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 Aunt, Brighton Rock, The 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!