Spy Vs. Spy

Could It Be That I Miss the Cold War?

Last year, during tax season, I started falling in love with spy novels. To be more specific, I started reading the spy novels of Len Deighton, starting with the “Harry Palmer” titles, of which I read the first four. (There are three more in the series.) Then I moved on to the Bernard Samson titles, where I am now, wending my way through London Match. Of course, I am also very fond of Eric Ambler, Paul Furst, and the inimitable John Le Carré.

Perhaps I subconsciously think that the Soviets were a more admirable enemy than, say, Sunni Arab Jihadists. There was a certain rationalism to the Russians, which seems to be lacking in the Arab world. I have always loved Russian literature, even more than American literature. Don’t worry: I have no intention of toeing the Marxist-Leninist line any time soon. The fact that, as a Hungarian, I lost a number of relatives in 1956 when the Russian tanks invaded, makes it difficult for me to be Pro-Communist.

I love spy fiction. It is so devious. Sometimes I wonder why the British are so good at it. There are American CIA novels of the Tom Clancy variety, but I never quite fit that groove. The British operatives of MI-5 and MI-6, have won some battles; and they suffered some serious defections, especially the Cambridge Five. The British seemed to have more at stake. I remember a British friend at Dartmouth College who told me that he felt uncomfortably close, geographically, to the Iron Curtain.

At some point, I will print a list of my favorite spy novels. But for now, I am going under cover.

 

 

So Much for Glory

Republican Prisoners of War

I have just finished reading Hugh Thomas’s monumental The Spanish Civil War. As its author became more rigidly conservative as he grew older, I read the original 1961 edition at the beginning of the historian’s writing career. It was an emotional experience for me: For years I had put off reading about the war, and I was devastated by its applicability to American politics in the 21st century.

It was George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, written while the conflict was still in doubt in 1938, who influenced my thinking the most:

The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war indeed! In war all solderies are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae—every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

So much for glory! Orwell took a bullet in his neck near Huesca in 1937 and was invalided out through Barcelona. Yet, for all the horrors of war, he was able to say in the end, “I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards.”

Members of an All-Female Anarchist Party Group

Today we see the conflict merely as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. Both Hitler and Mussolini send troops and weapons to the Fascists; and Stalin, the same for the Republican side. Curiously, neither Hitler nor Stalin wanted either side to win outright: Their interest was for the war to continue. In the end, Franco won because he was better supplied, and his side was not as badly divided as the Republican side. Look at the following list of acronyms on the Republican side. Each one represented a center of ideological purity which struggled against any sort of compromise:

  • CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), the anarcho-syndicalist trades union
  • FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), the anarchist secret society
  • POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), the Trotskyist group for which Orwell fought
  • PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña), the United Catalan Socialist-Communist Party
  • UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores), the Socialist Trade Union
  • UMR (Unión Militar Republicana), Republican officers group

Several of the above believed in militias, but not in a professional army. On the other side, the core of Franco’s army was the Army of Africa, headquartered in Spanish Morocco, together with Hitler’s highly professional Condor Legion. Although the Republican army grew more professional as the war continued, it was badly split between the Communists and the non-Communists. As Thomas wrote:

Undoubtedly, the Republic was terribly hampered by the disputes between the parties who supported it.  One excuse might be that all the parties felt so strongly about their own policies that defeat itself seemed preferable to a surrender of the purity of their individual views.

As I read those words, the political divide that separates the American people came to mind. Ideological purity is a very dangerous thing. I do believe I would sacrifice the purity of most of my views before ever damaging the country I love.

 

No Longer a Gallophobe

Nobel Prize-Winning Author Patrick Modiano

It was not always that I was in love with French culture. Perhaps, when I was young, I was tired of being thought to be French just because my last name is Paris. (Actually, it’s pronounced PAH-rrhish with a slightly trilled “r”.) It reached a crescendo in 1976, when my Laker Airlines flight to London stopped for some cockamamie reason at Le Bourget in Paris when we were all subject to security checks. When a French border guard wanted me to open up the back of my Olympus OM-1 camera and expose half a roll of film, I refused and called the man a cochon. Fortunately, I got away with it, though I probably shouldn’t have.

Now I am a devoted Francophile. What happened? First of all, Martine is French; and I went to France with her twice, where I found the French to be not at all as I thought them to be. Even the Parisians were all right. I suspect they seemed better because I speak fairly decent French and I could communicate with them.

I am now co-moderator of the Yahoo! French Literature reading group. Although the group concentrates on French literature of the 19th century, I discovered many 20th century classics reading books with the group. I thought I would share the ten I liked best over the last few years, presented here in alphabetical order by author:

  1. Georges Bernanos: Diary of a Country Priest. Made into a wonderful film by Robert Bresson.
  2. Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night. I had read this before, but liked it even more on re-reading it.
  3. J M G Le Clézio: The Prospector. Looking for pirate treasure in Mauritius.
  4. Albert Cohen: Belle du Seigneur. A great novel about obsessive love set in the period between the two world wars.
  5. Jean Giono: The Horseman on the Roof. A wonderful historical novel about plague in Southern France.
  6. Julien Gracq: The Opposing Shore. I had never heard of Gracq before, but this is a wonderful story about contacts between two civilizations that have drifted apart. Like the West and Islam.
  7. François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux. A profoundly Catholic novel about a murderess.
  8. Patrick Modiano: Out of the Dark. Recalls the world of the New Wave films of the 1950s and 1960s. I have since read several more of Modiano’s books and find he is one of my favorites.
  9. Marcel Pagnol: My Father’s Glory. A sentimental memoir of a childhood in Provence.
  10. Raymond Queneau: The Last Days. I just read this one a couple of weeks ago. A wonderful study of life in Paris circa 1920.

I have left out Marcel Proust, who means more to me than all of the above put together, and also Georges Simenon, who also is well known in the West.

“A Pile of Dead Leaves”

Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)

Raymond Queneau has been known to me for some time: I read We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947) twice. But now that I have finished The Last Days: A Novel (1936), I think I have discovered a major talent.

The Last Days is the story of what one might call a social cohort, a group of people of varying ages who know each other to varying degrees. Interestingly, there are only two women in the cohort, Suze and Fabie, and they enter in only insofar as they have relationships with the males. Some of the males are students who are trying to study for a diploma in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure; one is an aging teacher of history; another is a con man; and there are other various hangers-on. The one truly superior figure is the waiter Albert, who has everything all figured out, as described by his co-worker, Louis:

He didn’t only know how to see the future. He was also a philosopher. A real one. He used to say to me: “You see, the customers, they’re like a pile of dead leaves.”

I asked him why. He answered. “Leaves, when they’re on the tree, if you didn’t know that autumn existed you might think they’d stay there forever. That’s like our customers. They come back every day as regular as clockwork: you think they’ll go on doing so forever. But then one day the wind blows as carries the leaves off to the gutters and the street sweepers make little piles of them on the edge of the pavements to await the dust-cart. Me too, every year I make my little pile when the autumn arrives, my little pile of dead souls.”

Albert’s one goal in life is to win back the money that his father lost at the races: No more, just enough to live a comfortable life in retirement, and not a sou more. And he actually manages to do this, returning to work at the café the next day.

The others, such as the student from Le Havre, Vincent Turquedenne, manage to lose their virginity, hang out with their friends, and even get their diploma. The history teacher—feeling he spent his whole life teaching geography while he himself never traveled—dies and has a magnificent funeral. The con man figures he would be immortal if he never laid down, because that’s what kills one, but then gets sick and is put to death and, of course, dies.

There is a simple beauty to this story that makes me want to read more of Queneau’s work. Fortunately, a lot of it is available.

 

Where Are Our Courageous Reporters?

Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

The late 1960s were a bad time for the United States. We were in a fiercely unpopular war in Viet Nam. I had gotten radicalized and joined the Resistance, which not only protested the war but attempted to interfere with the draft induction process. I returned by draft card to the Selective Service System in Cleveland and told them politely what they could do with it. Running for president that year was Richard Nixon for the Republicans, with Democratic candidates to be chosen later in Chicago.

Reporting on that convention was Norman Mailer, who within a short time became like a god to me. (So he went off the rails a bit later: He was human after all.) Mailer had come out with a number of nonfiction books that I read and re-read religiously. They included:

  • Advertisements for Myself (1959)
  • The Presidential Papers (1963)
  • Cannibals and Christians (1966)
  • Armies of the Night (1968)
  • Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)

I just finished re-reading Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which made me shake my head sadly that there was no such quality reportage during the ongoing train wreck that is Trumpf. Mailer died ten years ago, and the only other candidate—Hunter S. Thompson—blew out his brains two years earlier. There are thousands of voices raised against Trumpf, but they seem tinny in comparison to what Mailer and Thompson were capable of.

Take this prophetic quote from Mailer’s description of Nixon’s convention win in Miami:

Of course, Republicans might yet prove frightening, and were much, if not three-quarters, to blame for every ill in sight, they did not deserve the Presidency, never, and yet if democracy was the free and fair play of human forces then perhaps the Wasp must now hold the game in his direction for a time. The Left was not ready, the Left was years away from a vision sufficiently complex to give life to the land, the Left had not yet learned to talk across the rugged individualism of the more Rugged in America, the Left was still too full of kicks and pot and the freakings of sodium amytol and orgy, the howl of electronics and LSD. The Left could also find room to grow up. If the Left had to live through a species of political exile for four or eight or twelve good years [try 50!], it might even be right. They might be forced to study what was alive in the conservative dream. For certain the world could not be saved by technology or government or genetics, and much of the Left had that still to learn.

Perhaps the biggest lesson they had to learn was unity. The Left is known today as a circular firing squad, wounding itself repeatedly over minor issues and leaving the major ones to the Right.

Chicago Riot Police 1968

The conservatives of 1968 were nothing compared to the Alt-Right, the Ku Klux Lan, and the other fascist forces brought into prominence by Trumpf’s 2016 victory. I will write what I can, when I can, but I am far from being either a Mailer or a Thompson.

And in this, our time of maximum danger, the media have failed America by bowing instead to the wishes of their corporate overlords.

 

Serendipity: “A Mighty, Harmonious Beauty”

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) in Her Youth

The following is from a chapter entitled “On Mottoes in My Life” from her book Daguerrotypes and Other Essays. I decided to find a picture of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) when she was young and beautiful. It is sad that so many great authors are only photographed when they are old, which presents us with an odd and somewhat misleading view of their life. Anyhow, here goes:

An old Chinese mandarin, during the minority of the young Emperor, had been governing the country for him. When the Emperor came of age the old man gave him back the ring which had served as an emblem of his vicariate, and said to his young sovereign:

“In this ring I have had set  an inscription which your dear Majesty may found useful. It is to be read in times of danger, doubt and defeat. It is to be read, as well, in times of conquest, triumph and glory.”

The inscription in the ring read: “This, too, will pass.”

The sentence is not to be taken to mean that, in their passing, tears and laughter, hopes and disappointments disappear into a void. But it tells you that all will be absorbed into a unity. Soon we shall see them as integral parts of the full picture of the man or woman.

Upon the lips of the great poet the passing takes the form of a mighty, harmonious beauty:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer sea-change
into something rich and strange.

We may make use of the words—even when we are speaking about ourselves—without vainglory. Each one among us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.

 

W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.