Saturday 10 March 2012

The Human Factor by Graham Greene; Book Review: True First Edition (Bodley Head, 1978, Oval Publisher Logo); Inspired by Kim Philby?

Having posted a review of traitorous Cambridge spy Kim Philby's 1968 memoir My Silent War, next I'm turning to a 1978 novel about betrayal in Britain's intelligence services by a writer who was a good friend of Philby's – indeed, he provided the introduction to My Silent War – but who was at pains to point out that the protagonist in his book wasn't based on Philby.

Published in hardback in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1978, The Human Factor was Graham Greene's twenty-third novel, and his first in five years, following 1973's The Honorary Consul.

Now, before we get into the novel itself, I should point out that I have blogged about The Human Factor before, when I acquired two copies of the novel in quick succession in March of last year, one of them being the same edition as the Bodley Head copy seen above, with its Michael Harvey-designed dustjacket. Or rather, almost the same edition. Because as I outlined in that post, the copy of The Human Factor I bought back then wasn't, I subsequently discovered, the true first edition of the novel – which was why I then bought an inexpensive American first edition shortly after, in Lewes's A & Y Cumming. It was actually the second impression, or issue (or state), identifiable only by the publisher's logo on the title page, which is a "BH" in a box. Whereas the true first – which, it's estimated, had a print run of just 1,000 – has an oval device on the title page with a drawing of the head of Sir Thomas Bodley (or possibly Shakespeare; opinions vary) in it (innit). (The logo was changed for later editions apparently at the insistence of Graham Greene himself; being, like myself, an inveterate book collector, I suppose Greene cared passionately about such things, although why he objected to Bodley/Shakespeare's head, I have no idea.)

But the true first with the oval logo is precisely what I chanced upon in the very same A & Y Cumming only very recently, offered at a very reasonable price. Naturally (obviously) I bought it:

which means that I now own three copies of the same book. Sigh. A ridiculous state of affairs, and I'll be releasing the other Bodley Head copy back into the wilds at the earliest opportunity, but I might keep the US edition, partly because I like the Janet Halverson-designed jacket, but mostly because The Human Factor is a fine novel indeed.

Our lead is Maurice Castle, an aging, desk-bound agent in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service with responsibility for the UK's former African colonies. Once upon a time Castle operated in South Africa, running a network of agents, one of whom, a black South African, Sarah, he fell in love with and spirited out of the country (to the suburbs of London, thereafter marrying her), along with her young son, Sam. But his hopes of a quiet retirement with his family hit a snag when a leak to the Russians is traced to his department – and since his department essentially consists of himself and a young man named Davis, suspicions were always destined fall on either one or the other of them.

Actually it's Davis who becomes the prime suspect, and so the Chief of SIS, Sir John Hargreaves, tasks the pernicious Doctor Percival and the rather more reluctant security broom Colonel Daintry to investigate the hapless Davis, and, should enough (circumstantial) evidence be uncovered, to quietly dispose of him.

There is what would commonly be called a twist or revelation at the heart of The Human Factor, but it's so heavily telegraphed that it's clear that Graham Greene had little or no interest in it as a plot device. In order to continue discussing the novel, however, I'm going to have to "spoil" the reveal, so if you wish to remain blissfully unenlightened, stop reading now. (Another reason to stop reading now might be to avoid boredom, but that's entirely up to you.)

Still with me? OK, here's the shocking truth: Castle is the leak. Not especially startling, I know, but then I'm sure Greene didn't intend it to be. He's much more interested in Castle's motivations for betraying his country, as opposed to withholding information in order to build suspense (although there is a later, quieter twist which is all the more effective for being underplayed). Because you see, Castle doesn't especially consider Britain to be his homeland; as he states on more than one occasion, he sees himself as African. His feeding of secrets to the Soviets is a by-product of that dedication to South Africa in particular, of his disgust at Apartheid: it was a Communist who assisted his wife and her son in their escape, for which Castle was grateful and felt indebted, and Castle has continued to help the Russians because their interest in Africa seems to him to be potentially more beneficial to that continent than Great Britain's post-colonialist aims.

In that sense, there are nuances to Castle's treachery that aren't there with Kim Philby's more straightforward avowed dedication to the USSR, which is perhaps why Greene was adamant that the novel isn't a roman a clef. Nationality, age and occupation aside, there are few parallels between Castle and Philby, although Greene evidently believed – correctly – that those three factors, plus his friendship with Philby, would be enough for comparisons to inevitably follow (Greene delayed publication by ten years to let the Philby affair fade in the memory a little).

Castle is quite a different character to Philby (at least from the little I've thus far gleaned about that latter); as his surname suggests, he's guarded and remote, grand but not ostentatious. But he's just one of a handful of middle-aged men in the book, all of whom seem adrift in a world that they no longer comprehend. Aside from Castle, there's the conflicted, perplexed Daintry, separated from his wife, virtually estranged from his daughter, a lonely man with no friends and no social life to speak of: he even resorts to inviting Castle, who should really be under investigation, to his daughter's wedding because he has nobody else to go with. But this incomprehension of contemporary life also manifests itself in surprising ways: early on there's an amusing muddle over Maltesers, followed much later by a brief discussion about Smarties ("I prefer the red and yellow ones," remarks one character; "I don't like the mauve").

Graham Greene's stated aim with The Human Factor "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. I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession – whether the bank clerk or the business director – an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life." In that, he succeeds admirably. But like John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it's in that "private life" that the key to the novel's success resides: those abiding, universal concerns of loneliness, love, race, family and mortality which impact us all. An espionage novel, then, but so much more besides.

And I'll be staying with the espionage for my next post: another exclusive Existential Ennui interview, this time with an author who wrote a series of more action-orientated spy novels in the 1960s – which I blogged about earlier this year – but who has also written around 200 other books besides...

Wednesday 7 March 2012

My Silent War, the Autobiography of Spy Kim Philby: a Review of the True First Edition (MacGibbon & Kee, 1968)

Trawling through the charity shops of Lewes, Brighton and Sussex for top flight first editions – something I do, as this blog attests, on a regular basis – tends to be a fairly fruitless exercise. By and large what you turn up are relatively recent books, the true gems proving few and far between. But every now and then a real find presents itself, and such was the case with this book, bought in the Brighton branch of Oxfam Books for £6.99:

This is the British hardback first edition of My Silent War, Cambridge spy Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby's autobiography, published by MacGibbon & Kee in 1968 under a dustjacket designed by Michael Jarvis. Crucially, however, it's also the first impression, which makes it really rather special: most of the copies listed for sale on AbeBooks are later impressions, in which two catty references to Lady Kelly, wife of Sir David Kelly, British Ambassador to Turkey and then the USSR, have been removed (the 1968 US Grove Press edition retains the references); among other disparaging remarks, Philby describes Lady Kelly as "an appalling female... distinguished by a mind both pretentious and pedestrian".

I've blogged about Kim Philby – probably the most famous of the five Cambridge spies – a fair few times before, most recently in this post on spy novelist Anthony Price (as was established last year, Price was one of the authors Philby read during his Russian exile), but also this post on Philby's wife, Eleanor's, autobiography (also published in 1968); this one on Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville's 1973 biography of Philby; this post about Graham Greene's The Human Factor (Greene, a firm friend of Philby's, provides an introduction to My Silent War – more on that anon); this one on Alan Williams's speculative novel about Philby; and of course this review of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, Philby's treachery having inspired le Carré's masterwork. I suppose I keep returning to him because of my interest in spy fiction and espionage, but of all the Philby-related books that have been published over the years, My Silent War was the one I most wanted to read.

As it turns out, however, it's something of a mixed bag. It's elegantly written, and interesting in respect of the inner workings of British Intelligence during and after the war, but it's not especially revealing as regards how and when Philby was recruited by the Russians – he became a Communist supporter at Cambridge – or how he interacted with his Soviet handlers. To my mind the biggest revelation comes in Philby's foreword, where he argues that he was not, as is often stated, "a double agent, or even... a triple agent... working with equal zeal for two or more sides at once", but "a straight penetration agent working in the Soviet interest". Philby continues: 

The fact that I joined the British Secret Intelligence Service is neither here nor there; I regarded my SIS appointments purely in the light of cover-jobs, to be carried out sufficiently well to ensure my attaining positions in which my service to the Soviet Union would be most effective. My connection with SIS must be seen against my prior total commitment to the Soviet Union which I regarded then, as I do now, the inner fortress of the world movement.

It's striking, then, that much of that "service to the Soviet Union" is dealt with in the book either by inference or obliquely. The first half of My Silent War details Philby's recruitment to SIS and the war effort, with attendant office politics, training, organisation, reorganisation and gossip, with nary a mention of Philby's "other" career. It's only once British attention turns away from Germany at the close of the war and instead towards Russia that Philby really mentions his "Soviet contact", but even with Philby's arrival at Section IX, which targeted the USSR, he seems more interested in departmental hierarchy than in his KGB spying duties – although since the configuration of Section IX directly impacted SIS actions against the Russians, that's perhaps a good example of Philby's oblique approach to his extracurricular activities.

Indeed, the picture Philby paints of SIS isn't especially flattering – "shambolic" would be the best word to describe the service Philby depicts – something which has been identified by E. D. R. Harrison in his 1995 Intelligence and National Security article "More Thoughts on Kim Philby's My Silent War" as Philby's "vendetta against the West". The accusation is that Philby's memoir is KGB propaganda, pure and simple, and there may well be a large element of that in the book. But in his earlier Intelligence and National Security article "Some Reflections on Kim Philby's My Silent War as a Historical Source", Harrison betrays his own politics when he notes that Philby's "praise of the USSR at times verges on the ludicrous". I'm sure it strikes Harrison as such, but since Philby himself states that he was "a straight penetration agent working in the Soviet interest", it's a little disingenuous to criticise the book in that light, however mistaken or misguided one might feel Philby was.

Of course, the ideological clash between East and West was titanic, and arouses strong passions still. And given the scope of Philby's treachery, it's understandable that that, too, provokes profound distaste. But as the book enters its final phase, with the unmasking of Donald Maclean and Maclean and Guy Burgess's defection to Russia, and the subsequent interrogation of Philby by MI5, it's hard not to get swept up in the drama of it all. These were the highest stakes Philby, Burgess, Maclean et al were playing for, and though they were, in my opinion, wrongheaded, the manner and method by which Philby – and by extension his fellow Cambridge conspirators – maintained the deception over so many years is almost, dare I say it, admirable. As Philby puts it: "Thirty years in the underground is a long stretch, and I cannot pretend that they left no mark."

Philby himself defected in 1963; My Silent War was written during his Moscow exile, and was therefore almost certainly vetted by the KGB – hence Harrison (and others') accusations of propaganda – in which context the withholding by Philby of information about his handler(s) becomes more explicable. Philby is well aware of his omissions – of one appointment with his "Soviet friends" he notes wryly, "What passed there is no concern of the reader" – but here again, Philby has an answer for his critics, particularly concerning the seven years he spent in the Middle East prior to defecting, which he largely glosses over in the book: "If the British Government can use the fifty-year rule to suppress the publication of official documents, I can also claim the right to veil in decent discretion events that took place as little as ten or five years ago." Conversely, this explanation comes in the epilogue, which is actually more open about Philby's "career in Soviet service" than the preceding 150 pages.

There's no doubting the sincerity of Philby's conviction and commitment to his cause – in his introduction he mentions his "persisting faith in Communism" and states "as I look over Moscow from my study window, I can see the solid foundations of the future I glimpsed at Cambridge" – which is something Philby's friend and SIS colleague, Graham Greene, makes the central point in his introduction to the book. Greene writes:

We were told to expect a lot of propaganda, but [the book] contains none, unless a dignified statement of his beliefs and motives can be called propaganda. The end, of course, in his eyes is held to justify the means, but this is a view taken, perhaps less openly, by most men involved in politics, if we are to judge them by their actions, whether the politician be a Disraeli or a Wilson. 'He betrayed his country'—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country? In Philby's own eyes he was working for a shape of things to come from which his country would benefit.

As for the denigration of SIS highlighted by E. D. R. Harrison, Greene, who had first hand experience of SIS, notes that Philby's "account of the British Secret Service is devastatingly true".

Graham Greene of course wrote a number of espionage novels in his career, among them the aforementioned The Human Factor, which he initially began writing ten years prior to its eventual 1978 publication, abandoning it "mainly because of the Philby affair" and not wishing the novel to be "taken as a roman a clef" (see the Greeneland website). And it's to The Human Factor than I'll be turning next, with a review of a very special edition of the book which, having already bought two copies of the novel early in 2011, I subsequently chanced upon in a Lewes bookshop...

Monday 5 March 2012

Sometime Never by Roald Dahl: Author's First Novel, British First Edition (Collins, 1949), Stephen Russ Cover Design

Here's a glimpse into how the mind of the hopelessly addicted, borderline unhinged book collector behind Existential Ennui works – as if you didn't already know.

Just under a week ago I posted a guest essay by my friend and former colleague Adam Newell on Roald Dahl's little-known debut novel, a 1948 work of adult fiction entitled Some Time Never – or to give it its 1949 British title, Sometime Never. It's a great post, and I urge you to go read it if you haven't already, but it had a (probably) unintended consequence in that shortly after it went up on Existential Ennui, Adam noticed that a couple of copies of the British edition of the novel – which is notoriously scarce in any edition, having only ever had one printing each in the US and the UK – had popped up on AbeBooks. Furthermore, both of those copies still had their dustjackets, and while one of the copies was listed for sale at £800 – admittedly it did bear Dahl's signature – the other was rather more reasonably priced.

You can see where this is going, can't you? Yes, I bought the reasonably – but still not exactly cheaply – priced copy of the British first – and only – edition:

which was published by Collins in 1949. And for its age, it's in pretty good condition. The dustwrapper has a few chips and minor tears, as well as a darkened spine and some loss at the head and tail of the spine, but it's otherwise bright and complete, and also unclipped – no doubt because it's unpriced anyway. That wrapper, by the way, was designed by Stephen Russ, a much-admired book cover designer who trained under painters Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious – the latter of whose work I particularly love, especially the pictures painted around the South Downs area in which I live and work – at the Royal College of Art, and who designed a lot of covers for Penguin, among other publishers.

Judging by Adam's review of Sometime Never – and indeed the jacket flap blurb – the novel could have fitted quite snugly into last year's lengthy run of post-apocalyptic fiction posts: in other words, definitely my kind of thing. So it wasn't purely avariciousness which motivated me to buy this copy... although its scarcity – the three copies of the Collins first on AbeBooks appear to be the only ones for sale online – did, it almost goes without saying, play a major part. Even so, I like to think there's an element of altruism involved here too, on account of, heretofore, there have been scant few images of either edition of Some Time Never/Sometime Never available online, and now there are all of the ones in this post. No, no – no need to thank me: I live to serve.

Like a good many 20th century literary figures, Roald Dahl had a hand in intelligence during the Second World War, in Dahl's case supplying information to Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, who was instrumental in the establishment of the OSS, which would eventually become the CIA. And oddly enough, the author of the next book I'll be blogging about also worked with Stephenson... although this particular author's ultimate aim was rather different to his fellow Allied operatives. Before that, though, I'll be plugging another guest post, this time one I'll be posting on The Violent World of Parker blog rather than Existential Ennui...