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The Human Factor by Graham Greene

The Human Factor (original 1978; edition 1979)

by Graham Greene

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2,604303,680 (3.87)70
A leak is traced to a small sub-section of SIS, sparking off the inevitable security checks, tensions and suspicions. The sort of atmosphere, perhaps, where mistakes could be made? For Maurice Castle, it is the end of the line anyway, and time for him to retire to live peacefully with his African wife, Sarah. To the lonely, isolated, neurotic world of the Secret Service, Graham Greene brings his brilliance and perception, laying bare a machine that sometimes the overlooks the subtle and secret motivations that impel us.… (more)
Title:The Human Factor
Authors:Graham Greene
Info:New York: Avon Books, 1st Avon printing--Feb. 1979, paperback, 302 pages.
Collections:Your library
Tags:communism, own, paperback, spy, politics, fiction, read, cold war

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The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)



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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Graham Greene expanded my view of the world beyond America. The reader is invited in through the very british/ambivelent catholic soul of the main character and then taken to exotic South Africa where his love crosses racial and political boundaries. My introduction to apartheid which is only one of the political dead ends faced by this secret service bureaucrat as he faces the usual Graham Greene conflicts of faith, loyalty and conscience. Gripping all the way through with the spy intrigue deepened by trying to live with your own soul. ( )
  KurtWombat | Sep 15, 2019 |
Maurice Castle works for British intelligence. And for the Communists. It’s personal only in the sense that a Communist helped his wife, Sarah, escape apartheid in South Africa, and Maurice owes some sort of loyalty to that man in consequence. When the higher-ups in the intelligence service get wind that there’s a leak in Castle’s subsection, this starts a chain of events involving a scapegoat, deception, and hard choices.

This is a compelling book with a very human portrayal of British intelligence organizations. Greene draws on his own experiences during the Second World War to create this story, and this experience showed in the smoothness of the narrative and the realism of the details. Greene’s spy-related books are my favourites; this one is right up there with A Gun for Sale. Worth reading if you liked The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, or if you like the atmosphere of le Carré’s works in general. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Jun 29, 2018 |
Review first posted on BookLikes:

‘It’s possible, of course, just possible,’ C said, ‘that the leak came from abroad and that the evidence has been planted here. They would like to disrupt us, damage morale and hurt us with the Americans. The knowledge that there was a leak, if it became public, could be more damaging than the leak itself.’ ‘That’s what I was thinking,’ Percival said. ‘Questions in Parliament. All the old names thrown up – Vassall, the Portland affair, Philby. But if they’re after publicity, there’s little we can do.’

I read The Human Factor shortly after finishing Ben Macintyre's biography of Kim Philby - A Spy Among Friends. It is impossible to read a biography of Philby and not think of Graham Greene. Just as it is impossible to read The Human Factor and not wonder about the underlying motives that made people not only join the secret service but also made them defect from it and turn into double agents. With respect to Philby in particular, it still is a mystery to me how anyone could have regarded the Soviet Union as a place to aspire to live. Of course, as mentioned in my review of Macintyre's book, I can look at the Soviet Union from a perspective less tainted with either hope or propaganda whereas no-one at the time that The Human Factor was written had the privilege of hindsight.

It is all the more fascinating that Greene should pick up a story of defection and focus on the motivations of the spy and the efforts of counter-espionage to exercise damage control - the game which gives so little consideration to the human factor:

'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.’

Greene's tale is full of gritty suspense as a leak is detected and a ruthless man-hunt for the informant takes its toll on the lives of the characters involved.

Daintry said, ‘Come away, Castle. I’ll buy you another owl, Sylvia.’
‘It’s irreplaceable, that one.’
‘A man’s dead,’ Daintry said. ‘He’s irreplaceable too.’

However, in his typical style Greene also pays tribute to human character being a complex and multi-layered beast - he accurately accurately observes that not all spies are committed to the cause, that not all agents completely subscribe to any ideology without deviation. He manages to portray the naivety of people and creates moving moments of conflict and hope and despair.

"People talked of courage as a primary virtue. What of the courage of a known swindler and bankrupt taking his place in the dining-room of the House of Commons? Is courage a justification? Is courage in whatever cause a virtue?"
( )
  BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
I'd heard Graham Greene held up by many authors as a paragon. I get it now. ( )
  LauraCerone | May 26, 2016 |
I am a great fan of Graham Greene's books. I first read one of his novels (I think it was the now largely overlooked 'England Made Me) nearly forty years ago and have since read most of his oeuvre, and have eagerly re-read more than a few of them. I do, however, frequently find myself listening to an internal loop of the Moody Blues' song 'Melancholy Man' while I do so. With the possible exception of the hilarious 'Travels With my Aunt', the streets of 'Greeneland' are awash with waves of melancholia, and they are seldom more prominent than in 'The Human Factor'.

Greene disperses his melancholia through his observation of the repetitive minutiae of life, and it is rare for any semblance of joy to erupt. This book was first published in 1978 at a time when the British Security Services were still reeling from the embarrassment of the exposure of Anthony Blunt's treachery, and their complicity in covering it up. Predictably it owes far more to the le Carre tradition than that of Ian Fleming, though some of the characters occasionally show a certain wistfulness at the lack of exciting gadgets.

Maurice Castle, an old hand in the Service, is seeking to coast to his retirement working alongside his young colleague Arthur Davis. Seven years previously Castle had been stationed in Pretoria where he had initially recruited as an agent, and then fallen in love with Sarah, a Bantu woman. At the height of the apartheid period this endangered both of them, and Castle had had to leave, having also made arrangements for Sarah's escape from the clutches of the terrifying Bureau of State Security (BOSS) led by Cornelius Muller. With the help of an underground network Sarah managed to escape too, and met Castle in Lorenco Marques (in Mozambique).

Seven years later they are married and living in Berkhamsted (Greene's birthplace) with Sarah's son Sam. Castle has become another commuter, cycling to the station then catching the same train every day into the capital and then reversing his journey in the evening with comforting (or stultifying) regularity. Life seems placid until an apparent leak is traced to Castle's section, and both he and Davis find themselves being investigated by Daintry from the internal review division. Daintry is an essentially fair man, and both Castle and Davis find themselves getting on fairly well with him. They are less comfortable with the sinister Dr Percival, one of the more senior figures within the Service, though they are not alone in this. Daintry finds himself equally ill at ease with Percival, whom he suspects of being over anxious to take drastic action to plug the leak before their American counterparts become aware of its existence.

I worry about what Greene's personal life must have been like as he never bestows anything approaching bliss, or even vague contentment, upon his characters. Castle seems to trudge between home and the office, with an occasionally foray to his favourite bookshop run by the lugubrious Mr Halliday, whose son runs a less salubrious 'bookshop' across the road. Castle claims, and we have no reason to doubt him, that he is happy only when he is with Sarah and Sam, yet there is no outward sign that any of the three of them elicit any joy from the company of the others. Yet, despite this lack of outward emotion, Greene does stir the reader's empathy for Castle. He is clearly a good man, who acts for the beat in a far from ideal world. There is very little action, and none of the excitement of a James Bond story, but the plot does move quickly, and the reader is wholly sucked in to it.

One attribute that can also be guaranteed in Greene's work is plausibility. He may come down over heavily on the melancholic - he is, after all, one for whom I imagine the glass (or perhaps, more appropriately, the chalice) was at best half-empty, but his plots are grounded in the way people genuinely behave. Perhaps their uber-realism and fundamental lack of hope is why we find them so melancholic.

Some novelists find it difficult to end their novels, but Greene excelled himself here. Earlier this year I read Emily St John Mandel's excellent 'Last Night in Montreal', and felt moved to re-read the final two or three pages which reached out to the reader with an extraordinary power. Greene achieved something similar with the burst of sadness in the final paragraph of this book which, even against the context of a broadly melancholic novel, left me feeling I had been punched in the face, but perhaps in a good way! ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jun 14, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Greene builds the story slowly and methodically, ratcheting up the tension by careful and agonising degrees as Castle gradually realises the depth of the trap he has laid for himself. The climax culminates in a sickening plot twist that somehow manages to be both unexpected and oddly inevitable, and gives The Human Factor a frustrating but nonetheless realistic ending.
added by John_Vaughan | editLondon Review of Books (Jul 9, 2011)
... Greene has returned ... [in The Human Factor] ... to his earliest style, has pared down his moral patterns to the barest essential, has abandoned his penchants for exotica and skirmishes. What remains is a story as apparently plain as Greene's perfect prose -- an open-hearted, tight-lipped pavane of conscience and sentiment that can be watched and enjoyed for all the wrong, and all the right, reasons.
added by Roycrofter | editKirkus' Reviews (Mar 1, 1978)
I know this is impudent to say- because Mr. Greene taught John Le Carre to write such novels, as Joseph Conrad taught Mr. Greene to write such novels- but Mr. La Carre now does the same thing better.

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'I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.' Joseph Conrad
To my sister Elizabeth Dennys, who cannot deny some responsibility.
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Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken lunch in a public house behind St James's Street, not far from the office.
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