The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

International Intrigue: Plotting Espionage as Cultural Artifact | Editors' Introduction

Phyllis Lassner
Northwestern University

Will May
University of Southampton

When former head of Britain’s MI5, Stella Rimington, compared literary publishing to the KGB in her 2011 Booker Prize speech, she might have considered the current states of the cultures, histories, and theories of actual and imaginary espionage. Her elision only highlights the growing interest and emergence of open discussion and scholarly studies that affirm the rich historical and fictional complexities of espionage.  Recently, as archives of intelligence agencies have been opening, they have become the source of both fictional plots and scholarly analysis and interpretation.  Christopher Andrew’s official history of the MI5, Defense of the Realm (2009), drew on classified documents, but was necessarily cagey about how much of the material could be verified, and by whom: the language and forms of encryption and decoding lend themselves to narrative formation and exegesis.  Indeed, as this special issue reveals, espionage blurs hermeneutic boundaries between archives, history, and fiction.  Moreover, with their international reach, spy narratives raise questions about relationships between politics and fiction and popular and élite culture.  As accounts by  Brett F. Woods (2008) and Robert Snyder (2011) have commented, Eric Ambler and Helen MacInnes’ novels trouble divisions between nation states and ideologies as well as between polemical or didactic fiction and modernist aesthetic imperatives.

From legendary tales of Lawrence in Arabia and Mata Hari in the 1920s, to Borges’ modernist parody of the genre, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” to Rebecca West’s 1949 study of fascist treachery, and onwards to retrospective films of World War II and Cold War espionage, the proliferation of spy fictions, reportage, biographies, and histories provides a mobile set of metaphors for artists working through political, social, and existential conditions of belonging, exile, and outsider.  While Stevie Smith’s experimental 1938 novel Over the Frontier poses existence itself as living in enemy territory, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novel Sogliadata (trans. "the spy") explores the émigré as suspect.  Fictions of state surveillance and secret intelligence also bleed into real politics, as with George Orwell, who helped underground translators and publishers devise ever more ingenious ways of smuggling his political dystopia 1984 into Poland, and the 2007 release of MI5 files that exposed the widespread practice of spying on writers.

Concurrent with scholarly interests today, espionage as cultural artifact also suggests new ways of thinking about critical relations among such political categories as gender, race, citizenship, nationhood, refugees, agency, and subjectivity. Recent scholarship by Erin Carlston (2013), Allan Hepburn (2014), and Phyllis Lassner (2016) help redefine spy fiction and history as deeply implicated in such urgent political issues as government surveillance and persecution of homosexuals and other marginalized groups. Scholarship has also intervened in terms of cultural value, reassessing the work of neglected writers and filmmakers.  Espionage art is now assessed as collapsing distinctions between high culture, the middlebrow, and popular culture as well as constructing relationships among documentary history, journalism, and fiction.  Graham Greene’s entertainments, W. Somerset Maugham’s meta-fictional spy narratives, or the American TV series The Americans are only a few examples of fictions that deploy espionage to engage such issues as political and national identities and questions of loyalty to the stateIndeed, the genre has become self-questioning about its own position in creative and political cultures.  As each of our essays attests, international intrigue and its opportunities for interpretation are never-ending.

Espionage writing has been accused of nostalgia for an imagined time and place where readers could easily identify with the heroic, right-minded actions of the Western Allies who represent the ideals of democracy and international diplomacy; for example, Anthony Horowitz’s recent James Bond novel Trigger Mortis (2015) offers a replica of Ian Fleming,  a knowing recreation of the past.  Specifically, the interwar period also complicates public debates about the responses of Britain and the United States to the rise of Fascism and Nazism and later, of the Western powers’ involvement in regime change.  Political and narrative surprises abound, with enemies of the Western political order turning out to be members of its most privileged castes, as in le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). What these narratives reveal are disturbances within and across the ideology or structures of Western social or political order.  Most often, both within espionage narratives and critical responses, spy protagonists are exposed as ethically challenged and complicit with the brutal means intended to restore international stability.  On the other hand, villainy is often complicated, examined, but not rationalized as historical circumstances and unstable ideologies and political structures demand conflicted responses.  To turn a spy into a double agent produces Janus-faced protagonists and antagonists, with the enemy constructed not as "us against them" but rather as an ominous we.  Flashbacks, a narrative device typically associated with the genre, turn out to subvert the strategy's conventional use as explanatory context.  Instead, flashbacks in the texts considered in this special issue unveil the process by which history becomes a secret agent to be decrypted and exposed as demythicizing an idealized heroic past.

The spy thrillers in this special issue revise traditional meanings of nostalgia for lost times and places where assurances of belonging to stable communities and nations are exposed as perennially threatened and threatening.  Almost everyone, victim and villain or spy and counterspy, is subject to surveillance, deception, and betrayal by the state. The plotting of concealment challenges social hierarchies, the meanings of social and political loyalty, and lends them disturbances and opportunities for performances that are subversive from start to finish.  In effect, as the essays in this special issue show, spy thrillers trouble boundaries between spectators, commentators, close textual readings, and political and social contexts.   
The three essays which begin this special collection focus on the courtroom, in the space where covert espionage is dissected for public spectacle. This shift from private to public prompts a reassessment of generic strategies of representation too, prompting a kind of trial by genre. David Glover’s “Rebecca West and the 'Radio Traitor'” explores West’s account of William Joyce’s trial in The Meaning of Treason (1949).  Joyce, a British fascist who made radio propaganda for the Nazis, was a well-known figure, and West’s compelling account became her best-selling non-fiction work. As Glover notes, the new technologies of treason brought about shifts in reporting them. The Meaning of Treason draws on novelistic strategies, new journalism, and the glances, gestures, and passing comments of the courtroom to deliver what Glover calls “a verdict upon a verdict.” Glover’s own verdict on this work suggests the ways espionage makes us all spectators, yoking the citizen and the traitor together with unsettling power.

The generic dividing line between fact and fiction prompts its own legal action for Compton Mackenzie, the writer who stood trial in the Old Bailey in 1933. He was charged under the Official Secrets Acts for quoting apparently verbatim from documents he saw when working for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in his memoir, Greek Memories (1933). Mark Kaufman’s essay, “Spyography: Compton Mackenzie, Modernism, and the Intelligence Memoir” notes that Mackenzie took generic revenge by publishing the spy farce Water on the Brain (1933). But his essay also suggests how the irony, humor and entertainment of the later novel complicate our understanding of censorship, secrecy, and genre. Here, tone and mood work to trouble notions of what should remain classified, and how we classify literary and textual responses to espionage.

Entertainment itself comes under suspicion in Paula Derdiger’s essay, ‘“Now you’re one of us: Postwar Surveillance in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair.” She notes Wilder’s desire to respond to World War II in ways more subtle, enchanting, and complex than the rubble film or propaganda. Drawing on his professional training in Weimar-era Berlin, and navigating the Hays Code with particular dexterity, Wilder set out to create a film which would combine a simple love story with a complex exploration of surveillance. Derdiger’s insightful reading suggests how the film blurs the boundaries between the foreign and the domestic. If West’s account of a treason trial cast us all as traitors, Wilder’s film wonders if we might all be exiles.

The following two essays in the special issue consider how wartime understandings of intelligence and counter-intelligence rewrote the relationship between form and knowledge. Megan Faragher’s essay, “Snoop-Women with Notebooks: Naomi Mitchison, Mass Observation, and the Gender of Intelligence” reclaims an unduly neglected work, Mitchison’s political dystopia We Have Been Warned (1935). Reading the novel’s critique of surveillance methodologies alongside Mitchison’s interest in domestic intelligence and Mass Observation, Faragher outlines the ways that qualitative public opinion data came to be viewed as another form of domestic espionage. Here, feminist politics, literary form, and surveillance form an unlikely partnership.  

Meanwhile, Pulsifer and Ross offer a re-reading of Dennis Wheatley’s 1940s espionage fiction, in particularly his Sallust series, to consider how espionage fiction explored “the fragility of human intelligence in comparison the complexity of information.” Giving a compelling account of the ways the postwar period understood state intelligence and information gathering, they explain why the middlebrow literary form was particularly well-placed to map the various debates about espionage and secrecy that framed the period.

The third strand of essays considers the ways agents, government officials, and civil servants practiced their own kinds of close readings on the writers of their day. Christie’s essay, “Pearl Buck’s FBI File 1938–1945” shows J. Edgar Hoover himself acting as literary critic as he offers mimetic readings of Buck’s Nobel Prize-winning fiction. Drawing on files recently declassified after the Freedom of Information Act, Christie shows the invisible damage these files did to the writers whose lives they recorded. Agents, meanwhile, could rest assured that “only the archive” would hold them responsible for their misinterpretations and over-readings. 

Benedetta Carnaghi’s account of two foreign informers for the Fascist police in Italy uncovers the regime’s double-edged attitude towards homosexuality. Recovering and re-reading archival documents from the period, she focuses on two men blackmailed into espionage—Roberto Hodel and Gerhard Dobbert—suggesting that spies were neither victims nor accomplices, but occupied an “ambiguous, shifting position.”  In both cases, agency seems to go missing in action; in its place, the regime of surveillance takes on “an agency of its own.” These hidden lives suggest that international espionage was capable of weaving uncomfortable facts into convenient fictions if it served the cause.

The subtle imbrications in these essays between surveyor and surveyed, writer and annotator, spy and confidante, construct their own nuanced poetics of espionage. Fittingly then, our collection closes with two essays which consider how the “life offending falsehood” of poetry might provide its own language of counterintelligence. John Kimsey’s essay “CIA Poetics: James Angleton, Counterespionage and the New Criticism” uncovers the startling links between the CIA and the exponents of New Criticism in the United States. If, as Ransom has argued, a beautiful poem is a democratic state, Kimsey shows us how that state might be interrogated, threatened, undermined, and decoded with the forensic analysis of a literary scholar. Our final essay, Erin Carlston’s “Dancing with Boatmen, or the Retirement of the Spy” traces the journey of W.H. Auden’s poetry from viewing the spy as queer outsider, to a figure no less a part of nature than any other citizen. A poetics of suspicion, mistrust, border crossing, and double-crossing, might yet cross the most perilous bridge of all, and construct a community. The energetic range of essays included here suggests that scholarship on espionage has begun to forge its own powerful international networks. 

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