of the spin-along give me until January 1, 2014 to read this which means I have a wonderful end-of -the-year reading treat in store.

Read more: Best Books of ALL TIME | All-TIME 100 Novels | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/#ixzz2l2SlMUgA

Heart of the Matter: Review

In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene takes  a fundamentally ordinary decent man down a path that leads to spiritual conflict and despair.

Henry Scobie is an assistant police commissioner stationed in a British controlled West African coastal town during World War 2. He’s a man of high integrity although his scruples and his reserved nature have made him something of an outsider amongst the other British settlers. As the book opens Scobie hears he has been passed over for promotion. He is disappointed but for his wife Louise, this news is the final humiliation. For almost 15 years she’s endured the suffocating heat and annual monsoon, the humidity that turns her treasured poetry books mouldy unless wiped daily and the vultures that perch on the tin roof of their home (which is essentially little more than a shack on stilts)  She begs Scobie to return home to England or – failing that – for a holiday in South Africa.

It’s the beginning of Scobie’s problems.

Heart of the MatterHe feels pity for his wife’s plight but can help her only by taking the one step he has vowed never to take – borrowing money from a Syrian trader known for his dubious business practices. It proves a fateful decision when the trader begins exerting pressure on Scobie to turn a blind eye to his diamond smuggling activities. Scobie’s downward spiral accelerates  when he falls in love with Helen, a widow almost half his age, the survivor from an attack on a flotilla of ships making its way along the coast.

It was hard to read this novel and not feel sympathy for this tortured soul whose actions are taken in the belief that they are what will help the people he cares for. That was not however the reaction Greene intended in writing Heart of the Matter.  His purpose, he said, was to illustrate the “disastrous effect on human beings of pity.” Pity for Greene is an egotistical trait deriving from an abundance of pride rather than true compassion for the welfare of others.  He makes it the fatal flaw that brings Scobie down, leading inexorably to a crisis of conscience and, ultimately, his spiritual damnation. Scobie knowingly transgresses against his Catholic beliefs when he embarks on his adulterous affair, then suffers a fear of taking Communion while the stain of his mortal sin of adultery lies about him and then finds he is unable even to pray.  When he discovers that all the actions he took to try to help Helen and his wife, have after all been failures, he takes what he feels is the only course left to him. He addresses his God from the back of an empty church:

… there are limits to what I can do to you – or them. I can’t desert either of them while I’m alive but I can die and remove myself from their blood stream. They are ill with me and I can cure them. And you too, God – you are ill with me. I can’t go on month after month, insulting you……. I’ve longed for peace and I’m never going to know peace again.

My Verdict

I first read The Heart of the Matter more than 30 years ago but never appreciated the power of the novel at the time. I dug it out from the back of the cupboard as part of the ‘Greene for Gran’ readalong organised by Savidge Reads as a tribute to his book-loving gran.  And I’m so glad I gave it another go.

It’s one of those books where I was completely embroiled in the protagonists’ situation , cringing whenever he took an action that, as an outsider, I sensed would plunge him deeper into a crisis. The atmosphere of decay and rot created by Greene was also perfect match for the way we see Scobie’s integrity, the code by which he has lived his life, gradually become corrupted under the weight of his desire to avoid giving pain to those around him.

A superb study of a man in turmoil.

End Notes

In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to the present

The Heart of the Matter is considered one of Greene’s best even though the author apparently hated it personally. It forms a companion to three other novels (The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and Brighton Rock) in which Catholicism and the conflict between an individual and his faith are central themes.

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