The Human Factor by Graham Greene

I chose this as my ugly cover on Book Bingo... you can probably see why.
I chose this as my ugly cover on Book Bingo… you can probably see why.

My book group recently read The Human Factor (1978) by Graham Greene, and I had to whip through it in not very much time at all (since I only started it two days before we met). Coincidentally, it was published in the same year as the book we did the previous month – Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died – but it had very little in common with it. Almost immediately the group disagreed over which one was more realistic. I nailed my colours to the mast: Pym’s novel is more realistic than Greene’s, and it made me care about the characters more.

In The Human Factor, I will admit, the mundane is key. Maurice Castle is in MI6, and has to deal with various intrigues within the organisation, as well as the stigma attached to a mixed-race marriage with Sarah (incidentally – Maurice and Sarah were also the names of the couple in The End of the Affair… huh), and having to hob-nob with a man who had betrayed and blackmailed him in Africa. And yet Greene portrays espionage and double-crossing as a tedious life; one with the same dynamics of any office job, where people take sides and hold sway over the everyday lives of others.

Here’s my obstacle, and the reason why I couldn’t quite engage with this novel – excellent though Greene’s writing undoubtedly is. Yes, he achieved his aim to ‘write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service. I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions.’ But, though he does this admirably, the genre, as a whole, is one that leaves me cold. The stakes are just too high for me to believe in the people.

Yes, it felt like an everyday office job – but the truth of the novel is that a wrong step wouldn’t end up with a letter from HR; it would lead to a clandestine poisoning. It makes it impossible for me to acknowledge any of the characters as real people, let alone feel empathy for them. Even without the violence and glamour of a James Bond film, it has the removed parallel reality of one. Yes, some people are spies; I’m sure they can feel empathy while reading a novel like this. But sadly I can’t.

Curiously enough, despite my well-documented love for novels about normal people and unadventurous lives, I might even have preferred this novel to be high octane and silly. As it is, it felt a bit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I hope I’m not the only one who feels like this; make me feel I’m not crazy, people!

But I will say this: Greene is about the most versatile writer I’ve read. There isn’t much that links the four I have read (Travels With My AuntBrighton RockThe End of the Affair, and The Human Factor) and it’s pretty impressive. But does leave me a little unnerved about which I might want to pick up next, since my strike rate is now 2 out of 4!


11 thoughts on “The Human Factor by Graham Greene

  • July 28, 2015 at 8:29 am

    I have not read a great deal of Greene, but those books I have read have shared a common timbre.
    What you term the ‘mundane’, I would call ‘shabby’. Greene’s espionage-type figures are, to my mind, shabby, slightly unsavoury, and ‘repulsive’ – that is to say, they repulse the curious – which I suppose is quite useful if one is attempting to operate undercover! They have also tended to manifest a kind of latent violence which ‘slipped out’ in odd ways from time to time: e.g. the spider under the glass in ‘Minty’. Donaghy, in his ‘Graham Greene, an Introduction to His Writings’ refers to this as Greene’s fascination with ‘seediness’. Whenever I think of Greene’s seedy characters I want to wash my hands (metaphorically!)

  • July 28, 2015 at 10:02 am

    will you be following BAKE OFF on your blog this year?

  • July 29, 2015 at 3:22 am

    I haven’t read a lot by Graham Greene but I’ve enjoyed the ones I have read. My favorite so far has been Our Man in Havana. A former vacuum cleaner salesman is reluctantly recruited as a spy. He really has no idea what he’s doing so he files phony reports based on Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. But then his stories appear to be coming true. I laughed quite a bit while reading it and would definitely recommend it.

  • July 29, 2015 at 3:23 am

    I think this is exactly why I like John Le Carre so much. His characters are very human, they do have to cope with the humdrum everyday, and yet there is the feeling of lives being at stake; but the moral ambiguity of what they are doing is always at the heart of Le Carre’s books.

    I do find Greene to be a ‘cold’ writer sometimes, someone to greatly admire, but not necessarily an emotionally engaging one. So…another crazy.

  • July 29, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Coincidentally I started reading this book on Monday so I am very interested in others opinions of it. Yes, Greeneland is rarely a fun place to spend time but I am always fascinated by his portrayals of people failing to live up to their own ideals. The most enjoyable parts of the book, for me, are the descriptions of London in the Seventies, even the reminder of IRA bombings of the city( the book was published in 1978).

    An aside about the First World War: one of the characters became a communist after having been shipped to Archangel to fight against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Pretty much the same thing happened to my grandfather and this passage made me wonder how the government was going to deal with this inglorious episode in the WW1commemorations – all the men shipped out there were either in poor health, very young or very old and they weren’t even awarded campaign medals… does any one know if any there are any novels about this doomed campaign?

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:37 pm

      How interesting, to have that personal connection. Thank you for sharing it – I don’t know anything about it myself, but it would be interesting to learn more.

  • July 30, 2015 at 12:27 am

    I haven’t read the Human Factor. In 2013 for Simon Savidge’s “Greene for Gran” campaign I read The Ministry of Fear, which was page turning but not very serious as spy novels go in my experience. I found it mostly interesting for its descriptions of London during the Blitz considering it was published in 1943, so smack dab in the middle of the war. My first Greene remains my favorite: The Quiet American. I really should re-read it because I found it so powerful at the time, but that was over 20 years ago. I do want to try Travels with my Aunt someday; it does seem like it would be a lot of fun to read.

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Travels With My Aunt remains my favourite of the ones I’ve read, for sheer enjoyment, although I think The End of the Affair is probably better – and I also read it for Greene for Gran.

  • July 30, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    How interesting. Of course, this might lure you back to Iris Murdoch with her lives of English civil servants … (have you read A Word Child?). I have only read one Greene, as far as I know, and I think I will give this one a miss. What did your book group think of it?

    • August 4, 2015 at 10:33 pm

      We were very divided in the group! Two people agreed with me, and four people loved it. (Oh, and haven’t read A Word Child!)

  • February 6, 2017 at 9:21 am

    The Quiet American next – certainly in my top ten novels of all time.

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