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Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.

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Spies Like Us

It’s a while since I’ve read a book so unputdownable it compelled me to sit reading until lunchtime, but Ben Macintyre’s recently published ‘A Spy Among Friends’ did precisely that.  It comes as no surprise that it’s been optioned by Lionsgate.

Cover of A Spy Among Friends

As Macintyre himself notes, the world isn’t short of books about the Cambridge spies who betrayed their country on behalf of Stalin’s Russia. What’s novel about this particular contribution to the genre is that it focuses on the relationship between arch-traitor, Kim Philby and his colleague and closest friend, Nicholas Elliott. In doing so, Macintyre lays bare all the weaknesses of the upper-class old-school-tie establishment that dominated British society before and after WWII.

This approach also goes a long way towards giving a plausible answer to question of how, against all the odds, and a very great deal of evidence, Philby got away with it for so long. The simple explanation appears to be that nobody could actually believe that a man like Philby – archetypal insider, scion of a well-connected family, member of all the right clubs, loyal sporter of his old Westminster School scarf – could conceivably be batting for the other side.

The cricket metaphor is appropriate. Cricket provided a common bond for Elliott and Philby. Both had been born to severe but ambitious fathers, both had been through the particularly English form of torture represented by the public school system, neither had any inclination to discuss a matter as vulgar as politics, let alone their personal feelings. They took each other at face value. As far as Elliott was concerned, Philby was ‘one of us’ and no further questions need be asked.

The recruiters at MI6 took precisely the same view. According to Macintyre, Philby ‘sauntered’ into MI6 – reputed at the time to be the most daunting and effective espionage service in the world – with such ease that it provoked serious doubts among his Russian handlers. In a supreme irony,  Philby showered the KGB with cast-iron A-class intelligence, and they literally assumed it was too good to be true.

Kim Philby - double agent

Kim Philby – double agent

Philby avoided detection for an astonishing length of time. He was undeniably lucky. But even after his fellow traitors, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, were unmasked and defected to Russia, Philby managed to brazen it out with the top brass at MI6. His friend, Elliott, fell over backwards to protest his innocence and fight his corner.

Elliott’s unquestioning loyalty to his friend is, in the end, rather moving. He and Philby had been through the war together, brothers-in-arms in the great game of international espionage. It is entirely appropriate that it was Elliott who was chosen to confront Philby. The discussion that ensued was secretly recorded and Macintyre’s coup has been in drawing on this extraordinary archive, what he calls “one of the most important conversations of the Cold War”.

It starts with tea, naturally, and mutual enquiries about friends and family. Then Elliott hesitantly lays his cards on the table. Philby bluffs, lies, and calls repeatedly on the bond of friendship between them, but Elliott is having none of it. At last he allows himself to express the cold, direct anger that must have been building in him for many days. Philby, realising that all is lost, finally accepts the reality of his situation and agrees to provide a confession in exchange for immunity. With his signature came the end of a world ruled by gentleman’s agreement.

Much of the entertainment value of Macintyre’s book derives from his descriptions of the louche, cosmopolitan world of espionage that Elliott and Philby inhabited so enthusiastically. This was a world peopled by a gallery of cheerful rogues, most of whom were more than happy to pass on information in exchange for a little extra cash.

James Bond - closer to reality than you might think.

James Bond – closer to reality than you might think.

Elliott’s contacts while stationed in Istanbul included a belly-dancer from Bradford, a ferryman plying the route over the Bosphorus, a former Tsarist guards officer with contacts in Russian intelligence who became his best man, a club-owner who “accepted bribes from everyone without favour and endeavoured to place rival spies at adjacent tables”, an assistant to the papal legate apprehended for operating a wireless set on behalf of Italian fascists and many, many more.

It was a world where chance, luck and bravado were celebrated and where the daring gentleman amateur reigned supreme. Both Graham Greene and Ian Fleming worked for British intelligence during WWII. It isn’t hard to see where they, and indeed John le Carre, who provides an afterword to Macintyre’s book, found their inspiration and source material. What emerges from this account is how little exaggeration their fictional spy novels contain.

 

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