Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Human Factor. . .

It's been a horrible day weatherwise in Toronto - snow, freezing rain, ice pellets, more snow, blowing wind - I was so glad to have the day off and not have to venture out into it. Instead it felt like a lazy Sunday. I spent the day taking intense, grateful pleasure in the warm, cozy things that are part of my apartment, such as these two pillows:

I found the material - which has a soft velvet texture, lovely to rest one's head against - in a sale bin at a fabric store. It only cost $3.00! and there was just enough in the remnant to get two pillow covers out of it. I sewed these over the holidays and I just love them - they pull together all the colours of my living room.
Today I needed to read not only something enjoyable but aesthically beautiful as well. Folios have always been my weakness. I've belonged to the society for some years now (you only need to buy four books a year) and I just love their selection, the bindings, the paper, the illustrations -these are truly beautiful books to hold and behold. And the volume calling to me today was Graham Greene's The Human Factor.

I've read about five books of his (The End of the Affair is my favourite) and he never disappoints. He's the type of writer I turn to when I have the time to sit and read a book straight through in one or two sittings. And I'm partial to spy stories. The Human Factor follows a group of ordinary men who work in an office of the British Secret Service, and the investigation that follows when a leak is suspected. As with all of Greene's work, morals, loyalty, politics and love are all individually questioned, defined, and debated. The cover, designed by Bill Bragg who also illustrates the interior, is absolutely perfect, capturing not only the utter loneliness and anonymity of doing this type of work, (and the insomnia that goes with it) but re-enforcing the recurrent theme of knowing your particular "box" in life and staying within it. Here's a wonderful passage in which one character uses an abstract painting by Ben Nicholson containing squares of different colours to articulate a certain cold, bureaucratic philosophy:

Percival pointed at a yellow square. "There's your section 6. That's your square from now on. You don't need to worry about the blue and the red. All you have to do is pinpoint our man and then tell me. You've no responsibility for what happens in the blue or red squares. in fact not even in the yellow. You just report. No bad conscience. No guilt. . . Nothing to keep you awake. Do just try to understand that picture. Particularly the yellow square. If you could only see it with my eyes, you would sleep well tonight."

But of course that yellow square isn't just paint but contains a human being. And the reader, perhaps is also bathed in a yellow square of their own, cast by their reading lamp. Delicious chills abound. A used bookstore - Halliday & Son - also plays a large role in this thriller, as does the incessant rain. Here is one of the interior illustrations by Bragg.

Yes, it really was the perfect book to read today.


Frances said...

I went right from you to Folio Society and back to you again. I am also a fan of Graham Greene. You are so right about the read in one sitting. Time just completely escapes me. Have not gotten to this work yet so will pick up at Folio Society also as I love the cover design. Think I might do a post for Lost in Translation about their world lit offerings. And of course I will link back to you. Many thanks!

Blithe Spirit said...

I warn you, they are addictive. . .

Rose City Reader said...

Oh, I read this last year and loved it.

I stopped by to say that I named you for the Premios Dardo Award! See here for details.