The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

le carre, spy fiction, and spy fact

I'm immersing myself in the Cold War right now, and so I'm even using my leisure reading to get myself in the mental 1950s. While on a visit to my parents last month, I borrowed my father's copy of THE SECRET PILGRIM by John Le Carre. The book feels like Le Carre was cleaning out his drawers; it's a frame narrative around several short spy stories, none of which are particularly well developed. I'm assuming that, as the book was written after the Cold War ended, Le Carre decided to get all of his "Circus/Smiley" stories out, even those that had been sitting on his desk, half-finished, so that he could move on to other topics. The frame narrative is from the point of view of Ned, who has appeared in previous novels, and tells of Smiley coming to a school to talk to Ned's students about life in the undercover world. The stories, though, are largely from the memory of Ned. The book as a whole had all of Le Carre's typical strengths--atmosphere, psychological insight, familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the drudgery of espionage (no Mission Impossible here)--but nothing is sufficiently developed in this book. Too bad.

I also finished Terry Cooney's THE RISE OF THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS, a history of the PARTISAN REVIEW crowd from the time of the journal's founding until 1945. (My latest project focuses on how American cultural intellectuals on the left joined up with the cultural Cold War project in the 1950s, so the PARTISAN REVIEW folks are central figures.) Cooney's book was interesting in that it consisted largely of readings of the material IN the journal, because he was denied permission to the the PR archives by William Phillips. This causes me fear: I'm very much hoping to examine, and publish from, the materials in that archive. Although Cooney's book, therefore, didn't do much that I couldn't do myself, he did frame his argument usefully, showing how Phillips and Philip Rahv (the founders and long-time editors) moved from strict Communism to anti-CPUSA, anti-Popular Front Marxism in 1937, to ultimately a stance that made it possible for them to embrace, in the 1950s, a certain kind of pro-Americanism. They remained, Cooney is careful to point out, ever myopic, mistrustful, and condescending about the world outside of New York, and thus could never move into the Van Wyck Brooks position where all good things flow from our Jeffersonian legacy, but they did see our valuation of the individual as the greatest thing about the US (and our strongest argument countering the Soviets' phony collectivism).


Post a Comment

<< Home