A Ride On the Greeneland Express: examining Greene’s “first true success”

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Book: Stamboul Train (republished as Orient Express)

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1932

Type: Novel (226 Pages)

Before continuing with this review of mine, I will have to admit (albeit sheepishly) that this took far too long to complete and publish. It is sad truth that an inevitable by-product of attending university is having an upsurge of on-topic and course-related work, all of which serves as an excellent preventative measure against the completion of Other Things. Therefore, actual Sanskrit shall impede the progress of supposed Creativity, and thus shall my writings be temporarily halted.

I was hoping to complete one review on a fortnightly basis, and if I could, on a weekly basis, but the latter occurrence is only likely to happen when all the stars come crashing down to Earth with a resounding “thwack” (and a lot of smoky debris), so I am not going to be so sanguine in the estimation of my own ability to manage time. My estimation was proven correct, and not only did I not manage to complete one on a fortnightly basis, I didn’t even manage to complete one during the first half of the term at all. So, in recompense I now present to you my latest review on Greene’s Stamboul Train, with the greatest happiness and enthusiasm, and I genuinely hope that all those interested in reading my ranting have enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Truly, I have. Even if it meant a lot of angst and the occasional frantic scramble for a copy of the book I was reviewing (for referencing and memory reinforcing).

It is time to progress onto the actual review of Greene’s Stamboul Train (about time, I know some will say). Regrettably, there is only one word that can describe my feelings towards this book: lukewarm. It’s not necessarily a bad book, but to me, it’s not great either, and only has value in the fact that firstly, it was his first true success after the repudiated novels The Name of Action (which, I preferred in some ways, to Stamboul Train) and Rumour at Nightfall, and after his debut The Man Within, and secondly, because it exhibits the qualities (in a less developed form, naturally), that have made his later works truly stand out as quality literature. Before I proceed, I only have one small confession to declare: I personally think that my disappointment with this particular book is greater because of the extent to which I loved The Man Within. I had read The Man Within during the summer before I went up to Oxford, and I can truly say that it is one of those books that simply made the time fly. I remember feeling genuinely resentful that my lunch break at work was over, because I knew that I couldn’t finish the book because of that, and I raced home after work just so that I could spare the time to finish it properly.

Thus, after my surprisingly enthusiastic response to Greene’s (bloody amazing) debut, I continued onwards to Stamboul Train, genuinely expecting more of the same quality, but with more thrills and suspense and surprising plot-twists that would make the world of espionage more exciting and glamorous than it probably is. So, it was with genuine frustration that I finished this book, acknowledging the fact that it does indeed have its good points, but focusing more on the negatives that made my reaction to this book lukewarm, at best. In this review, I will attempt to justify this opinion of one of Greene’s more celebrated works, and explain why the skilfully created tension in the action scenes, and the clever interweaving of all the passengers’ lives and fates, do not outweigh the occasional clumsiness in the style, the scattered nature of the plot, and the lack of emotional depth and power, in comparison to some of his more ‘serious’ (and perhaps even less technically brilliant) works.

The novel focuses on the journey of a cross-continental train known as the ‘Orient Express’, a journey which will start in Ostend and end in Istanbul. The passengers of this train are a wonderfully eclectic assortment of people, all with different backgrounds and different motives, but their lives will be both tragically and farcically linked in unimaginable ways as the train journey continues. This includes entanglements in political rebellion, theft, homosexual relationships, and the unspoken problems of racial and social divides.

The scenes of “suspense” (or action thrills, as I like to call them) are actually very good, and definitely show promising signs of future greatness Greene’s stellar espionage sequences in his later classics, such as The Confidential Agent and The Human Factor. The scene of the escaping thief Grünlich at the beginning of the book is a masterly example of Greene experimenting with and honing the fine art that is skilfully creating tension. Another notable example of this successful evocation of edgy thrills is the car escape scene in Subotica, a scene filled with such incredible tension that the reader almost feels as stressed and anxious as Myatt as the decrepit and temperamental car slowly edges its way further and further eastwards. This is heightened by the sense of anti-climax that the reader feels when Grünlich escapes in the car with Myatt instead of Musker, ensuring that the reader feels great frustration and resignation at the unfortunate and tragic turn of events. However, though that scene is both exciting and frightening to the more timid reader, it is the episode of Dr Czinner’s court martial that really stands out as a scene of exceptional power and pathos. There is something poignant and tragic in the way Czinner stands up for himself and his convictions, fully knowing that there is no possible way he can escape alive, and yet still needing to prove to himself and to his captors that he is no coward, and certainly no turn-coat. The power and effect of this incredible passage is deeply felt, and is certainly one of the high points in what is otherwise an arguably bland and occasionally incoherent narrative.

This abruptness is especially felt in the final part of the Musker adventure, in which she is whisked away by the jilted journalist Warren in her car, and her fate is left unknown as the scene closes with Musker suffering from a heart bypass. I felt this turn of events was arbitrary, and almost completely superfluous to the plot; it added nothing to the general flow of the story other than to create a sense of bewilderment and perturbation in the mind of the reader. However, despite this, the creativity and tension that fuels many of the hair-raising episodes of the novel ought to be credit with the praise it deserves, and it would not be biased to claim that some of these great scenes display the great potential which Greene later fulfils in his next ‘entertainments’.

Another aspect of Stamboul Train which I, as a reader, definitely thought acted as an asset to the plot, was the way in which Greene successfully managed to create The disparate characters on the train all lead unique and strange lives (in a good way), and Greene does a relatively good job of tying it all together in plausible and tragic ways (the escape in the car, for example). From the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the irritable lesbian journalist Warren; to the cunning and resourcefulness of Grünlich; the passivity and resignation of Musker; the fluctuating tendencies towards both idealistic bravado and self-serving despair in Czinner, and the alternations of mercenary pride and ethnic insecurities in Myatt, Greene has managed to create a wide range of characters, whose interactions and relationships enmesh together in a clever web of deceit, gratitude, condescension, and reluctant good will, to name but a few. In presenting so many characters of so many different sorts, Greene has been successful in recreating a train full of passengers, all of whom are completely different and yet are bound together by the curious coincidence of heading in the same direction, with the same means of conveyance. Thus, Greene has managed to make his character sketches colourful but realistic, showcasing a wide panoply of characters and lives.

This effective characterisation was accompanied by the clever use of train stops as chapter markers. This deceptively simple, yet efficacious method allowed the plot to be divided into episodes and phases that were neatly divided according to the location in which the train itself was situated, thus constantly reminding the reader of the artificiality and temporal nature of the environment. It was also clever in that it almost literally kept the plot moving, and gave the subsequent action a sense of inevitability that was heightened by Musker’s detainment (and thus her separation from Musker), as well as the similar car escape back eastwards, in which again much of the tension was based on whether passengers to get back to the train on time or not. This therefore allowed Greene to increase an already tense and highly charged atmosphere.

On the other hand, any effect that Stamboul Train may have had was partially ruined by the clumsy style of writing which was almost an inevitable by-product of constant shifts in narrative and environments. There was some good scenes, as I have explained above, and there were also some characters with great potential (such as the noble and altruistic Czinner), but it seemed as if Greene had a series of unconnected tableaus, with powerful writing and effect within these scenes themselves, , and no means by which he could connect them all together. If one were to visualise the plot as a tangible object, it would be comparable to having a collection of beautifully polished and glistening pearls, all of which are valuable and beautiful in and of themselves – until they are strung together in a necklace made of a ball of twine. There was little smoothness in the transition from one scene to another, and this made the plot occasionally seem stilted, and, in the transitional passages, outright dull. The profound effect that the advent of cinema had on the works of Greene and contemporary authors is apparent here, as the plot is more like a whole series of montages rather than one continuous narrative.

Furthermore, though the ‘action episodes’ show great potential, the monologue, at this stage of Greene’s development as a first-class writer, does not. The characters, with their constant stream of inane, and frankly irritating, consciousness begins to grate on the nerves and, in my opinion, wears the patience of the reader thin. I feel that this is especially applicable to the narrative focusing in Myatt; whilst it is important to understand the anxiety and insecurities that underlie his character, in part due to his personality, and in part due to the persecution that his race has continually received in mediaeval and modern Europe, this theme was belaboured and over-emphasized, and any power it had was lost. Whilst I am not critic of the concept of introspective experimentation, there can occasionally be too much, and, if the introspection does not yield anything of interest, either stylistically or thematically, then the technique is ineffectual. This inner-monologue technique, and its effect in displaying, in glorious details, the angst and dilemmas of the everyday Greeneland protagonist, is one will thankfully improve with time, but, at this stage, it is merely a fledgling in its quality and efficacy.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Greene failed in extracting any sentiments from me. The characters were interesting and diverse, and were certainly skilfully drawn up, but, with the possible exception of Czinner, I could not emotionally invest with the characters. I neither passionately hated nor loved them, and I found myself ambivalent to their plight. Despite my previous statement about Czinner, even then I discovered that, though slightly disturbed by the court-martial and subsequent execution, I did not genuinely feel pain, or loss at the death of the character. This stands in stark contrast to my emotions concerning Greene’s debut, The Man Within, which wildly vacillated from anguish, to despair, to frustration, ultimately to sadness in the closing scenes; there was a great sense of loss, and a even deeper sense of regret. The emotion which a book can evoke from its reader is, in my opinion, supposed to be one of its primary powers, and in this respect, Stamboul Train fails sadly.

In conclusion, I think that Stamboul Train is a book of very mixed parts. The scenes of action, of tension, with suspense and thrills, are very good. Their interlinking scenes and everything else is not. The writing and structure is occasionally stilted, and sometimes the scenes of actions are connected with each other like a very awkward string of wonky beads. However, what I do value in the Stamboul Train is the amount of untapped potential it has; it is a book with a very good concept, and really is the “entertainment” that Greene wanted it to be. Even now it does not fully realise its own potential, it definitely shows the glints of Greeneland genius that will flourish with a magnificent vengeance in his later works, be they serious or “entertaining”. For this, Stamboul Train is a useful and valuable link in showing the evolution of Greene’s career as a writer, even if, as a stand-a-lone, it lacks that emotional appeal and power that would make it a tour-de-force in the Greene canon.

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The Author and His Critics: an analysis of Greene’s final finished work.

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Book: The Captain and the Enemy

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1988

Type: Novel (194 Pages).

The Captain and the Enemy - Graham Greene

Before I start on this review, I would just like to proffer my humblest apologies to any reader that has been experiencing agonising withdrawal symptoms through my lack of recent reviews. I have been manically busy recently, as I have been involved in what is known as a “College Telethon”: this involves exposing alumni of The Glorious College to the wonder that is my sexily husky voice, whilst politely requesting for a monetary contribution to The Glorious College. Yes, it is a fundraising initiative; yes, I have had my fair share of phones being slammed on me. It also means that I have very little spare time, and that the little spare time I do have is usually spent not writing reviews, but doing something a little more meaningful, like washing dishes, for example. So, having taken an enforced hiatus of precisely 10 days, I am now back, and am on (potentially) sparkling form.

It has been declared before that I am a Great Graham Greene (such fantastic alliteration) fan. In light of this great partiality of mine, I have decided to alternate my reviews between Greene and non-Greene works. This “brilliant” scheme will very probably last until

  1. I get bored and restless and move on to something else to review,
  2. I get bored of reviewing altogether and drop this illustrious enterprise, or
  3. I run out of Graham Greene novels to review.

I am happy to tell the reader that the last possibility is very, very unlikely to happen.

Even so, until that sad hour of my distraction, when I scamper off from the much-loved territory of Greeneland, I shall boldly  continue to alternate between the two; and I shall continue the precedence set by my review on The Human Factor, by now publishing one on Greene’s last finished, and fully published work, The Captain and the Enemy.

In my opinion, it is almost impossible for any author to maintain a consistent standard in all his works, and when some of these works are masterpieces (as is the case for Mr Greene), it is an unfortunate inevitability that some works will appear to be sub-standard in comparison.

This, unfortunately, is the case for The Captain and the Enemy. It was his last book published before he died in April 1991, and is not one of the well-known ones. I don’t even think that it’ll be presumptuous to assume that many so-called Greene fans (who have possibly only read Brighton Rock, and perhaps, The Power and The Glory), haven’t even heard of it, let alone read it. Therefore, it is up to the hard-core enthusiast to read it, and thus place themselves in a position to review it.

Now, it cannot be said that this book is the very best. However, even though it isn’t, it has a raw vulnerability that touches me very much. In this review, I will endeavour to analyse the merits and demerits of The Captain and the Enemy, expanding on its qualities – its great emotional depth; the mysterious and exciting nature of its basic premise; and its occasional humour – as well as assessing its flaws: its abrupt ending through a fast declining plot; and its bewildering lack of genre.

The Captain and the Enemy is narrated from the perspective of a young man called Victor Baxter, who continues onwards to recount his life with “the Captain”, a shady character whom he first met when the Captain successfully kidnaps him. He then grows up with the Captain and Liza, a nervous woman whom he is meant to keep company. Events in his life continue along the same pattern for a while (frequent absences from the Captain, unexplained visits from the police, and the constant anxiety exhibited by Liza in between letters and visits from the Captain), until the death of Liza, an occasion which prompts Baxter to relocate to Panama (where the Captain seemed to be) to try to discover just what the Captain is involved in. Consequently, Baxter is drawn into the politics and intrigues of that troubled Central American state, with unexpected consequences.

Even though part of my criticism of The Captain and The Enemy is due to the “espionage” part of the novel, I do have to admit that one of the book’s strengths is its exciting and totally unexpected starting, an unpredictability that continues with great effect. It is the casualness with which the narrator announces “I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father” when he recounts his first meeting with the Captain, that automatically makes the reader sit up, and take stock. Thus starts a journey into Greeneland that gallops at full pace for a significant portion of the plot; from “Baxter Three” being whisked away from school and  from the life he had always known, to a life of uncertainty and tension, where a knock on the door is treated with abject terror, and when secretive letters signed off with different names become the norm. The tension is handled well, with Greene’s typical ability to describe with meticulous detail, each little bit of neurosis that makes being human, well, human. Liza’s constant anxiety from the Captain’s nefarious dealings, as well as the constant disappearances of the Captain, very much adds to the mystery, thus keeping the reader perplexed, and eager to continue.

This is very much enhanced by the character of the Captain himself. His very presence raises so many questions that are still left unanswered by the end of the novel. In my opinion, the lack of an answer doesn’t even diminish any power that the book does have; it simply adds to the uncertainty of the entire novel. From the constantly changing identities, to the conflicting stories of the Captain’s life, to the unexplained absences, and the invariable visits from the police, to even the ambiguous promises of a better future cited in the Captain’s letters, there is not one aspect of the Captain that is fixed or known (except his love for Liza); we don’t even know his real name. Even a small issue, such as the game through which the Captain won Baxter is in doubt, with the Captain insisting that it was backgammon, whilst Baxter senior claims it was chess. This lack of certainty in any aspect of anyone’s lives consolidates the ever-present aura of mystery that the Captain radiates, and keeps the plot exciting and suspenseful.

In my opinion, though, it is Greene’s portrayal of love that is his greatest triumph here. The extent to which the Captain is willing to go (kidnapping children, long absences, possible stints in prison, moving abroad, entangling himself in political espionage, to name but a few) to let Liza have anything she wants (including a child!) is deeply moving. Liza’s awareness of this, and her gratitude as a result, is equally touching, and allows us to see another kind of love than that which is usually depicted in Literature: a love that thrives on self-sacrifice, and on making the other happy (much like Blake’s Clod). Liza’s final letter to the Captain is especially powerful, and made all the more so because the reader knows that the Captain, despite all of his absences and all of his risks, for her sake, will never get to hear such a wonderful admission of love from Liza herself. Their constant trials and tribulations make the strength of that confession even more startling, as their love is one that has gone through significant hardship. Consequently, Greene’s depiction of a Great Love characterised by self-sacrifice, secret yearning, and mutual selflessness makes this relationship one of the best in Greeneland literature, and it should definitely be celebrated as such.

The depth of the emotion between them is made all the more profound by Greene’s contrasting it with the detachment of the narrator. There is a certain coldness in Baxter’s reactions and interactions to everything that is slightly frightening, and slightly fascinating. He simultaneously manages to describe the events occurring around him, with other people’s reactions to these situations, without either analysing himself or his own reaction to it. Though some fear and longing is discernible, (especially when he recounts his experiences with the bullies at school, his first night with Liza, and his whimsical decision to take a plane to Valparaiso after he dreamt about it as a sort of paradise) this is hardly noticeable when compared to the palpable fears and worries of Liza, or to the Captain’s disbelief and anger when he discovers Baxter’s convenient white lies. His casual admittance to the fact that he felt he “owed nothing” to the Captain;  his methodical and practical analysis of the situation after Liza’s death, especially in relation to the issue of money; and his initial willingness to continue lying to the Captain after arriving in Panama, makes Baxter an upsetting contrast to the more human Captain, and it also inevitably leads the reader to question the extent to which Baxter takes after his “Devil” father, who is purportedly as heartless as Baxter sometimes appears to be.

Despite the slightly dark aspects of this book, there are certain lighter moments that very much contribute to its virtues. This book, as are many of Greene’s books, is written in a gripping, yet easy-to-read style, that makes the story move along well, and eases any transitions in plot that may startle or confuse the reader. However, it is the occasional humour within The Captain and the Enemy that makes it so enjoyable. The time spent debating the silliness of the narrator’s name (“I never liked the name Victor“) adds a moment of comic relief in what is actually a very disturbing opening scene: the kidnapping of a boy from school.  Equally, the “lessons” he was given by the Captain before being forced to attend school again are also very funny, with a special shout-out going to the Geography-lessons-cum-war-game-extraordinaire that Baxter experiences (“If you want to go from Germany to Spain, how would you do it?”…”No, no, you can’t walk through France, it’s under German occupation.”…” Liège is a safe house. Find Liège”). Even so, it is the letters from the Captain that are absolutely brilliant: long, winding, and very often off-topic, they are peppered with archaic and elaborate vocabulary (“glabrous” earns a notable mention) which has no relevance to the text whatsoever, but which is apparently used “for good sound effect”. These disparate elements all combine to make a novel with a surprising amount of laconic humour, despite the underlying sadness and anxiety beneath it.

On the other hand, one of the biggest flaws of The Captain and the Enemy is its failure to maintain the tension right to the end. Up to the point where Baxter admitted to the Captain that Liza was dead, the plot was moving at an incredibly fast pace. However, after that point, the plot just tailed off, with the Captain abruptly dying on a suicide mission, flying over the wrong part of Panama, and Baxter meeting a similar fate shortly, dying in an “accidental” plane crash to Chile. The two parts of the novel, namely Baxter’s childhood post-kidnap, and the intrigue in Panama with the spies and the militia, never seemed to combine well, and the plot thus lost steam at the end, leaving the reader deflated and slightly stunned. Greene managed to build up a level of mystery and uncertainty to such a high pitch that this sharp decline is rather disappointing. This is especially so because of the clumsy epilogue, which features Colonel Martinez and Quigly looking through Baxter’s “manuscript”, a stylistic device that considerately allows the reader to pretend that the entire story was real, as well as letting the reader know that Baxter doesn’t manage to outlive the Captain by more than a fortnight (if that), without having to resort to Baxter the Ghost recounting his last moments of life from Heaven. This device is, to me, ill-timed, and jars with the rest of the first person narrative; I feel that it not only adds precious little to the plot, it actually lessens it.

Nonetheless, what I found most troubling about the book was Greene’s inability to decide which genre he wanted to write in. Though it has often been argued that a book that defies traditional genres is a book that defies conventional logic, and is therefore groundbreaking work, I simply cannot agree with this. I feel that the mixing of genres in The Captain and The Enemy is simply a result of Greene’s indecision, rather than it being a bold experimentation in stylistic writing. It is a well know fact that Greene self-styled his publications into two types of novel: the novels of a “serious bent” (though he never used that particular term), which tended to include novels of a Catholic trend, such as The End of The Affair, and The Power and the Glory; and novels of “entertainment” (a term Greene did use), which described thrillers with a predilection towards suspense and espionage, such as The Stamboul Train, or England Made Me. It is true, there have been Greene novels that married the two beautifully (The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul automatically stand out), but The Captain and the Enemy does not fall into the “gold-standard” category. This novel therefore wants to be too many things to too many people all at once: it discusses arms-trading whilst the narrator ponders over the morality of his decisions, and it explores the inexplicable attachment between Liza and the Captain on the same page that it describes the unstable political situation in Panama. It is this indecision on the author’s part that weakens the novel’s strength, a novel that could have been so superior to what it currently is if Greene had simply decided to make it one of his “serious novels”. This choice would have been well-supported by the relationship described between Liza and the Captain, as it is wonderfully portrayed and has great emotional complexity.

So, what does this all mean? Well, though I cannot objectively call it a novel of the best technical skill, it is one which, for me, has a profound emotional appeal. The Captain and the Enemy does have its imperfections; yet, despite that, it has a curious emotional affect on me that makes it very special; I have to admit with blushing cheeks and shifty eyes that it is one of the very few novels that made me cry. There is something about Greene’s portrayal of Love here that is so unique, so different, and yet so beautiful, that this Love is one of the few Loves that I actually feel something for. It is this Love that motivates the best parts of the plot; it is also the ending of this Love through Liza’s death (and the Captain’s belated realisation of it) that heralds the unravelling of the plot at the end. Greene’s portrayal of Love is therefore, to me, central to this novel, and it is because of this Love that The Captain and The Enemy should be celebrated as a novel with great emotional depth, even if it does have little else.

The Popularity Factor: a look at one of Greene’s most enduring works.

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Book: The Human Factor

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1978

Type: Novel (290 pages).

It is probably fairly obvious that I am one of Mr Greene’s  fans. The obsession has permeated into many facets of my life: from my choice of college, to my reading tastes, and even my predilection in film. I cannot quite remember how this frankly worrying obsession started, but I do know for a fact that the first novel I read was Brighton Rock. Brighton Rock certainly did not automatically spawn the fruits of my eternal love, but I think one small thing did, at the time, leave its mark on me: Pinkie’s matter-of-fact explanation that Heaven had to exist, because, naturally, Hell (and all the smoky brimstone that it contains) did. There could be no Hell without its exact opposite, and as Hell was a definite, so therefore, was Heaven. This reflection of my own views on Roman Catholicism and God (as opposed to my more sanguine friends, who only believed in Hell because Heaven obviously existed), caught me, and led me forward. After The End of the Affair, and The Quiet American, one could safely affirm I was permanently hooked. The rest, as they say, is history. The quest to finish every single novel by him (repudiated or otherwise) was taken on. And this quest has been remarkably fulfilling.

Which leads me back to The Human Factor. Now, The Human Factor is a bit of an oddity for me, mainly because it was left until so late. Apart from Rumour at Nightfall (which is rather difficult to get hold of), I had read almost every single novel by Greene. The only remaining three were The Captain and the Enemy, Travels with my Aunt, and surprisingly, The Human Factor. Surprising, because this was considered one of his best works, and it was certainly one of his most popular. There had been many of time when I had professed myself a Greene fan, only to be caught out sheepishly admitting that I hadn’t read this particular novel. Cue sceptical looks and a plummet in my Greene-cred. So, when I finally got around to The Human Factor, I had been led to believe in its almost mystical power and had, essentially, bought the hype.

That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. There is something about the way in which Greene deals with his subject material that’s masterful, and, at the same time, absolutely unpretentious. One can get stuck into a Greene book; one can forget the time reading the Greene book; Greene books are often imbued with an almost magical power.

However, I find myself as conflicted as the character Castle in the matter of reviewing this book. One side of me enthusiastically eulogises over the good points of this work: namely, the expertly displayed psychological tensions and conflicts, the well-written scenes of thrilling suspense (this is, after all, an espionage novel), the unpredictability of the novel (I, for one, had no idea where it was going, and I am a relatively experienced reader), and the excellent characterisation. On the other hand, I found fault with the pacing, and especially with the ending, which I felt marred the positives. Furthermore, though there was great continuity and smoothness of plot, I found that the whole premise fell a little flat, though this is purely a gut instinct on my part. Terrible as it sounds, I didn’t see the point of the book after I’d finished it, and this marginally spoiled the reading pleasure. But, I will address all of these points in turn.

The Human Factor is an espionage novel with a basic premise: sensitive information has been leaked. The leak has occurred in a department of MI6 that handles data concerning and deriving from the African continent, which, according to one of its agents Castle, “only sees the dullest side of things”. The novel deals with the lives and thoughts with the players involved in investigating and resolving this problem, and how they are affected by the checks that are taking place. The leak is eventually revealed to be the apparently staid and loyal civil servant Castle, and the rest of the novel describes his actions in first trying to prevent exposure, and then in trying to escape with his family once exposure is guaranteed.

Greene’s manipulation and exploration of psychological tensions is exemplary in this novel. The intense love that Castle feels for his wife Sarah, and the extent to which he is willing to go to preserve and encourage that deep bond is touching to read, as well as being beautifully narrated. This yearning is also successfully displayed in the character of Davis, though this yearning translates into a desire for the exotic, for the unusual, for a taste of adventure (this is fairly obvious from the glum references that Davis makes constantly to James Bond and his enviably wild antics). Castle’s fear and craving for stability is so real that one can almost feel the anxiety wrap its tenacious fingers around the reader; Daintry’s pained dilemma between his duty and his sense of friendship, and well as his desire to do everything correctly, is so tangible to the reader as to transmit itself across the page, making us empathise with the character and the difficult decisions he has to make.

The encroaching invasion against the status quo and the inevitable shattering of tranquility that is represented in the repetitious security checks is so skilfully built up within the framework of the novel that one feels the same tension and anxiety as the investigations progress closer and closer to the truth. The insecurities and doubt of each and every character – Castle doubting his actions as a double agent; Davis, the choice of occupation; Daintry, the correctness of the investigation’s routine; Percival, his medical methods and knowledge; and Sarah, her position as a black woman in a white-dominated country – is layered one upon another in such a way that the whole novel becomes a build-up of great uncertainties, leaving one anxious and troubled even after the book is finished. Even the ending is ambiguous, with each and every player of the spy game trapped in a stalemate that leaves the future as painfully uncertain in fiction as it is in reality.

Of course, this novel has plenty of what Greene does best: great scenes of action that keeps the reader in an uncomfortable suspense as the plot unravels. In my opinion, the interview between Daintry and Castle (after Castle believes that his cover has been blown) is one of the most awkward and tense parts of the novel, with both trying to play a cat-and-mouse game with each other, while trying not giving their own position away. Castle’s getaway is also an episode of high thrills, with each stage of his flight providing an excitement and apprehension that makes the reader continue forward with bated breath. From the car ride with the old bookseller, to his coincidental and rather unfortunate meeting with a former acquaintance at the airport hotel, this sequence serves as one of the better written scenes of “epic flight”.

Furthermore, the way in which the plot unravelled made the story line startling and surprising in many ways: after several chapters of carefully building up an image of Castle’s staidness and his loathing of risks, as opposed to Davis’ restlessness, it is casually revealed that Castle is in fact the double agent. The suddenness of Davis’ death serves both as a shock and as a reality check to the reader and to Castle. It also seems to put paid to any doubts of the senior management involved (especially as Castle gives the planted information meant for Davis to the Communists, thus damning Davis in Percival’s eyes), and the pace naturally slows a fraction, until the tension is abruptly heightened again by Muller’s announcement that he believes Castle to be guilty – an assessment that is unfortunately taken seriously by Hargreaves. The starts and stops to the rising tension in the novel, which, to be fair, never entirely goes away, makes the plot exciting and unpredictable.

Even so, I think what I like about this book the most, is the care that Greene put into the characterisation; each individual has been created with extraordinary skill, and the ability to breathe life into paper people is Greene’s greatest achievement here. Each character has been made so vulnerable, and so believable, that one cannot help but empathise and even understand them, no matter how distasteful they seem, or villainous.

Though we know that Castle is technically a double agent, he is redeemed by his love for Sarah and the straits he will put himself through for that love.  His absolute desire for a peaceful existence, contrasted with the nature of his job (and the fact that he leaks information to his supposed “enemy”), gives the reader a picture of touching vulnerability; this is very much enhanced by his secret alcoholism, and Greene’s choosing to reveal his inner thoughts, thoughts which prove him to be a man greatly troubled by the secrecy his life is necessarily shrouded in. Naturally, the idea that all of Castle’s actions are motivated by a sense of gratitude for the Communist who helped him and Sarah escape Africa (a sense of gratitude corroborated by a childhood episode told by his mother), is a finishing flourish that has all the hallmarks of Greeneland genius.

The peripheral characters greatly add to the solid foundation started by the protagonist’s profile. The restless loneliness and almost silly romanticism of Castle’s junior colleague, Davis, adds a nice contrast to the Castle’s sobriety. His flippancy, carelessness, and wild ideas of adventure are what, unfortunately, contributes to his unnatural death, but these traits endear him to the reader, and there is no difficulty in relating to a character who feels stifled by a dead-end office job.

The warmth and humanity generated from these two characters is sharply juxtaposed with the fantastic coldness of Dr Percival, a character whose almost-psychopathic tendencies, are, to me, an object of great fascination. The clinical way in which he endeavours to investigate the security issues, validate his so-called evidence, and then eliminate the risk as discreetly as possible, is terrifying, and yet strangely compulsive reading material, especially when his matter-of-fact conversation is frequently interspersed with obsessive comments on fishing and gourmet food. The sangfroid with which he shrugs off his contribution to Davis’ death, and the possibility of the invalidity of his circumstantial evidence is as shocking to Daintry as it is to us, and this determined detachment is refreshingly dissimilar to the uncertain emotional messiness that pervades the rest of the book and its characters.

Yet, it is the characterisation of Daintry that is the most skilful in this novel. Both straitlaced and easily shocked, both “dull” and self-loathing as a result of it, it is this character that takes the most of my sympathy; he is just so swamped in a mire of loneliness and conflict. This is evident in several scenes: the shooting weekend and the awkward conversation with Hargreaves and Percival that follows; dinner with his daughter, when he spots Davis and is tongue-tied; begging Castle to go with him to his daughter’s wedding; trying to ring his daughter and getting her married name wrong; the disaster that was his attendance at the wedding; breaking his wife’s ornaments and causing pandemonium at the wedding reception; and his tortured dilemma after his revealing conversation with Castle, to name but a few. All of these aptly portray the conflicting ideas within poor Daintry that are tearing him apart. Though Castle is the protagonist, it is Daintry who is the living embodiment of all the loneliness, fear and doubt that is hinted at throughout the book.

However, though the novel has many good points, its faults still have to be addressed. The pacing of the story was relatively good for a significant part of the novel, but I found that the novel ended rather suddenly, and as such, the tensions created from the getaway and Castle’s stay in Russia was abruptly stopped by the ending of the story, rather than it fading away gently. I came to the end of the book genuinely expecting to have thirty pages more or so to read, and the fact that I didn’t left me uncomfortable and slightly winded. There was no resolution of the problems within the novel, and moreover, there didn’t seem to be a hope of any.

I think this feeling of hollowness was very much accentuated by the fact that the concepts discussed didn’t exactly reach out to me. I did think that the characterisation and conflicts of the novel were beautifully written, yet The Human Factor did not cause me pain to read, and it did not make me think upon my actions, my thoughts, or my interactions with those around me. For example, the actions and decisions of Fowler in The Quiet American left me thoughtful and troubled for days afterwards, with the same question revolving around and round in my head: did he make the right choice? Though The Human Factor displays the vulnerabilities that characterise being human very well, that, to me, was all it did: it displayed human emotions in all its glorious ugliness, but didn’t question or test them, simply accepted them as defined axioms, and built a plot from them.

What makes Graham Greene such a fantastic read is the incredibly fresh nature of his ideas: his exploration of the concepts of honour, love, morality, and fear, and the conflicts that ensue when these clash, is so contemporary as to be as relevant to readers today as it was thirty years ago, and it will be equally relevant to future generations. However, I feel that Greene’s superior ability to display, in breathtaking detail, the countless shades of assorted emotions, has been better showcased in other novels. Though this book is a good read, and a successfully seething mass of tension, paranoia, and all-round uncertainty, it is not as deserving of its popularity as, say, The Power and the Glory, which to me, is a masterpiece. It is heart-warming in places, and gripping in others, but it has many of the human flaws that make it a truly flesh-and-blood drama, and it did not manage to attain the godlike heights of perfection. Nevertheless, The Human Factor was certainly an enjoyable foray into Greeneland, and one I certainly do not regret.