Publishing this novel in 1978, Greene says in his autobiography (Ways of Escape, pp. 256 - 257) that he had actually started it ten years earlier, abandoning it when his friend and former colleague, Kim Philby, defected to Russia. He did not want this book to be considered a roman a clef. Like Philby, Maurice Castle, the main character in this novel, is a double agent, and Greene goes to great pains to bring him to life and try to make his inevitable defection to Russia believable. Having earlier lived in South Africa, Castle had fallen in love with Sarah, an African woman. Another double agent had helped her escape from South Africa so she and Castle could be married. Now living in England with Sarah and their son, Castle continues to provide information to the Russians as payback for the help he received years before.
The cloak-and-dagger intrigue here is rooted in the Cold War, and Greene's own sympathies with the Communists, well known, are noticeable throughout the novel. When a leak is suspected in Castle's section of British intelligence, a secret plan is devised to eliminate the culprit quietly to avoid another Philby-type embarrassment to the government. It's of only minor consequence to the higher-ups that they kill Davis, an innocent man. The Russians' rush to "save" Castle, whose work for them has really been of only minor importance, seems more like wishful thinking than reality. Codes created from duplicate copies of old books, messages left in a hollow tree, and warning signals made with rings of the telephone now seem to belong to an age much earlier than the mere 24 years which have evolved since the book's publication.
Castle is well drawn, for the most part, though he seems a rather clumsy agent-about-to-defect, someone who, though supposedly devoted to his wife and child, has not thought far enough ahead to guarantee their ultimate safety and happiness. Sarah, unfortunately, is an undifferentiated, flat character, and Castle's devotion to her must be accepted, rather than felt, thereby limiting the impact of the ending. Parts of the book are very moving, and Castle is often a sympathetic character, but I thought the book lacked the philosophical and structural tightness of his earlier, more famous novels. Mary Whipple
on 17 November 2012
I enjoy this author very much, but did not like this book. Perhaps it is the genre, there being better spy story writers. But, to my mind, the real problem are the characterisations. Maurice Castle is shallow and one-dimensional, his wife Sarah a caricature, Dr Percival unbelievably evil. We really care what happens to Plarr, to Henry Pilling ,above all, to Scobie, but there is no concerns for the characters in this book.
Also, the story is rather staccato, it stop/starts and doesn't hold our interest: who cares what happens to Maurice. Greene obviously sympathises with him and doesn't regard him as a traitor- not a view likely to command much support thirty years on. Perhaps Greene knew and liked Philby, believed to be the basis of this story.
An off-day from a great writer.
on 9 July 2012
The Human Factor is an espionage novel by the respected British author Graham Greene. It is the second novel of his I have read, the first being the The End Of The Affair earlier this year.
By strange coincidence the central couple of this novel, like in The End Of The Affair are called Maurice and Sarah, but are completely different characters, I'm not au fait with the work of Greene and don't know what the significance of this is.
In this instance Maurice works for the security services, specifically in intelligence regarding the African continent and courted controversy when placed abroad by marrying a Bantu woman, Sarah.
When a security breach occurs, Maurice's department falls under investigation.
As with The End Of The Affair, I found it hard to establish a steady flow of reading with The Human Factor and read it in fits and starts, it could be quite dry on the page and the characters and setting reflect that the reality of security services work is more pen pushing than James Bond. This pen pushing extends to a cavalier attitude to death, just another job to get done.
The characters, including Maurice, are quite psychologically isolated and detached from real intimacies, altered by the nature of their suspicious profession. This made them hard to engage with as people, although by the end, you feel pity and sadness for Maurice.
Though it had an austerity to it, it was also interesting, enough to make me want to follow it through to its conclusion, but I must say I made correct guesses about certain aspects of plot rather early on. 7/10
One of the problems faced by authors of printed novels is that however engrossing the story, each time the reader turns the page there is that physical indication of how far away they are from the end of the story. Makes of TV shows face a similar problem of known ending times, though it is one that film makers have more freedom to avoid. In real life some sequences of events turn out surprisingly straight-forward or finish sooner than expected, but in reading a book you have that constant physical reminder of when the story will end.
One of my favourite books is Ender's Game (Ender Series) and the way it suffers from this is a classic of the genre. As the number of pages remaining diminishes yet the plot apparently is still in its early stages, the reader knows that some major plot trickery is afoot - and that clue makes it easier to guess what it might be and, even if not guessed, it makes the trick less surprising when it happens.
Graham Greene's Cold War espionage novel The Human Factor manages to avoid this trap because even when you know you are on the penultimate page it is still far from clear if the story's resolution will be a success for the West, for communism or for ambiguity and if the main characters will be left happy, sad or in limbo. Yet the ending manages not only to wrap up the plot but to do so without any implausibly high-paced drama in the final pages.
Greene is able to do that because his book is one of characters more than action. As with THE DEFECTION OF AJ LEWINTER, the moments of drama are not central to what the book is about. In The Human Factor, Graham Greene's ambition was, he explained, "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, 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".
Not only are the key moments of drama few, some of them even happen without being recounted directly in the book. Instead, the novel spends much time on detailed prosaic accounts of its characters domestic lives. The spies in this book are as much private individuals who happen to have a job in espionage as spies who happen to have a private life. There are moments too of humour, especially the repeated jokes about Maltesers (at the time of writing, a novel and unusual form of chocolate in the UK).
The book is nominally about a suspected leak in a small sub-section of the British Secret Service, but this is really just the backdrop to a study of characters and the potential for mystery over who the leaker really is does not get much time in the book, especially if you spot the fairly big clue early on.
Given Greene's skill with characters that is no weakness in the book but instead a strength, for it leaves more scope for the personal struggles of his characters. That makes for a well-balanced book that is easy to read and yet leaves much to ponder about how people should act.
on 25 February 2003
Greene's novels work on a number of levels, and The Human Factor is no exception. It appeals as a crafted spy novel with all the twists, double-bluffs, secrecy and paranoia that the genre requires. Yet it is lifted above the ordinary by its examination of how love/compassion, gratitude and self-sacrifice motivate a man to do the 'unthinkable'. As usual the baddies are the disconnected establishment and their bureaucracy (boxes), and as such are little more than caricatures. However, the central character study of Maurice Castle is compelling and, ultimately, moving.
on 15 February 2013
In The Human Factor, Graham Greene takes a close look at human relationships and motivations. He captures personality and interactions with a compassionate, understanding eye, managing to write about the mundanities of life while also weaving a heartbreaking story of treachery and lies. If you are looking for spy novels with car chases and sex then look to another author. But if you would like to read beautiful and terrible stories of life in the secret side of the civil service then reach for a Graham Greene novel.
on 5 November 2007
Greene's writing is always correct, deft and engrossing without the flash of pomp or needless audacity. Nor is it terse or markedly clipped. Simply put, Greene novels are effortlessly compelling and calmly faultless.
The Human Factor is a novel more about the fatiguing and tiresome business of constant occupational mistrust as about the excitement and intrigue of agents and double-agents. The novel's principal characters are heads of divisions stuck in their ways, blinded by their own routine compartmentalising (to the detriment of compassion, of that `human factor'), and their lesser agents- lonely men who find solace too frequently in a quadruple J & B.
Though I've enjoyed other Graham Greene novels more than this one (The End of the Affair and To the Heart of the Matter I consider his finest works), his copious output maintained a consistently high standard, and this certainly does not fall short.
The Human Factor is a very good book. Anyone familiar with Graham Greene's work would, quite rightly, expect nothing less.
on 7 June 2012
Castle is a double agent. So he can't speak freely to his wife. And he betrays his work colleagues - after all, he'd rather someone else seemed to be the double agent when the going gets tough. He passes on information to the Russians because he wants to help them in relation to apartheid South Africa - but they use his information as part of a much more complex game of bluff and double bluff with British intelligence. And he has to kill his dog to keep him quiet, thereby betraying his son's love for him.
Classic Greene themes, then. And classic diversions - the country house shoot at which C takes stock with his trusted lieutenant about the leaks on South Africa; and Castle's trip to the wedding of the daughter of a work colleague.
Somehow, for me - clearly not for other Amazon reviewers - this failed to catch fire. Perhaps I have read too much Greene before - his world-view is powerful and impactful when you first encounter it. Perhaps this just seemed to pat an expression of them.
on 10 June 2007
The craftsmanship in THE HUMAN FACTOR is superb, with Greene creating a carefully balanced cast of characters whose decisions and actions regarding marriage, friendship, professional integrity, and basic morality strike rich contrasts with those of Maurice Castle, this novel's protagonist. Further, the novel contains Greene's usual deft irony, particularly in the denouement, where Greene, with just a few quick strokes, is able to show the principled actions of Castle as the equivalent of futile self-sacrifice.
For people with my middlebrow sensibilities, this craftsmanship creates the best of all worlds. That is, THE HUMAN FACTOR is both a fast-moving and intriguing narrative and a dramatization of a complex personal and professional situation. At the finish, this reader then took the time to ponder whether Castle did the right thing or if really he had any choice, given his quiet yet rock-solid integrity.
Nonetheless, Castle is a difficult protagonist to appreciate. This is because he is a dull and repressed man who is seeking a life of routine and tranquility. Oddly, this quality, not his integrity, is at the center of his character, even as the cautious Castle acts on his principles. This, in my opinion, is the single flaw in this novel: Castle seems dull, even in his moments of principled behavior and reckless choice.
Still, this is a fine novel and highly recommended.
on 20 February 2001
George Orwell once wrote that if he was faced with the choice of having to betray his friend or betraying his country, that he hoped that he would have the strength to betray his country. This is a book that is filled with something that I feel that I personally am lacking and that i fear that the world in general could do with more of. Compassion. It is a clever book filled with real feeling people but it wears it's heart on it's sleeve and has some lines in it that made me stop and re-read them again. Beautiful and delicate, but also poignant.