The Spy Story. By John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg. Chicago.
“The writer is a natural spy,” Anthony Masters remarks I at the beginning of Literary Agents. Observing landscapes, recording facts, detecting patterns, disguising themselves, secretly disposing of enemies, sending enigmatic messages—writers have all the covert operations down pat, and not a few of them have literally been operatives in the field, players of what Kipling once called “the great game.” Dossier by dossier Literary Agents documents the clandestine histories of such writers as John Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, lan Fleming, and John Le Carré, relating their real-life espionage activities to the spy novels which, writers being writers, they all eventually produced.
This is a promising topic, but in Masters’ handling it has led to a merely gossipy book, a collection of potted biographies. However entertaining some of the biographical chat may be (E. Howard Hunt, CIA agent and later Watergate conspirator, was not only a best-selling author of spy thrillers but a Guggenheim Fellow, in 1948), we are offered too much of it. An account of Malcolm Muggeridge’s boyhood and schooling, for example, turns out to be curiously irrelevant to his wartime activities in the British Secret Service (like Greene, he served chiefly in Africa); a laboriously circumstantial narrative of Compton Mackenzie’s intelligence work concludes with the lame admission that the spy novels which came out of it, all of them comic, are nowadays “dated and wearisome.” Why discuss Mackenzie at all, in that case? And why devote a chapter to Dennis Wheatley, who was never a spy and never an important writer? Novelists like Maugham, Greene, and Le Carré, whose dispiriting espionage careers profoundly affected what they would later write about betrayal and moral ambiguity, present Masters with important books and complex attitudes, but unfortunately a consideration of complexity is not on Masters’ agenda, as his one-adjective chapter titles indicate (“Somerset Maugham: The Working Spy,” “Graham Greene: The Abrasive Spy”). It is not even clear that careful proofreading is on Masters’ agenda: Greene traveled to West Africa on the Elder-Dempster line, not “Elden-Dempster”; his French translator was Denyse Clairouin, not “Clairovin”; in the account of Maugham’s First World War service, his Czech coworkers’ aim was to keep Russia in the fighting, not out of it.
There are errors as well in a much more ambitious study of espionage fiction, Cawelti and Rosenberg’s The Spy Story. D, the hero of Greene’s The Confidential Agent, serves the Loyalist (not “Royalist”) government of Republican Spain. In Erskine Childers’ superb thriller The Riddle of the Sands Carruthers does not return to England in the middle of his adventures, though he tricks his German enemies into thinking he does. The villain’s alias in Buchan’s Mr Standfast is Moxon (not “Morgan”) Ivery, and Ivery’s surroundings are hardly those of “English country life,” since he is represented as living in the new garden city Biggleswick, a haven of pacifism and avant-garde causes about which both Buchan and his hero Richard Hannay are scornful; Mr Standfast in no sense shows the English social tradition to be “riddled with weakness and conspiracy.” Perhaps these errors, like the irritating repetitions of the book (there are four separate descriptions of Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday), result from collaborative authorship.
In any case the mistakes are worth noting because The Spy Story lays claim to a certain accuracy and definitiveness. The authors range freely over the history of the spy story, from Fenimore Cooper to Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, tracing among other things its indebtedness to Gothic fantasy (the innocent hero, the supervillain) and to hard-boiled detective fiction (the secret agent’s emotional detachment). Nearly all the works one would expect come under scrutiny. Missing are only one or two important short stories—Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and Hammett’s “This King Business,” which might have provided a useful link between hard-boiled detectives and foreign intrigue—and one or two authors, such as Anthony Firth and Robert Harling. Cawelti and Rosenberg supply solid evaluations of the major practitioners: Buchan, Eric Ambler, Greene, Fleming, Le Garre. They also survey scholarship on “clandestinity,” whether in fact or fiction, and provide an excellent annotated bibliography. More ambitiously, they generalize about the enormous appeal of the spy story to 20th-century readers. As they say, we are all witnesses to, or perhaps even victims of, the Age of Secrecy.
Unlike Masters, Cawelti and Rosenberg are not one-adjective analysts. In their view the spy story derives from a complex and changing set of conventions and expectations. It offers readers the “fantasy of invisibility,” which is to say the vicarious opportunity to see without being seen, to be freed from responsibility. It dramatizes the secret exercise of power, the mystique of conspiracies and disguises, and the glamour of high technology. It allows heroism to mean something and affirms certain moral values. At the same time, of course, the spy story, at least since Ambler, casts doubt on all of this. As Cawelti and Rosenberg show convincingly, the modern spy story no sooner allows readers to escape from the sense of reality than it affirms that sense. We follow the secret agent’s operations with admiration and envy, but sooner or later that agent is left out in the cold, betrayed by his superiors, manipulated, “turned,” abandoned to a world which has lost its moral bearings. Over and over these fictions confirm our suspicions that no one is to be trusted and that all messages are ciphered.
What is a spy story in the first place? How is one to distinguish it from a straight novel featuring spies? Surprisingly, Cawelti and Rosenberg answer that spy stories, however cynical they may be, finally identify their protagonists with Good and allow those protagonists some sort of triumph—perhaps just a chosen death—over Evil, whereas novels featuring spies, like Conrad’s The Secret Agent, may be unrelievedly bleak, tragic statements of the human condition. This distinction seems right for Buchan and Fleming, wrong for the Le Carré of The Honorable Schoolboy and the Greene of The Human Factor, books as morally bleak as one could wish. Perhaps the distinction between spy story and novel is not worth making; if it is, then it might be based on a simpler notion. Spy stories, as Cawelti and Rosenberg observe, concentrate on intrigue, suspense, and action, and thereby create a clandestine world “increasingly shut off from the ordinary world.” The Thirty-Nine Steps makes everyone Hannay meets an accomplice or an enemy, every place a refuge or a trap. By contrast, novels like The Secret Agent remember the ordinary world. In fact Conrad sets ordinariness painfully against clandestinity; Winnie Verloc has to go about her banal domestic chores while her husband is plotting his attentat. In this regard Greene, too, is a novelist, even when he writes “entertainments.” A thriller like The Ministry of Fear has spies, plots, and chases aplenty, and yet at a key moment its hero stands back ironically from the excitement. He is rocketing across the English countryside in pursuit of the villain when he thinks of all the ordinary things happening in the night, an old man dying, rats nosing after meal, two people “seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp”:
What even the finest of spy stories cannot do is admit their adventures are “cardboard.” What Richard Hannay and Ashenden and Alec Leamas and James Bond do not share is the profound natural common experiences of men.
. . . everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at seventy miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.