The Human Factor
The central theme of The Human Factor is sacrificial love; this is the most Christian of Mr. Greene’s major novels since The Heart of the Matter. The police officer, Scobie, the hero of The Heart of the Matter, was driven on by “pity” to courses which involved betrayal of professional trust, some degree of complicity in murder, a sacrilegious communion (Scobie was a Catholic), and the ruin of many lives including his own. In The Human Factor the intelligence officer Castle is driven on by love—explicitly distinguished from pity—to courses which involve betrayal of professional trust, unintentional precipitation of murder, the shooting of his beloved son’s pet dog, defection to the Soviet Union and thereby the enforced break-up of a loving family, the ruin of Castle together with those whom he loved, and for whom he made his destructive sacrifices.
One reviewer of The Human Factor has called the book “phony,” repeating that adjective with manic frequency, and being particularly and repetitively incensed by what he calls its “phony decency.” It is true that the plot of The Human Factor, like that of many other good novels, is incredible at some key points. I do not myself find it incredible that the intelligence services of Britain and the United States might, in certain circumstances, have set up a joint intelligence operation (here code-named Uncle Remus) with the Republic of South Africa. But I find it hard to believe that the British service would employ in such a matter such an agent as Castle, happily married to a black woman, and bringing up as his own her son by a black man. Hard to believe, but just possible.
It is, however, quite impossible to believe that the South African intelligence officer assigned to the operation, having known Castle in South Africa and blackmailed him through Castle’s then mistress (who escaped with the help of a communist agent), would not know, when he was asked to work with Castle in London, that Castle had subsequently openly married that black mistress and was now living with her and her black son. I also find it impossible to believe that Castle’s superiors, learning of a leak, from Castle’s section, of African material to the Soviet Union, would altogether ignore—as they do in the novel—the possible relevance of Castle’s family situation and its history, and treat Castle as being so far above suspicion as to proceed to poison one of his colleagues, a bohemian bachelor with a weakness for port.
The falsity here is of the same kind as in that part of Camus’s L’Etranger where a court in French Algeria, trying a white man for the murder of an armed Arab, is depicted as being altogether unaffected by the ethnic provenance of the accused and of his victim. In both cases, the social and political situation is treated with ostensible realism, but distorted to permit the emergence of the spiritual dilemma of an individual. It is right, I think, to feel a little uneasy about that. Does the real world not provide valid conditions for spiritual dilemmas, and may not there be something hollow about a dilemma which needs such distortion to make it apparent? Of course a positive answer to that question could be extended into a puritanical condemnation of all forms of fiction.
The fact is, I think, that Mr. Greene treats the activities—as distinct from the existence—of his spies with a kind of weary contempt. If they, perhaps, would not have been likely to do these particular silly or wicked things in these particular ways, he seems to say, then they would have done some other silly or wicked things in some other ways; the results would always be more of the same. Their activities are not pointless: but the point is very far from where they suppose it to be. This novel, which appears to be political, is in fact metaphysical. It is about good and evil, love and hate, the quest for God, the imitation of Christ.
The charge of “phony decency” as directed against. The Human Factor is very wide of the mark. “Decency”—based on the Anglo-Saxon notion of the obviousness of what is right—was a key word and fighting slogan with the late George Orwell. With Mr. Greene, this has never been so. The whole of Brighton Rock is designed to display, and mock, the irrelevance and superficiality—“phoniness” if you like—of conventional decency, personified by Ida. In his later novels, Mr. Greene has been gentler with decency, tending to discern love as underlying it, but laughing at it a little all the same; the presidential candidate in The Comedians is a case in point.
Castle in The Human Factor is recognized as a decent man, but the point about him is that he is drawn or driven to become much more and much less than a decent man; to abandon the trappings of decency, to sacrifice himself, to become a kind of saint and martyr. The key word with Castle is not “decency”; it is “gratitude”—a more precise and analyzable term. As his mother tells him: “You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness. It was a sort of insecurity, though why you should have felt insecure with me and your father…. You once gave away a good fountain pen to someone at school who had offered you a bun with a piece of chocolate inside.”
Castle, talking with his wife Sarah about the communist agent, Carson, who rescued her and her son Sam from the clutches of the South African police:
“He had a way of drawing people to him.”
“Most of the Communists I knew—they pushed, they didn’t draw.”
“All the same, Sarah, he was a genuine Communist. He survived Stalin like Roman Catholics survived the Borgias. He made me think better of the Party.”
“But he never drew you that far, did he?”
“Oh, there were always some things which stuck in my throat. He used to say I strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. You know I was never a religious man—I left God behind in the school chapel, but there were priests I sometimes met in Africa who made me believe again—for a moment—over a drink. If all priests had been like they were and I had seen them often enough, perhaps I would have swallowed the Resurrection, the Virgin birth, Lazarus, the whole works. I remember one I met twice—I wanted to use him as an agent as I used you, but he wasn’t usable. His name was Connolly—or was it O’Connell? He worked in the slums of Soweto. He said to me exactly what Carson said—you strain at a gnat and you swallow…. For a while I half believed in his God, like I half believed in Carson’s. Perhaps I was born to be a half believer. When people talk about Prague and Budapest and how you can’t find a human face in Communism I stay silent. Because I’ve seen—once—the human face. I say to myself that if it hadn’t been for Carson Sam would have been born in a prison and you would probably have died in one. One kind of Communism—or Communist—saved you and Sam. I don’t have any trust in Marx or Lenin any more than I have in Saint Paul, but haven’t I the right to be grateful?”
“Why do you worry so much about it? No one would say you were wrong to be grateful, I’m grateful too. Gratitude’s all right if….”
“I think I was going to say if it doesn’t take you too far.”
Gratitude for Castle is loving sacrifice, the need to give more than you get. It does take him too far: as far as Moscow. There, in his desolating telephone conversation with his wife before the line to Moscow goes dead, he remembers what his mother said:
“Oh, everyone is very kind. They have given me a sort of job. They are grateful to me. For a lot more than I ever intended to do.” He said something she didn’t understand because of a crackle on the line—something about a fountain pen and a bun which had a bar of chocolate in it. “My mother wasn’t far wrong.”
Some readers have been misled, away from the essentially spiritual preoccupation of the book, by Castle’s explicit disclaimers of religious belief and—perhaps especially—by the harsh portrayal of the Catholic priest in the confessional who brushes aside Castle’s attempt to “talk” to him:
A shutter clattered open and he could see a sharp profile like a stage detective’s. The profile coughed, and muttered something.
Castle said, “I want to talk to you.”
“What are you standing there for like that?” the profile said. “Have you lost the use of your knees?”
“I only want to talk to you,” Castle said.
“You aren’t here to talk to me,” the profile said. There was a chink—chink—chink. The man had a rosary in his lap and seemed to be using it like a chain of worry beads. “You are here to talk to God.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just here to talk.”
The priest looked reluctantly round. His eyes were bloodshot. Castle had an impression that he had fallen by a grim coincidence on another victim of loneliness and silence like himself.
“Kneel down, man, what sort of a Catholic do you think you are?”
“I’m not a Catholic.”
“Then what business have you here?”
“I want to talk, that’s all.”
“If you want instruction you can leave your name and address at the presbytery.”
“I don’t want instruction.”
“You are wasting my time,” the priest said.
“Don’t the secrets of the confessional apply to non-Catholics?”
“You should go to a priest of your own Church.”
“I haven’t got a Church.”
“Then I think what you need is a doctor,” the priest said. He slammed the shutter to, and Castle left the box.
Castle is obsessed by God: whether he thinks that he “believes” in Him or not is a relatively minor question.
Mr. Greene has obviously by no means “lost interest in religion”; he has given up the formalistic Catholicism which he pushed to such absurd lengths in The End of the Affair. In The Human Factor there is felt to be more sacramental significance in the very stiff whiskeys which Sarah lovingly pours for Castle—who has a little in common with the hero of The Power and the Glory—than in the supernatural faculties delegated to that bloodshot occupant of the confessional.
The religious theme is so closely interwoven with Castle’s professional activities as a spy that the two in a sense become one. Castle talks to Davis about security routines in their office:
“Yes. I’m the sort of man who’s always found out. And yet I nearly always obey the rules. It’s my form of loyalty, I suppose. You aren’t the same. If I take out a report once to read at lunch, I’m spotted. But I’ve seen you take them out time after time. You take risks—like they say priests have to do. If I really leaked something—without meaning to, of course—I’d come to you for confession.”
“No. But expecting a bit of justice.”
“Then you’d be wrong, Davis. I haven’t the faintest idea what the word ‘justice’ means.”
“So you’d condemn me to be shot at dawn?”
“Oh no. I would always absolve the people I liked.”
“Why, then it’s you who are the real security risk,” Davis said.
The vocabulary of the spies and of the spirit interlock; the priest has a profile “like a stage detective”; Castle can never resist a call of distress “however encoded.” When Castle talks to his Russian control, Boris, he transposes the scene to accord with his real preoccupations:
They were sitting on uncomfortable chairs on either side of the desk like a master and a pupil. Only the pupil in this case was so much older than the master. Well, it happened, Castle supposed, in the confessional too that an old man spoke his sins to a priest young enough to be his son.
Less plausibly, other characters perceive the analogy. The gossip Buffy, in White’s Club, talking about the intelligence officer, Colonel Daintry:
“What I meant was the Colonel belongs to the hush-hush boys, and so in a way does a clergyman, when you come to think of it…. You know, the secrets of the confessional and all that, they are in the hush-hush business too.”
It is implied that the superficially ridiculous game of espionage has a hidden spiritual meaning. Castle seems to have to find his way to God through this maze of ambiguous, false, or silly messages, among these absurd, treacherous, or malevolent messengers. Is Castle finding his way to God, or is God finding his mysterious and darkly humorous way to Castle? Or is Castle perhaps in some sense already the residence of God, the Christ-figure moving strangely among men? More than in any other of Greene’s novels there is a feeling here of Kafka’s world and, in particular, of The Castle. There seems indeed to be a kind of inversion or diversion of Kafka, perhaps a Christianization: not just people in quest of the inaccessible Castle, but the Castle itself engaged in a quest: man seeking Christ, and Christ seeking man.
Most readers of The Human Factor will probably read it as a spy story, and take the religious bits in their stride, as bars of a familiar signature tune that Mr. Greene—having been warned by Evelyn Waugh not to drop God as Wodehouse dropped Jeeves—continues to play at diminished volume. Others will feel irritated by such portentous messages tagged to a piece of entertainment. Still others will be angered by the suggestion that a defector to the Soviet Union can be a kind of saint.
Personally, I think the spiritual current is real and tormenting. I found Scobie an automaton, spun around by mechanical concepts of “pity” and “duty.” I find Castle strangely and painfully credible, and conferring his own kind of credibility on a scenario implausible at any other level than his. The point about the impropriety of defection is relatively trivial—and Mr. Greene’s portrayal of Castle’s life in Moscow is unlikely to incite a flood of defections eastward. But it is true that The Human Factor does belong in a Christian tradition that is subversive of established order. “A man in love,” thinks Castle, “goes through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb.” “What Castle could never bring himself to forgive was this smooth educated offer of BOSS. It was men of this kind—men with the education to know what they were about—that made a hell in heaven’s despite.”
Castle’s notion of righting the balance is essentially revolutionary:
Why are some of us, he wondered, unable to love success or power or great beauty? Because we feel unworthy of them, because we feel more at home with failure? He didn’t believe that was the reason. Perhaps one wanted the right balance, just as Christ had, that legendary figure whom he would have liked to believe in. “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden.” Young as the girl was at that August picnic she was heavily laden with her timidity and shame. Perhaps he had merely wanted her to feel that she was loved by someone and so he began to love her himself. It wasn’t pity, and more than it had been pity when he fell in love with Sarah pregnant by another man. He was there to right the balance. That was all.
I am not intellectually or temperamentally drawn to revolutionary Christianity, but I found The Human Factor—in spite of its numerous superficial imperfections—more moving, though not more skillful, than anything else that Mr. Greene has written, except perhaps the early short story “The Basement Room.” For me at least, the final telephone conversation between Sarah in London and Castle in Moscow is one of the most heart-rending passages in modern literature.
It ends with the words:
She said, “Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping,” but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realized that the line to Moscow was dead.
Perhaps I may add a footnote, drawn from personal experience, about the morality of treason. In the West African university of which I was head in the early Sixties, the Chair of Physics fell vacant. One of the candidates was a brilliant English physicist who had served a prison sentence in England for handing over atomic secrets to the Russians during the Second World War. When the university appointments board met to consider the candidature, all agreed that this ex-convict was academically by far the best qualified of the available candidates. Some members of the board, however, felt that a person with such a record was morally unfitted to instruct the young. The issue was decided by a statement from the head of the School of Religion, a greatly respected and learned old Ghanaian Christian, who spoke as follows:
I think the man was rightly convicted of a serious breach of the law, and rightly received a severe sentence. I think also he was tragically mistaken in giving such information to the rulers of Russia. But his motives lay in his belief that Russia was a just society; in his much better-founded belief that Russia was bearing the main burden of the war against Hitler; and finally in his belief that the Western powers planned to exploit their monopoly of atomic weapons against a weakened Russia in laying down the terms of the peace. He believed all that; I can only believe quite a small part of it. But I can only say that if I believed what he believed, I hope that I would have had the courage to act on my beliefs. I can see no question here of moral unfitness to instruct the young.
The physicist in question was Alan Nunn May; the reasons why he turned to Moscow seem to have been basically (though not formally) close to those ascribed by Mr. Greene to Maurice Castle. I may add that, after his release, Alan Nunn May was ostracized by the communists, not for what he had done, but for admitting in court what he had done. The line to Moscow was dead.