Friday, February 5, 2016

Le Carré's Life of a "A Perfect Spy"



 

For me, John le Carré is something of a literary miracle: both a highbrow literary novelist and maybe the best genre writer ever. Only a tiny handful of authors can stand astride the wide—and sometimes fake--chasm between the “popular” and the “literary” (and for those that do, that kind of recognition doesn’t often come until long after they’re gone.)

I recently felt that twinge of the miraculous in le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, published in 1986. In this autobiographical novel, le Carré mines both the exteriors of his own life, and the interior soul to tell the story of Magnus Pym, a successful operative in British intelligence and a great betrayer. Genre writers surely draw on their experience, usually done as research, but none draw as deeply from their own inner lives and personal experience like le Carré, one himself a spy long ago.

Magnus Pym is bred to deceive like royalty is bred to rule. He learned his tricks from a master—his own father, Rick Pym, a most devious and “successful” con man and head of a roving criminal family. A silky, blustery monster, Rick occasionally oozes his way into the upper strata of British society, even running for parliament, all the while sowing tragedy and misery in his wake.

Caught in this treacherous, his only son Magnus has never known stability, as he rides waves of great wealth and deep poverty. In his struggle to stay afloat, he’s learned quite a bit from this baddest of bad dads. The only road map Rick provides for Magnus is the one marked “deception.”

Magnus grows up to form a shell of British ease and politeness that hides his chaotic inner self. Deception becomes second nature, until it defines his every move. He lives two lives, neither of them real. His awareness of his dilemma pings quietly in his psyche, making him a desperately lonely man.

It’s a porous wall between the secret world of crime and the secret world of espionage. And so Magnus moves easily into the life of a government spy.  As a young man, he’s recruited to betray Axel, the closest thing to a best friend he’s ever known, to the security authorities. Into the vacuum left by Axel’s departure, steps his recruiter, named Jack Brotherhood, who becomes Magnus’ mentor, helping the young man up the intelligence ladder, until he becomes the “perfect spy.”

And then Rick Pym dies. His passing cracks open Magnus’ shell and he, too, vanishes. Alarms sound all through the intelligence community. Has Magnus crossed over the Iron Curtain? If so, what secrets has he taken with him?  The search is on, winding, convoluted and set with narrative traps as only le Carré can set them.

The way I see it, literary fiction tends to look inward while genre fiction tends to look outward. Put another way, genre fiction is about our actions and their consequences in the world. The best genre fiction surprises you with the costs of “doing stuff”, and when it’s really good, it forcefully dramatizes the impact of those actions on the human soul as well as the body of both individual and society. A Perfect Spy does it nearly perfectly (though I might quarrel with the end).

Over his long career, Le Carré has time and again fused these categories, no more so than in A Perfect Spy. In his fiction, conversation is the action: the talk, rich, eloquent and witty—and above all stealthy--becomes a matter of life and death, even the simplest words. His characters take actions and pay for them—and nobody pays the price for their actions quite like spies pay.

There’s also the matter of style and le Carré’s style is extraordinary: fluid and poetic far beyond what anyone expects of genre writers. In A Perfect Spy, the reader is not only entranced and absorbed by this style, but, also, by the author’s unique way of weaving in and out of Pym’s point of view, maybe as a way of portraying his confusion about himself and the two worlds that so cruelly entangle him.



Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Charm's Cold Mask: Ben Macintyre's "A Spy Among Friends"






“The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it?--”Jeremiah, 17:9

“. . . if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” -- E.M. Forster

“Betrayal is a repetitious trade . . . ” --John le Carré, A Perfect Spy.

We’re all Monday-morning armchair generals. At one time or another, we all shout, “How could they not know!?” in indignant response to a surprise, that, to someone standing on the outside at a later time, seems as obvious as mud.

But for those at the center, the perceptions can be wildly different. You really can’t see the forest for the trees, even if the forest is on fire.

Case in point: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (with an afterword by John le Carré). Macintyre is the of author of Operation Mincemeat, another terrific true-life story of twentieth-century espionage, the kind of book for which you'd happily starve in your chair.

Besides being a cracking suspenseful experience, A Spy Among Friends leaves you with many questions to ponder: the uses and treachery of charm; the opaqueness of people; the appeal and immoral nature of the spy business; the pleasures, dangers and debilitating impacts of living a secret life in a secret world. And how even the sharpest of us often miss what’s right in front of our nose.

Most significantly, it’s also about how little we know one another; how we come to fool ourselves about others in our lives, the ones we sometimes mistakenly call, with all our hearts, “friends.” Friendship is an act of faith, and like many such acts, it can end in betrayal.

My knowledge of Philby (who was the most successful agent in “The Cambridge Five” spy ring) was tangential until now, mostly gained through novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (declared one of the great novels of postwar England by Salman Rushdie, no less), films such as Another Country and a surprisingly dull British series, Cambridge Spies.

The Cambridge Five spy ring is legendary among Cold War historians and, especially, spy buffs: It started in 1934, when the Cambridge-educated Kim Philby started spying for Stalin’s Soviet Union against the West. For nearly the next thirty years, he fooled everyone in his circle, friends and family alike. He became the “perfect” spy.

This is, in part, also a story about class. The son of a colonial administrator and raised in England’s often brutal public school system, Philby rose to join Britain’s best and brightest. He had, in Macintyre’s words, “that inborn faith in his right, and ability, to change and rule the world.” These are attributes no ambitious member of any empire can do without.

There was also ideology. Philby was turned on to Communism in 1934, like many of the 1930s generation (including, I was told, my own college-age mother, in faraway Illinois). With Nazism on the rise as the world sank into the Great Depression, seemingly due to unregulated capitalism, communism, as cleverly represented by Soviets, seemed the right response and best option for tens of millions of people around the globe.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, as the old saying goes.

But while the romance faded for many—especially after Stalin made his pact with Hitler on the eve of World War II—it never faded with Kim Philby. He remained a true believer, loyal above all to the abstract ideology. “I have always operated on two levels,” he once said, “a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.”

For the upper class in the British caste system, becoming a spy for the Empire was absurdly easy. There were no real background checks, as we know them. Only a whisper in the right ear, a call on “the old school tie” (not the sartorial kind, as I once imagined) and presto--the door opened into a clubby, booze-drenched, smoky secret world, elite and exclusive.

Trust was bestowed automatically, as it was on Kim Philby and his fellow spies, four other Cambridge political romantics: Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Donald Mclean. Working separately within MI6 (the equivalent of the CIA), these five members of this “league of gentleman,” stole every secret they could lay their hands on, photographing and turning over huge caches of documents to their Soviet masters.

By comparison, the West had nothing on the Soviet KGB in those years. Advantage here to the Soviets. The Cambridge Five caused widespread and bloody damage. Every effort to subvert to Soviet rule was thwarted once they learned what the West was up to. It could reasonably be said this “great betrayal” both intensified and prolonged the Cold War.

In 1951, Burgess and McLean were exposed and, tipped off by Philby, fled to the Soviet Union. The more amazing part of this story was how Philby managed to hang on and keep up his front for another ten years, despite growing suspicion.

One reason for the Cambridge Five’s success was that they received enormous of unwitting help from their side. On Philby’s part, that involved following the old adage about holding your friends close, but your enemies closer

Macintyre brilliantly centers his narrative around that very idea. In this case, the ideological enemy Philby embraced most closely was one Nicholas Elliott, another proud product of the upper-crust British establishment, and, I think, this book’s most tragic figure.

Philby and Elliott met in 1940 when World War II was well underway and Philby had been spying for the Soviets for six years. Both men shared the British talent for offhand humor. For his part, Elliott was immediately enthralled by Philby’s ultra-smooth charm (to which he also added a stutter, a brilliant detail deepening the deception). Already members of the same tribe, the two of them joined MI6, an even more elite and terribly secret society.

Spies keep their secrets from the world, but, when alone among themselves with the blinds drawn and liquor gushing, even the most scrupulous can’t shut up. Especially when being charmed and entertained by someone as affable as Kim Philby. Everybody loved Philby. Everyone wanted to be his friend. The Soviets couldn’t have had a better mole.

Blinded by Philby’s rising star, the British spy establishment spent years cheerily feeding top secret information to Philby who, in turn, fed it right to his Soviet spymasters. Perhaps this was less of a problem when both sides were united against a common enemy like the Nazis, but once World War II ended and the Cold War began, it certainly became one once the former allies became enemies.

During this time, both Philby and Elliott worked their way up the British intelligence establishment, sometimes working together, sometimes not, but always in touch professionally, and especially personally. Philby also became great friends with, and simultaneous betrayer of, CIA cofounder and head James Jesus Angleton, a strange and even horrific individual, whose betrayal by Philby turned him into a clinical paranoid who nearly destroyed the CIA.

Philby encouraged and nurtured these relationships with breathtaking cold duplicity, even as his own handlers on the Soviet side were being murdered in Stalin’s purges. No one, nothing mattered but the Cause.

No wonder the Cold War never seemed to end. The Soviets had more than our number—they had the whole damn Rolodex.

Even after suspicion fell on Philby in 1951 after the defection of Burgess and McLean (following Philby’s tip-off), Elliott and the MI6 establishment stuck by him. Philby was dismissed from MI6 for a time, but was eventually allowed back in.

But his Boy Wonder days were over. Philby would never be fully trusted again. Add to that, he was sinking into a whirlpool of alcoholic dissolution, common throughout the secret world, where severe stress is almost constant. And when Soviet defectors started crossing over with stories of an “Agent Stanley” and witnesses from Philby’s youthful past started filling in other details, what most everyone outside the Philby circle suspected became obvious.

Even so, according to Macintyre, Elliot and his bosses in the British government couldn’t bring themselves to arrest Philby: He had burrowed so deep and risen so high in MI6, even becoming chief liaison between the British Government and the CIA, that trying him on charges of treason and espionage would have only added to the already terrible damage, exposing more secrets, further ruining international relationships.

After Elliott finally confronted Philby in a Beirut hotel room in 1963, a conversation evidence shows as excruciatingly polite as only the British can be, he and his government stepped back and allowed Philby to slip away . . .

 . . . to Soviet oblivion as it turns out. Though well-treated on his arrival in Moscow, Kim Philby was never allowed to feel at home. “In Britain,” Macintyre writes, “Philby was too British to be doubted; in Russia, he was too British to be believed.” In the end, Philby, a man who transcended Forster’s choice to betray both friends and country, turned against Communism, but too late to do him or anyone much good.

As he did in Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre tells a terrific, absorbing story, full of human detail and a sharp eye for individual quirks, especially among British eccentrics (Philby kept a wild fox as a pet, for instance, while Elliott was a relentless kidder with a flair for the off-color joke.)

But Operation Mincemeat was the story of a wartime success. A Spy Among Friends is a much darker, even tragic, story of betrayal that does credit to no one. It’s the kind of book you close with a head shake and a sad sigh.




Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Splendid Villains #1: Alan Rickman





Alan Rickman, who passed away recently (to great disappointment and surprise), was a terrific movie villain, one of the best to ever stride the screen. Like all fans of movie bad guys, I was thrilled to my toes by his debut as Hans Gruber in 1989’s Die Hard, a scene-stealing turn worthy of Sidney Greenstreet’s in The Maltese Falcon.

In most of his villainous roles, Mr. Rickman played the civilized and smooth ultra-sophisticate type: courtly, often British, definitely with an international flair. They speak with mellifluous diction and take their tea every afternoon at four on the chimes, heartlessly sipping Earl Gray with their pinkies up, as they watch their minions torture and toy with the hero. If they tend toward the Germanic—like Herr Gruber--they might listen to Beethoven Quartets as they beam at der Fuehrer’s portrait.  (You can always tell the Bad Guy: he’s the one with manners and good taste!)

Rickman was both a great villain and the very best of actors, as he proved time and again throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in films such Sense and Sensibility, and the achingly bittersweet Truly, Madly, Deeply

 
As Rasputin

And he could also play characters from society’s lower depths. If you can find it, watch his Emmy-winning, unforgettable turn as the title character in HBO’s Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. Here, Rickman played the flip side of Hans Gruber, as the rough, pseudo-mystical peasant opportunist who helped bring down the Romanov Dynasty. Alan Rickman could play lowlife villainy with a panache equal to his upper crust characters.

Rickman demonstrated one of my favorite Hitchockian adages: the better the villain, the better the movie. He was the only—really the only—good thing about Kevin Costner’s lumbering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as George, Sherriff of Nottingham (putting him in direct line with another great well-mannered scoundrel, Claude Rains from the still-best Errol Flynn Robin Hood.) A hammy performance? Sure, just what a movie like that needed.

Another striking Rickman memory comes from the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Just when that picture was threatening to sink to the bottom of my cold pond of memory, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape bounded into the classroom and for a short time, ruthlessly grabbed the movie all to himself like a kitten he’s eager to drown. The rest of the movie is vague to me, and I never saw any of the sequels.

And now that he’s gone, I’m considering setting out on the Harry Potter journey after all, just to watch Alan Rickman (I can doze through the rest.) I said it once before here and I’ll say it again: Snape starring Alan Rickman, and then everybody else, preferably cowering and running in terror. It would have been a great movie.

Like all the greats in his particular class (among them Basil Rathbone, Conrad Veidt, Vincent Price, and James Mason), Rickman’s villainy played to a sneaky feeling that civilization is but a disguise for the brute beneath; their pinpoint style and snobby manners are mere seductive filigree and Satanic hypocrisy. Their elegant surfaces reflect in an inner vileness; these surfaces can’t be trusted. They may even be sexually fluid, though you very seldom see them locked in embrace.

Such men, as they mostly are, float over or glide past like airships, separate from the physical grime and sleepless nights experienced by the those with the Spirit of Conscience. Regarding themselves as free from consequences, they do as they damn please, and make it look very easy.

That’s part of a splendid villain’s appeal, that sense of wish fulfillment. While Alan Rickman and his ilk allow us to focus and unleash our hatreds in a relatively harmless direction, they can also live out a secret dream. Especially for many males who live with fear and boil with resentment and disgust at our tormentors who may also be simultaneously be our inferiors.

His characters may live in some kind of Movie Hell, but Mr. Rickman himself surely lives in heaven.


Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.