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The Improbable Spy


[clock] 21-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 1979
The Human Factor. By Graham Greene. Simon & Schuster. $9.95.

After more than 50 years before the reading public, Graham Greene has become an institution, the living proof that a contemporary novelist can tackle important subjects and still enjoy immense popularity. As a result, a new work by him is a major event in the international publishing season. The dust jacket of one of his novels shows the extent of his reputation: Reynolds Price calls Greene “the greatest of living English authors”; an unnamed reviewer in the Chicago Tribune goes one further: “the premier writer working today in the English language.” Brigid Brophy weighs in with praise for the “beautiful flat pulse of his prose.” Everything suggests that Greene is the most widely read serious British fiction writer outside his own country, but Greene, now in his mid-seventies, shows no sign of developing into a Grand Old Man. Rather the opposite. He is modest and objective about his own achievements, although his output has been enormous. It began with a collection of poetry, published in 1925, the year he left Oxford, and has since included travel-books, film scenarios, essays, reviews, and in-depth reporting. He has written biography and plays as well as dozens of short stories; and all this activity has been, in some degree, marginal to the main achievement, the score of novels from The Man Within of 1929 to The Human Factor of last spring.

It is difficult to pin down unerringly the source of Greene’s popularity. His appeal cuts across several classes of reader, and the link is probably his readability. For Greene, the novel still tells a story, and all his considerable craftsmanship is directed towards this end. He is uninterested in technical innovation, although he has been open to the influence of many different fashions from English historical romance and spy thriller to the French Catholic moralists—with glances at Conrad, Hemingway, and even Faulkner and the existentialists. Accents and passages can reflect these influences, but nothing deflects Greene from the main business of holding the reader’s attention. To do this, he resorts to the tricks of the cinema—swift juxtaposition of scene, character, and tone—and is often, because of this, slick and ambiguous in his effects. Many lesser writers have mastered these techniques more or less adequately; what makes Greene stand out is that from 1938, the year of Brighton Rock, he has used popular forms to explore his own very special obsessions, such as the operation of divine grace, man’s moral responsibility to himself and other people, and the nature of love and disloyalty. The serious reader likes to recognize in these obsessions the proof of Greene’s seriousness and claim to greatness. They respect his obsessions, even though the vocabulary of Greene’s Catholicism and of his mysterious brand of radicalism is not shared.

Anyone writing about Greene has to face up at once to the Catholicism, not in order to argue with it, as many Orthodox Catholics have done (Pope Paul once told Greene: “Some parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics. You should not worry about that.”). Nor to dismiss it, as some free-thinkers tend to (John Lehmann said, “The Ministry of Fear was more like life . . .than the Catholic miracle tales that invaded his work after the war”), but rather to recognize that a Catholic novelist like Greene brings restraints to the novel that the Anglo-Saxon tradition is not used to. George Orwell’s statement that “the novel is a Protestant art form, requiring the free play of mind” never seems truer than at the end of those novels in which Greene has drawn most heavily on his beliefs, such as The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter.The reader is left as uneasy by the locked gears of the novel’s progress as by the rigid optimism of Soviet socialist realist fiction. The big distinction between the two groups is that Greene’s bending of the laws of probability and human nature is to satisfy something in himself; the Soviet writer’s flagwaving is to please the party bosses. Greene may be right to claim “not to be a writer of Catholic novels, but a writer who in four or five books took characters with Catholic ideas for his novels,” but the influence is there: it is the religious sense that Greene himself believes was lost to the English novel with the death of Henry James.”With the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act. It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension,” Greene is the proof (there are others) that his judgment here was at fault; and, in my opinion, his sounding the religious note has been of the utmost value in reminding an increasingly agnostic century that man has existed on another level of being. This leads to the most interesting aspect of Greene’s work: that despite the special nature of his obsessions few readers feel that they are being preached at. Each novel is really a private exploration of the possibilities of certain lines of conduct which Greene later shares with his public. The Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory and asked Greene to make changes; fellow-Catholic Evelyn Waugh refused to review A Burnt-Out Case because of its absurdities; and there is much that is ideologically dubious in Greene’s work, but for the general public this matters less than the simple fact that Greene is a superb entertainer.

At one time, he insisted on the quality of divertimento in his novels by pinning the label “Entertainment” on some of them. Given the nature of the novel, this had always seemed disingenuous. Did it mean that Greene looked on the novels outside this category as manuals of instruction? In recent years he has dropped the label with no loss or gain. Yet, in considering the mass of his work, a line of demarcation wavers through it. On the one side are the novels that operate in what might be called a free market, and they include Our Man in Havana, Travels with my Aunt, and most of the early work. The other side of the line are the works that are the products of a closed market, where Greene’s obsessions distort the values. By this rough and ready classification, The Human Factor, because it lacks either Catholic or left-wing dialectic, ought to belong to the free market, but in fact it belongs to the second. What we see operating, in place of Greene’s acquired ideologies, is his native passion, not far removed from Thomas Hardy’s, for plotting the destruction of small men and the half-baked hopes that inspire them. The fact that Greene is on the small man’s side for most of the novel does not soften the inexorable way he so shapes events that his hero ends up cornered by actions of his own devising. In some respects, the novel is a throwback to the ones Greene wrote in the thirties, a spy thriller set against important political events, in this case the fight to the death between Black Africa and the white suprematists in Pretoria. Fascism was the accepted evil of many of the 1930’s novels; apartheid is the one that dominates The Human Factor.In publishing his novel at this time, Greene once again shows his flair for producing a topical document.The Human Factor, with its commitment to liberalism in race relations, came out in Britain while the country was having one of its periodic neuroses about colored immigration. Greene’s novel has not been received as a tract, but its message is clear for those who want to take it: racial intolerance is intolerable, and hatred of it can justify anything, even treason. In essence, the novel updates E. M. Forster’s remark that forced to choose between his country and his friends, he would choose his friends. Human solidarity comes before patriotism.

The man who makes this choice is Maurice Castle, a British secret service man, who has worked in Africa and, when the book opens, is based in London. He has passed retirement age and is almost entirely uninteresting. He is a cousin of all those Greene heroes we have met in the past: faceless, undynamic men, as often as not washed up on some foreign shore and consoling themselves for their lost faith with Scotch and the attentions of the local whores or some loyal, subjugated woman. These men are not attractive, but they appeal to Greene, who likes to see in them the special closed garden for the operation of the divine will. What is ironical about Castle’s position is that he is washed up in his own country and in his home-town. This town, Berkhamsted, is also Greene’s birthplace and has been described in his autobiography, A Sort of Life.It is, on the whole, a pleasant old market town become commuters’ dormitory, but Greene turns it into another spot on the map of Greeneland: a gray place where a gray man has made his home.

Castle commutes to the espionage headquarters in London, where he deals with African material, most of it economic news of secondary importance. He has been doing this since his return from South Africa seven years before. At some time he decided to feed what tidbits he could get to the Russians and to do this he devised a code, based on standard works of literature, as though he had read Our Man in Havana and was imitating the eponymous hero. There is no suggestion that Castle is to be paid for his information or that he has any special hope for himself against the day when his cover is blown. What is more, he is not acting out of sympathy with communism. Castle, apart from one subject, is not a political animal and refrains from voting in British elections because the issues seem to him parochial.

Why, then, does he become a double agent? Because, and this is the big, poetic idea of the novel, because he has fallen in love with and married a beautiful black South African named Sarah and in doing this, as he puts it, “became a naturalised black.” As a black man by adoption, Castle wishes to see the destruction of the South African government; and the only force that can do this, in his view, is communism. So, within the African context, Castle acts as a Communist, and the novel, by offering no argument to the contrary, seems to accept that this is not a mistake. Greene stresses that Castle is a man who never forgets a good turn.”You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness,” his old mother tells him. This applies to the white South African lawyer, a Communist, who had helped Sarah escape from Johannesburg to Mozambique, where she and Castle married. The reason for her need to escape was that, while serving in Castle’s spy-ring, she had begun an affair with him, in defiance of the laws of apartheid and so attracted the attention of the security police. The lawyer dies in South African prison, leaving with Castle the image of communism with a human face that was strong enough to counterbalance memories of Prague and Budapest. In gratitude, Castle takes up the dead man’s cause.

The South African situation dominates the novel, but the reader is never taken there except in flashback and conversation. The “beautiful, doomed country” plays the same role in The Human Factor as Paraguay does in The Honorary Consul.It is the place of injustice, where the main characters cannot, may not, live, and it is also their private climate. Greene’s version of South Africa offers no surprises; it is accepted as a police state and, as such, fair game for subversion and harassment.

In establishing Castle as the non-political, non-religious, non-ideological man of good will, Greene had to give him qualities of heart, even of passion. He tries hard, but the result, perhaps from lack of practice, is little more than banal. Greene lavishes much detail on establishing the Castles’ mousy life with Sarah’s child by a black professor—accepted as Castle’s—and a dog; but after years of writing about the horrors of marriage, Greene can only fumble for the essence of a happy match:

“The depth of their love was as secret as the quadruple measure of whiskey. To speak of it to others would invite danger. Love was a total risk.”

This is not, it is true, Greene’s first attempt to suggest depths of connubial bliss; he opened up the territory in The Honorary Consul, contrasting Fortnum’s love and respect for his wife, the ex-brothel girl, with Dr. Plarr’s contemptuous lust for her. All the same, Greene has not got the Castles right. Sarah, the bright, university-educated girl, is closer to Phuong, the Vietnamese girl who prepares the hero’s opium pipes in The Quiet American, than the kind of girl Greene might have had in mind. Phuong prepares the opium; Sarah doles out the whiskey. The role of whiskey in Greene novels becomes obsessive, too, and imbibers may deduce what they can from the fact that Castle is a Justerini and Brooks man.

As to the form of the novel, this falls into two almost equal halves. In the first, the reader learns, fairly casually at a pheasant shoot, where Castle’s bosses gather, that there is a leak of information from the African section. The suspicion falls on Castle’s assistant, Arthur Davis, who aspires to the high life and might therefore be in need of extra cash, however tainted. Davis is an improbably facile figure, and he is given the anti-matrimony speech that appears in most Greene novels: “Ah, those awful leftovers, the joint remade into shepherd’s pie, the dubious meatball. Is it worth it? A married man can’t even afford a good port.” Famous last words. Rash Mr. Davis pays dearly for this speech; his superiors, those grey, laconic men who figure in scores of British spy novels, decide he must be put down quietly so as to avoid a public spy scandal that would shake American confidence in the British service. Although the evidence against Davis is of the flimsiest, they get rid of him by using a new poison that produces the same effect as a lifetime’s addiction to port.

In the second part of the novel, as Davis goes to an early grave, Greene reveals that Castle is the real culprit and lets him into some really important information about a Western plan to cope with the threat of communism in South Africa. By one of those flukes that are essential to a spy novel, the South African sent to London to brief his opposite British numbers is the man who had investigated the affair between Castle and Sarah. To make sure that the long arm of coincidence can be well and truly stretched, Castle’s superiors insist that the Castles should entertain the man at their home. The South African goes out to Berkhamsted to dinner, and Castle hints to him that Davis had died in vain. The South African returns to London and starts the hue and cry that drives Castle out of the country.

Probability has, by this time, taken a holiday, and Greene saves the novel by organizing Castle’s flight from London. This is managed with the speed of a daydream, helped by the dim-wittedness of the British secret service (Greene never allows them even average savvy). In the playing out of Castle’s destiny, Greene has been indulgent. But once he gets his man to Moscow, where a severe snowstorm recalls for those with a mind for such details Dante’s Ninth Circle reserved for traitors, Greene the doomwatcher steps in and contorts the story to make sure that Castle does not get everything his own way. Castle’s mother and others prevent Sarah and her child leaving for Moscow; and as Greene is not interested in solving the Castles’ problems, we leave them, Watergate-style, twisting on a rope, puppets abandoned by the master and as uncertain as the reader what the outcome will be.

At the end of this unconvincing story, Greene seems to be saying: this is where foolish affections and gratitude get you. Men of good will beware. Castle is a traitor, but he is a traitor that the reader has sympathized with for the simple reason that there is no one else in the novel capable of rousing any feeling. In this respect, Greene has produced a variation on an old theme. Otherwise, Castle as a hero is a washout, a soft-centered bumbler. His activities have been, on the whole, trifling, and he lacks the ability of the true ideologic spy, to claim that he is in some way “on the side of history.” Why should Greene have given us such an old softie as hero? Was he trying to produce the anti-spy novel hero or to show us that the man without a real ideology is nothing and that it hardly matters what becomes of him since his actions are devoid of any real significance?

Pre-publication rumors about The Human Factor had suggested that Greene used the spy Philby as a model for Castle. There is no sign of this. In any case, Philby was a hard-headed professional, working assiduously against the interests of his own country deliberately. Castle is anti-South Africa and is too obtuse to see that in hurting the Pretoria Government he might in the long run damage his own. For a professional such as Castle to have missed this point is to make him even more naïve than he is. Castle’s offbeat relationship with communism is equally unconvincing but no more so than Greene’s own.

In his memoirs, A Sort of Life, Greene wrote that after his experiences in Vietnam during the war against the French, and because of American policy there, he found himself “in greater sympathy with communism than ever before, though less and less with the Russian version of it.” A few years before that book was published, Greene went on record as saying, in the London Times, that “if I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union. . . .” Where does he stand? And are these deeply held opinions or are they merely attitudes? It is easy to accept that Greene is moved by poverty, exploitation, and corrupt dictatorships—the classic ills of the Third World—but does he classify as a political animal? It is hard to say “yes” on the strength of The Human Factor] It is not that anyone expects Greene to fill a novel with half-baked propaganda, but we are entitled to expect from him a greater resonance. Everything Castle does lacks common sense and gravity, and this failure in the central character exposes the defects in the framework of the novel.

What comes as a surprise is the realization that despite the sleaziness of many of Greene’s settings and his capacity for converting any given place into a landscape in Greeneland, Greene is not a realistic writer. What is important for him is the poetic idea. In Brighton Rock he had the idea of the good-natured, rather beery woman become avenging angel; in A Burnt-Out Case, Greene was moved by the notion of a great man at the end of his moral rope, as it were, burying himself alive among lepers in steamy central Africa; in The End of the Affair he worked out the battle between the loves of this world and the love of God. The reader recognizes the poet’s insights, but he expects the novelist’s working out. This demands that the writer pay frequent tribute to the great god Probability, the one who presides over the fiction writer’s desk. Nearly all of Greene’s books are flawed by the schism between the poet’s dream and the novelist’s realization. Brighton Rock shows in the first chapters an unexpected ignorance of legal methods in the wake of a murder. The mistakes in the timing of the death, post mortem examination, and funeral are so great as to undermine much that is vivid and searching that comes later. In A Burnt-Out Case, Greene establishes a marvelous mood that is half physical, half in the mind—”I am uncomfortable therefore I am”—and then lets the narrative run into the shoals of improbability. So many of the details of the novel are problematical that at the end the reader remains skeptical. Almost every one of the novels produces scenes or turns in the narrative that the reader only accepts because he has accepted the law of the poetic idea and, without knowing it, is following this more than the physical action. Sometimes, in Travels with my Aunt, for instance, the order is reversed. Greene takes his characters on a tour of some former high spots in his earlier novels, from the crematorium in Brighton Rock to the Paraguay of The Honorary Consul in a way that is never meant to be probable and then, at the end, when Aunt Augusta is dancing with the love of her life, produces such a late flowering of the poetic idea that the whole novel is in some way redeemed.

The Human Factor, as already noted, sets up the great poetic idea of a love that wipes out traditional loyalties and then unsuccessfully tries to support it with a novel that is neither genuine thriller nor comedy of errors. Suspense is missing except at the end, and the exploration of character is minimal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Sarah. She and Castle are an archetypal Greene pair, the elderly man and the young woman available for bed and domestic service. Greene’s women are the least contemporary aspect of the novels. In book after book the reader is faced with the same subjugated type, incapable of sharing the battle of ideas. Nothing is less convincing than the scene in The Human Factor after Castle has confessed to his wife that he has been a double-agent. Given the hard, even pitiless, rhetoric of some female political activitists at this time, Sarah is an Aunty Tomasina.

There are so many things off key in The Human Factor that it is difficult to know where to begin. The Castle household is wrong; the setting in Berkhamsted is not right; the handling of the details of the child’s education is clumsy; the impact of such a strangely assorted couple in a conservative community is misjudged. Then, London is inaccurately placed. In some cases the mistakes are nugatory: errors that could have been put right by careful editing. In the end, so perfunctory is Greene’s English setting that one wonders why he bothered, after so many years living abroad, to return home for a fictional enterprise.

Greene’s absence from England had appeared to be an important factor in his youthfulness as a writer. Whereas his contemporaries, C. P. Snow and Anthony Powell, became involved in novel-sequences that explored the changes and developments in Britain over their lifetime and reflect in their last books something of the discouragement of trying to make sense of the senseless, Greene has made the world his province and has found exotic settings and themes which excited him in places as diverse as Africa, Southeast Asia, Haiti, and Spanish America. Greene has made himself a true man of the world, in the best sense, and has been an eyewitness for a generation of readers for whom he has made concrete the great bugbear of our time, the reality of political power that ignores the will of the people and refuses to be restrained by any moral consideration.

In The Human Factor there is no electricity between Greene’s eye and the landscape. Southeast England is too well-known to be exciting, and to see Greene trying at one or two points in the book to create an uneasy nighttime London—a city that goes to bed about eleven o’clock—is to see that there are certain tricks he has grown used to employing that do not work on the home scene. Greene is really quite limited in his atmospheric effects, and the reader of his novels must often be struck by how much a cliche the sudden storm has become—at moments of tension, of course—although realizing that it makes highly effective cinema. This is fine in Mexico, West Africa, or Vietnam, but the English, grown stoic in their oceanic climate, do not recognize rain as the stuff of melodrama.

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