Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978
Well, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. Yes indeed, I just (well, two days ago) finished my first week in a book-a-week challenge, and I have to say: I feel pretty damn good about it. But before I get into the book itself, a word about the impetus behind such seeming insanity.
I must confess, I’ve never been a terribly prolific reader. I’ve always wanted to be a prolific reader, but only in the same way I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who wakes up and goes for a run at 5:30 a.m. as the sun barely begins cresting the horizon. The Theory = a pretty cool way to go about dancing on this Earth. The Practice = hitting my iPhone’s snooze button (icon?) until my dogs all but grab me by the ankles and drag me down the stairs.
Don’t get me wrong—I adore reading. In case you haven’t noticed, I do a bit of writing now and then, and when I’m not writing I am probably engaged in some form of reading. Novels. Long form journalism. Comics. Memoirs. Online essays. The backs of cereal boxes. So yeah, reading itself has never been the problem. Reading a lot in a short amount of time, however…now that’s a dust jacket of a different color.
If I had to guess (and this, friends, is a rather liberal guess) I would say I go through—maybe—10 books a year. And that would be a good year. To be sure, that’s certainly a better number than, say, someone who doesn’t read at all, but it’s not a number of which I am terribly proud. I want to read more not only because I love reading (or because I am acutely aware of the enormity of my dream reading list juxtaposed to the limited number of days each of us is granted upon this frail plane). I also want to read more because I believe it makes us all better people. And it makes me a better writer.
Personally, my brain and spirit just feel, well, different when I’m reading a lot. My observations about life are more keen and more quick to rise from those dread bottomless depths increasingly littered with the ephemera of pop-up ads, inane Facebook posts, and so much (oh so much) clickbait. It’s a cliche for sure, but there is no better brain exercise than frequent reading. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.
As for the writing part—same. When I’m not reading with some degree of fervency, I’m also not writing (at least not in the way I want to write). The two tasks feed off of each other in some kind of weird, cerebral dance I’m still trying to figure out. Reading makes me want to write, and writing makes me want to read. Dig?
Consider the way Stephen King puts it in his most excellent On Writing (a memoir about, well, writing—seriously, read this book):
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
Right on. I completely understood this when I first read it more than ten years ago (!) and it still rings incredibly true today.
And so here I am, staring down the barrel of a challenge that feels at once both overwhelming and exhilarating. On one hand, 52 books is a lot of books. On the other hand, 52 books…IS A LOT OF BOOKS! Isn’t that exciting? I’ll finally read Animal Farm. And 1984. And Rabbit Run. And The Giver. And, like, a whole lot more. Yeah. It’s pretty damn exciting.
Besides, I’ve done the math. If I typically tackle books between 200 and 300 pages, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 pages a day. Does’t sound too menacing, does it? Sure, this means reading every morning over coffee and breakfast instead of catching up on the next installment of classic Doctor Who (I’m currently up to Episode One of “Death to the Daleks,” for those of you playing along at home), but isn’t that, like, the point?
Well, having already completed one week of this exercise I am fairly confident that I can (and will) do this. As a precaution against falling off the wagon, I’ve also decided to blog about each week’s literary conquest—so keep me accountable interneters! So, now that you know a little about this project, let’s talk a little about Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.
Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.
There are three reasons I chose this as my first book (none of which are particularly poignant):
1. Greene wrote The Power and the Glory, one of my all-time favorite novels and—for my money—one of the greatest books ever written.
2. I’ve never been entirely comfortable saying “I’m a fan of Graham Greene” knowing that I’ve only got one of his books under my belt.
3. My wife and I recently moved. As a result, all of our novels are still in boxes. This one was at the top of the first box I opened last week. Win win.
I must say, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the novel at the start. Veering quite noticeably from the spiritual and existential themes and overall ethos of The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor concerns the seemingly pedestrian life of a British secret service agent named Castle (first name Maurice). Turns out he’s got quite an interesting backstory that involves a clandestine love affair with (and eventual marriage to) a South African woman named Sarah and the adoption of her infant son as his own. There’s also a lot of angst going on about apartheid and Communism and a few other dated intricacies that sometimes confused me in their lack of context, but once given a chance, The Human Factor really begins to delight with its literary minimalism and overriding atmosphere of paranoia wedged between the gloomy hum-drum of British life in the late 70s. From the inside dust jacket:
The Human Factor marks Graham Greene’s triumphant return to the ambiguous world of deceit, illusion, treachery, faith and loneliness that is espionage…
I think the key word there is “loneliness.” That’s the emotion I didn’t expect to encounter, but it’s also the emotion that continued to fascinate and move me throughout the course of this curious little novel. Loneliness is an obvious occupational hazard here (not only for Castle, but also for the hand full of secondary characters that litter the story, including the brilliantly realized Colonel Daintry). What’s more, this loneliness is an existential byproduct that seems to be absent of any really redemptive subsequent. In other words, no one in this story is particularly convicted about what he does, yet they all bemoan the dour prospects of their respective fates. Oh sure, there’s some very pale allusions to national duty or some such folderol, but I venture to guess that everyone in this novel (most especially the protagonist) would much rather be sipping whiskey on a country porch somewhere. Yes, everyone here is a spy, but they might as well be working for the DMV.
Upon doing a slight bit of research I came to realize this was precisely Greene’s intention. His objective was “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.” He goes on to say that he “wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pension.”
Objective, consider thyself achieved. This is indeed a spy novel with almost (almost) every ounce of sex, violence and cliched adrenaline stripped away, leaving us instead with men who are supremely unhappy with the choices they’ve made in life wandering through the mists of Britain yearning for escape that will never come. It’s a rather bleak tale that bears some hallmark passages only Greene could compose. Consider this moment between Colonel Daintry (who has just returned from a funeral) and one of his more fusty colleagues:
“I’ve come from a funeral.”
“No one close, I hope?”
“No. Someone from the office.”
“Oh well. A funeral’s always better to my mind than a wedding. I can’t bear weddings. A funeral’s final. A wedding—well, it’s only an unfortunate stage to something else. I’d rather celebrate a divorce—but then that’s often a stage too, to just another wedding. People get into the habit.”
Or even wonderfully simple lines like, “A man in love walks through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb.”
All in all, an intriguing—if, at times, a bit tedious—novel. The end result is a sense of inescapable gloom that only Greene can deliver, even when his subject matter is international espionage instead of whiskey priests and broken vows.
Up Next: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’ Engle