The Human Factor, by Graham Greene, Folio Society, 2008

The Human Factor is Graham Greene’s 22nd novel, though the first I have read! Greene drew on his own experience in MI6 where his boss, Kim Philby, ended up famously being outed as a Soviet spy.  The Human Factor takes place in the cold war. The main character, Maurice Castle, works for British Intelligence, but is engaged in espionage as a Soviet spy.

This is not your traditional cloak and dagger story. It is free from action and any romanticism of the spy trade so often portrayed in modern movies and novels. As Greene himself stated, he ‘wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions’. Greene focuses on portraying the characters’ internal lives, the psychological struggle that comes from the decisions they make. Paranoia and doubt run rampant, propelled by the secrecy bred within the intelligence culture.  We see ‘real’ people, no different from ourselves and our neighbors, going about their daily lives…just doing so within the microcosm of life within the intelligence service.

I enjoyed the story, the psychological suspense and the deep exploration of the character Castle. It is enjoyable to read. I will certainly be open to reading more from Greene based on the quality of this book. However, I do think Greene’s own politics shaded his view of right and wrong, leading him to make the error of assigning moral equilibrium between the two sides of the Cold War. While undoubtably both sides often operated with a degree of amorality, I think one must differentiate the motivation between one who pushes a child in front of a bus and one who pushes the child out of the way of the bus.  Yes, they both pushed a child, but why they each did so is what matters. I bring this up since Greene obviously tries to elicit sympathy for Castle’s character; I was unable to completely feel such sympathy realizing that the micro-world of Castle’s sins, perhaps understandable in a vacuum, are unforgivable in the macro-world where other people’s lives are tightly wound up and dependent on the outcome of the overall war between two opposing ideologies. I understand that some Books and Vines readers may disagree with my thinking here, and kudos to Greene, as such would be the exact discussion a reading of this book should elicit.

Greene does not completely fool himself about the Soviets, having one character say concerning the concept of one man, one vote:

Even the Russians subscribe to that now for propaganda purposes, but they are clever enough to make sure that the things they can vote for in their own country are of no importance at all.

Greene hits the nail on the head on what drives so many problems in the world, hatred driven by fear.

If fear and love are indivisible, so too are fear and hate. Hate is an automatic response to fear, for fear humiliates.

I also agree with Greene’s comment on intellectuals. Yes, a broad brush, but most of the mass human created disasters of the twentieth century (communism, fascism, mao-ism, etc.) stemmed from, and gained strength from, backing of the intellectual class.

Our worst enemies here are not the ignorant and the smile, however cruel, our worst enemies are the intelligent and the corrupt.

Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a very popular author for a good chunk of the twentieth century, and his works remain frequently read and reasonably well regarded by critics. His prose is considerably lean and realistic in nature. His novels often have Catholic religious themes, while others explore the world of espionage and international politics. At least 66 movies have been based on Greene written material, including the classic film noirThe Third Man, which happens to be one of my favorite movies. He was an anti-moderinist, criticizing modernist writers for losing the religious sense necessary for true drama based on conflict within the soul and the reality of good versus evil.  Yet, Greene seemed to ignore the reality of evil around leftist dictators around the world, such as Castro, including the disenfranchisement of formal religious practice inherent in many leftist regimes and ideas he supported. In 1986, Greene was awarded Britain’s Order of Merit.

This is another Folio Society ‘standard edition’ that is very nicely done. Bill Bragg’s cover design and illustrations certainly properly reflect the mood and setting: dreary, monotonous and dark. The text is sharp (see the macro shot below) and easy to read. The size is nice, a very comfortable plane read. It would have been a nice addition to include some sort of introduction, to help set the tone and context for the times the story represents, and to tell the reader about Greene.

About the Edition

  • Illustrated by Bill Bragg with a Frontispiece and 11 black & white illustrations
  • Bound in cloth, blocked with a design from Bill Bragg, by Lachenmaier, Reutlingen, Germany
  • Set in Garamond with Gill Sans display
  • Printed on Caxton Wove paper at Memminger MedienCentrum AG, Memmingen, Germany
  • Text follows that of the first edition published in 1978 by The Bodley Head
  • Size: 9″ x 5¾”, 296 pages


The Human Factor, Folio Society, Book in Slipcase
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Cover
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Macro Detail of Cover
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Copyright and Colophon Info
The Human Factor, Folio Society, List of Illustrations
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Sample Text
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Sample Text Macro View
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1 with Text (they chose a bench)
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Sample Illustration #2 with Text (‘I saw his again behind me…’)
The Human Factor, Folio Society, Sample Illustration #3 (Halliday Senior in the shop across the way)

3 thoughts on “The Human Factor, by Graham Greene, Folio Society, 2008

  1. I think the analogy you were looking for is “One person pushed the child into the bus. The other person is the bus driver who is drunk.”

    Law of unintended consequences.

  2. Chris – If you like Graham Greene, look for his Entertainments published also by the Folio Society: Five novels in a single slipcase termed by Greene as Entertainments.I just sold my Mint copy, or I would offer it to you.

    If you want to learn all about Kim Philby et al, watch the BBC tv movie The Cambridge Spies. Also The Fifth Man about the member of the Philby gang who was in charge of the Queen’s Art collection until he was unmasked as a Soviet spy: Sir Anthony Blount I think his name was. The Brits problem was how do you unknight a knight.

    Of course the best writer of cold war espionage is probably John Le Carre. His triloghy Tinker, Tailor, Sodier Spy; the Honourable School Boy; and Smiley’s People is about as good as modern Espionage writing gets. All are being published by Folio, and the first and third have been made into tv movies starring Alec Guiness.

    Folio is also publishing an almost forgotten espionage writer: Eric Ambler. His novel The Mask of Demetrious is a fantastic read. It was made into a great movie called A Coffin for Demetrious staring Zachary Scott, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.

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