Sunday, April 18, 2010

The silent game

I'm fascinated by espionage stories, both real and fictional. I set myself a project: to read the history of the spy story from its earliest days. Now my reading hasn't been strictly chronological but I've largely stuck to pre Cold War fiction at this stage.

After Kipling pretty much sucked my brain out with Kim, I thought I'd take a break and read some critical works. Over Easter I managed to finish two of them: The silent game by David Stafford, and The spy story by Cawelti and Rosenberg. Both of them are excellent books and I'd like to keep them! The third, a previously mentioned Marxist text, is going back to the library unread, unloved and unlamented. I've added to this in recent days with The Special Branch: the British spy novel by LeRoy L. Panek (thank the lord for inter library loans!) The following is a map of what I am reading, and setting out to read.

Pre war
I've read pre-World War I invasion novels of Le Queux, Erskine Childers, E. Phillips Oppenheim, all of whom contributed to the almost hysterical atmosphere of spy phobia at that time. Really, you have to pity German waiters - one of the novelists (probably Le Queux because he was an absolute nutter on the subject of spies) suggests you refuse to let a German waiter serve you until he has shown you his passport on demand. Nauseatingly bad writing.

World War I
In 1915 John Buchan wrote the fabulous The 39 steps. In this era, spying was what the enemy did. Our heroes are gentlemen acting to defend their nation. Richard Hannay is a patriotic clubland hero. The bad guys are easily spotted - they're foreigners! There is much use of coincidence, but this is presented as part of a divine plan to uphold the British Empire. Hitchcock clearly understood Buchan's use of social humour and his film version is a corker. Not so sure about the recent BBC adaption. Though handsome to look at - and it is hilarious to see an old style car chase where the maximum speed of each vehicle is about 10km an hour - I feel that it wasn't true to the spirit of the book.

Between the wars
Post World War I things get a little ambiguous. Here we sense the moral dubiousness of the great game in Somerset Maugham's Ashenden and Compton Mackenzie's works. Both authors combine cynicism about the value of espionage with a fine sense of human folly. In each case it is clear that much of espionage is dominated by bureacracy. Our villains are quite commonplace, shabby men.

At the same time there are the popular exotic villain of Valentine Williams' Clubfoot or Sax Rohmer's yellow peril, Dr Fu Manchu (who remembers the hero of those stories now?*) Villains were typically foreign conspirators or a Socialist working class being manipulated by greedy capitalists. Equally popular was the Fascist fiction of Sapper with his Bulldog Drummond series - very anti-intellectual.

World War 2 era
The war years were one of disillusion, with stories about loss of innocence. In the espionage fiction of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene fighting for your country seems a bit hollow. Here the state is not to be trusted. These authors explore the inner landscape of the spy - the compromises, moral crises - or stories of the amateur, regular folks somehow caught up in circumstances they can not control, who do not have the character to rise to meet the occasion.

Post war
Post war saw a return to the heroic adventures of the gentleman spy with Ian Fleming. Now much has been written about the Bond phenomena and I've read none of it. Nor have I read any of the books and I've only seen one of the films and that was the modern Bond so I'm not sure that he's at all the same.

This is a return to the days of Buchan. Patriotism is seen as a bit suspect so Fleming's works are cloaked in irony. James Bond is a typical aristocratic hero (albiet with a modern dose of sadism thrown in). There is a great deal of snobbery, conspicuous product placement, fascination with technology and sexism. It's a celebration of the materialistic age and I can't say I'm very much looking forward to getting to this era.

The Cold War
Cold War spy fiction is John Le Carre, which continues in the vein of Ambler and Greene. Here the enemy is the spy's own organisation or a mole (the influence of the Philby Affair). The story is of betrayal and we have a victim-hero. Things pretty much always end badly.

Post Glasnost

All my books are from the 1980s so I'm not really sure where the spy story is at in these days of terrorism. I'm still stuck somewhere near Eric Ambler so I'll worry about this end of the spectrum later!

Months of reading to come!

*Sir Denis Nayland Smith and his Watson, Dr Petrie. I don't remember them either.

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