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doublecross

May 7, 2014

More on Betrayal: Whom Do the Spies Betray?

I stopped reading horror fiction some 30 years ago, because of two books that scared the pants off me: The Shining, by Stephen King, and Ghost Story, by Peter Straub. I’m still far too much of a weeny to watch horror movies, but in the past six months or so, I have reread both Ghost Story and The Shining, and enjoyed them a lot, not least in part because I was able to get through them without leaping out of my skin (which seems to have gotten quite a bit tougher over the past 30 years). Indeed, if you strip away the overtly scary elements, what you have are a couple of well written, powerful stories, one about an alcoholic desperately trying (and failing) to conquer the demons of his addiction, and the other something of a coming-of-age tale about a young man taking a hard look at the demons in himself.

But right now, I don’t actually want to strip away those scary elements, because in thinking about them, it occurs to me that both books achieve a lot of their terrifying oomph by way of … betrayal, the current word-of-the-week. In The Shining, the amorphous evil that rustles through the rooms of the Overlook Hotel coalesces in the person of Jack Torrance: It possesses him. Torrance’s son, Danny, sees his father, the person in the world he trusts and loves above all others, and what he sees is his father trying to kill him. Trying to stab him, to bash his head in.

That’s a pretty good image of betrayal.

The resident evil in Ghost Story is a shape-shifter; its particular and vilest gift is its ability to take on the appearance of, again, the person you trust and love above all others. And this person throws its arms open to you, and you run with joy to the embrace, only to confront, at the very last second, the howling, snarling fury of the face behind the mask, the creature whose true goal is to stab you, to bash your head in.

I’m thinking of this right now because I’ve just read snippets in an article from the Daily Mail of an interview with the playwright Alan Bennett. Bennett may be best known (in the U.S., at least) for the plays “The History Boys” and “The Madness of King George” (both made into successful films), but he has also written two plays about the Cambridge Spies (a group of which Kim Philby, discussed here recently, was a prominent member). In the interview, Bennett is quoted as saying that he doesn’t find the Spies’ treachery “a particularly important crime,” adding that “Spying is excusable because they thought that they were doing something to improve things, that they were morally on the right side.”

Ultimately, Bennett claims that there is a certain ambiguity about his response to Philby et al., and that’s an ambiguity with which I can certainly sympathize, to an extent. The problem, for me, is that spies betray on at least two levels: On the one hand, they are making a mockery of their assumed allegiance to some big, conceptual thing – their country, say. Their king. Their class (this was and remains a very big issue with regard to the Cambridge clan). Their political party. Even, in the case of industrial espionage, the company they work for. I have some trouble working up a real head of steam about this kind of betrayal, even though it’s the version that makes headlines. The entities being betrayed are, in the end, just too conceptual, too much confined to the realm of ideas, for me to feel great emotional connection.

But then there’s the other hand, and the other hand is very personal indeed. There’s an old David Steinberg routine about an agent “talking to The Coast,” and Steinberg’s imagining that The Coast responds by saying “WWwhhhhhsss” or whatever you think a wave sounds like as it hisses onto shore. Similarly, one doesn’t lie to one’s Country, or one’s Company, or one’s Class: A spy lies to people. Often people who believe him to be their friend. Sometimes people for whom the spy is the person in the world they love and trust above all others. He doesn’t just do this once, but over and over and over again, about matters big and small. Whether the spy’s goal is ultimately to bash those people’s heads in is almost immaterial: The point is that his goal is other than what they believed, other than what he said it was. The betrayal resides in the lie, in the compact of trust that has been not merely broken but spat on, laughed at, ground into dirt. Kim Philby’s actions caused the deaths of many people who thought he was their friend, but that one word, betrayal, stands for both the compact he broke with them and the compact he broke with other “friends” who didn’t die.

Betrayal is at the heart of all espionage fiction: To be a spy is inherently to live a life of lies and thus secretly to break faith with people who trust you. But as a theme, it’s hardly confined to the world of spooks. One of my favorite non-espionage stories of betrayal is Reginald Hill’s Death of a Dormouse, about a, well, mousy woman who is forced to confront her husband’s endless lies and lies and betrayals. No discount on this, because we recently ran a Hill-wide sale in honor of the late maestro’s birthday, but a very strong recommendation: If betrayal is as compelling to you as it (clearly) is to me, Dormouse will not disappoint. And if you find yourself interested in the Cambridge Spies, give Tony Cape’s terrific The Cambridge Theorem a read, and then turn to nonfiction for either the new Philby biography or Miranda Carter’s excellent Anthony Blunt: His Lives.

 

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