Findings: Meditations on the Literature of Spying

From the Spring 1965 issue of The Scholar


As I begin these notes (midsummer 1964), the American public is making into best sellers two works of light literature: Candy1 and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.2 The one is supposed to be a parody of the modern novel of sex; the other is held up as a really real realistic tale of modern spying; and there is evidence from conversation and printed comments that readers who usually scorn the best seller are giving these books their attention. I suspect that something important but unspoken links these two efforts and also attracts the consumer of so-called serious novels.

I do not know what that something is, but I do know that Candy and The Spy are dull and, under their respective cloaks of gaiety and of sobriety, affected. The point of The Spy is that he wants to quit but is impelled to go on by professional routine. This is enough, I imagine, to make him congenial to all of us. He does not believe in what he is doing; he is anything but a hero; he is a good deal of a masochist. And being a spy in the field, indeed a potential martyr to an unfelt cause, he entitles himself to certain low pleasures—despising his associates; having, skill apart, a poor opinion of himself; sinking morally and physically into degradation almost beyond control; falling in love listlessly, like a convalescent; and, after being betrayed in action by headquarters for double-cross purposes, making a sacrificial end. Death, we are to think, is the only “coming in from the cold” there is.

I am sure that this melodrama played in iron curtains corresponds to something older and deeper than our anxieties of the cold war. The soul of the spy is somehow the model of our own; his actions and his trappings fulfill our unsatisfied desires. How else explain the stir caused, also this past summer, by the death of Ian Fleming? Ten books about James Bond, published in a little more than ten years, do not justify the front-page laments, and even less the studies by academic critics who have argued over Fleming’s morals and political philosophy. No, there is something here like earlier ages’ recognition of themselves in the pioneer, the warrior, the saint or the poet. We are the spy—an agent, mind you, not a man—hiding behind the muffling zeros of 007 which mean: the right to kill in the line of duty.

The advertisers, who always know the color of our emotions, rely on our being good Bondsmen. Leafing through the New Yorker, I am told by a travel magazine: “Come to Beirut and see spies. Real spies . . . with shifty eyes and tiny cameras.” In Playboy, cheek by jowl with a discussion of the “cultural explosion,” I am invited to examine a dinner jacket and to “ask Agent 008, the one for whom survival often depends on the smallest detail.” These hints play on the surface and suggest the depths. As technologists we love that tiny detail, that tiny camera. As infidels without purpose, we attach a morbid importance to survival. Yet our aplomb is restored by the possession of cosmetic virtue: with those faultless garments on, we would be content to let our eyes shift for themselves.

The spy story does this for us, then: it permits us not to choose, we can live high and lie low. Since Graham Greene no longer writes “entertainments,” read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day3 and see how the ironic title is brought down to mean simple survival for an outcast in a dirty raincoat with a mind to match. We are on his side, for as with the cold spy in his Skid Row phase, we relish the freedom that exists at the bottom of cities. And we know that in exchange for a few dirty tricks there is also power and luxury, cash and free sex. True, even James Bond marries while On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 4 but the wife mercifully dies within a few hours. They had been lovers, so all is well.

The advantage of being a spy as of being a soldier is that there is always a larger reason—the reason of state—for making any little scruple or nastiness shrink into insignificance. But I want to leave the question of morality to a later place. At this point I am still curious about the satisfactions that the tale of espionage affords Western man in the afternoon of this century. As always in trashy literature, it is the satisfactions that produce the illusion of reality: man despising and betrayed, listless in his loves, dying pointlessly every second, scared, scared, scared—this is, if one may so speak, the life existential. But in the portraits and myths of that life what calms our fears is that dangers and difficulties yield to technique. The spy is imperturbable not by temperament or by philosophy, but from expertise. He makes mistakes, of course, to keep us in countenance, but they are errors of inattention, such as killing the wrong man. We respond to this agreeable image of our scientific world, where knowledge commands power, where facts are uniformly interesting, and where fatalities appear more and more as oversights, professional faux pas. These results constitute the romance of the age; why should they not be translated into stories—spy stories especially, since what we know as science comes from ferreting and spying, and since we care so much for truth that we are willing to drug and torture for it?

One stumbles here on a preestablished harmony: the novel as a genre has been prurient and investigative from the start. Growing out of the picaresque adventure, which is high life seen from below stairs, the novel does not merely show, it shows up—and what a mountain of discreditable information it has unloaded into our eager minds! What pedantry! What snobbery! At first, simple encounters and reversals kept the reader going; lately it has been character and relationships; but it is all one: from Gil Blas to Henry James’s “observer” somebody is always prying. From Scott to Dreiser we take a course in how some other half lives, how fraudulent men and their society really are. The novel is dedicated to subversion; the novelist is a spy in enemy country. No reason, then, to be surprised that his ultimate parable should be the tale with a declared, certified spy in it, one who like the original picaro sees society from below, and resentfully.

Mr. Matthew Head, who has written a dozen good detective stories and whose name conceals a well-known art critic, gives in one of his books what might be called the moral strategy of the novel-bred mind. His archeologist hero confides that “the first thing I always wonder about new people is what they manage to do for a living and how they arrange their sex life, because it seems to me that those two activities plus sleep and a movie or two account for most people’s twenty-four hours a day.”5 This is the brass-tacks appeal, and it goes well with our primitivism, our reliance on formulas, our fatigue at the thought of understanding “new People”: there are so many of them, thanks to immoderate prenatal care.

And the wish to invade the privacy of sex gives a clue to the kinship I suspected between the two best sellers with which I began these notes: spying and pornography are related through the curiosity of the child about the mystery of sex. Perhaps the relentless curiosity of science has the same root; certainly our fiction does not neglect the fundamental needs, only the fundamental decencies. It neglects, that is, the difference between recognizing the demands of the body under the elaborations, softenings and concealments of civilized society and thinking that one is very sharp to have discovered them and made the rest negligible.


The genuine primitive has another ring to it. The Iliad is about “Helen and all her wealth”—money and sex if you will, but like other national epics it is also about war and the gods, human character and the sorrowful brevity of life. The novel is about malice domestic, and this is what ends by stunting our souls. I reread Clarissa Harlowe during a recent bout of illness, and I was shocked by the orgy of violence—of action, language, feeling—that it comes down to. The rape of Clarissa is only the fit gesture to symbolize the concentrated fury that animates all the characters—friend against friend; man against woman; parents, children, relatives against one another. All this hate, like a contagion, made me want to annihilate the lot.

The cold-spy, cold-war story presumably expresses and discharges the tension of violence under which we have lived since 1914. But that expression is rarely touched with regret or remorse. Only occasionally, as in William Haggard’s story The High Wire,6 is the theme in contradiction with the mode of life depicted. The main character here is a peaceable, middle-aged engineer who is catapulted into espionage and finds in it only horror, helplessness and torture. He manages to live and marry the heroine, an agent who is—or just has been, for purely professional reasons, of course—the mistress of an opposing agent: again, the true romance of our times. It almost makes one prefer the moral of Cyril Connolly’s now famous parody of James Bond, in which 007 must in the line of duty impersonate a homosexual and finds—but the surprise ending must not be told.

An uncommonly deft practitioner, Hubert Monteilhet, gives us another singular version of this romance in Return from the Ashes,7 which tells how a woman survivor from a concentration camp attempts to regain an old lover who may have betrayed her to the Gestapo. She has to turn spy, privately, to achieve her ends, and in so doing she destroys others as well as the hopeful part of herself. At one point she defines the embroidering of sentiment over brutality as “the work of a tragic Marivaux, one to suit this century.” But why blame the century? Why are we told over and over again, as by Raymond Chandler in his masterpiece The Lady in the Lake: “Doctors are just people, born to sorrow, fighting the long grim fight like the rest of us”?8 Or in reverse, by one of Chandler’s imitators: “She was really a rather naive and inexperienced little girl. She apparently still believed in things like love and hate and gratitude and vengeance, not realizing that they had no place in this work, where your enemy one minute is your ally the next—and maybe your enemy again a few minutes later.”9 The speaker of this maxim, the tough spy Matt Helm, acknowledges that ours is “not a chivalrous age, nor is mine an honorable profession.” The excuse, it appears, is necessity. Chandler’s indestructible hero, Philip Marlowe, who crystallized a good many of these poses, declares: “However hard I try to be nice I always end up with my nose in the dirt and my thumb feeling for somebody’s eye.”

Obviously the reason why these things occur and are bewailed is the way men choose to take life, and modern men take life in the way of sophistication, that is, universal suspicion, hostility, fear of being taken in. People who read only “noteworthy” novels do not know how far the second- and third-hand fiction has copied and exploited the disillusioned stance of the masters. At times one could imagine that it was Somerset Maugham who had decanted into all the lesser works the sour wine from the great vintage casks: “His intelligence was obvious. . . he never quite gave himself away. He seemed to be on his guard. . . . those eyes were watching, weighing, judging, and forming an opinion [sic]. He was not a man to take things at their face value.” This is Maugham’s Dr. Saunders, the hero-observer of the well-named Narrow Corner.10 To know in advance that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. Their borrowed system creates the ironies that twist their smiles into wryness. They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous; I am fed up with the life of wryly.

One reason for my annoyance is the contamination that the sophisticated and the spies have brought into the story of detection. Mr. Le Carré himself began with two attempts at the genre, in which his talent for situations is evident and any interest in the rationality of detection altogether missing. Under a surface likeness the purposes of spying and criminal detection are opposite: the spy aims at destroying a polity by sowing confusion and civil strife; the detective aims at saving a polity by suppressing crime. Thanks to our literary men we have been made so much at home with crime, we have found the spy’s “unobserved shadow world which is nevertheless starkly real”11 serving us so well as a sort of subconscious of society, that we readily agree with the head of the French Secret Police who said no man “could fully understand our age unless he had spent some time in prison.”11 Logic thus compels the writer to turn detective fiction into the domestic branch of espionage.

In consequence the murders that do not arise from the drug traffic arise from the enchanted realm of “security.” And so an excellent story such as Val Gielgud’s Through a Glass Darkly12 seeks the solution to a London murder simply by turning inside out the lives of the wife, the friends and the business associates of the victim. In place of the classical observation and inference, there is snooping, which also obliterates action. Simenon’s Maigret, whom many innocent readers take for a detective, is but a peeping Tom. He is praised for his patience in looking out of windows across a road, but his “psychology” is a mere offprint of Dr. Saunders’: “he took an interest in his fellows that was not quite scientific and not quite human . . . . it gave him just the same amusement to unravel the intricacies of the individual as a mathematician might find in the solution of a problem.”10 In short: the mathematical interest that a Paris concierge takes in his lodgers and finds rewarded by the Sûreté.

The great illusion is to believe that all these impulses and enjoyments betoken maturity, worldliness, being “realistic.” The truth is that Maugham’s observer and the ubiquitous spy are bright boys of nine years. Nine is the age of seeking omniscience on a low level. The spy’s ingenuity (why not ship the fellow in a trunk?), his shifting partisanship without a cause, like his double bluffs, his vagrant attachments, and his love of torturing and of being tortured are the mores of the preadolescent gang: they yield as one storyteller puts it, “the joys of conspiracy—all the little thrills and chills that go with being secret and devious.”13 For adult readers to divert themselves with tales of childish fantasy is nothing new and not in itself reprehensible. What is new is for readers to accept the fantasy as wiser than civil government, and what is reprehensible is for the modern world to have made official the dreams and actions of little boys.

There is a further sense in which the philosophy of the spy is childish: at the critical moments it does not work. On this point the authoritative theorist of espionage, an American agent who writes under the pseudonym of Christopher Felix, leaves us in no doubt. He tells us in his Short Course in the Secret War that “during World War II the German High command had at least three reliable reports stating the date and place for the Allied invasion of Normandy,” and believed none of them.11 Again, the Russians had daily reports of German battle plans straight from headquarters, and disregarded them all. In the same happy vein of skepticism, Stalin disbelieved Richard Sorge’s information from Tokyo that Germany would invade Poland in September 1939 and would attack Russia itself in April 1941.14

These failures supply their own moral, although not in the way a moralist would prefer. The moral is that nothing in this world can be accomplished without trust, however rudimentary. You cannot buy a box of matches without your entering into a tacit trust agreement with the tradesman to the effect that when you have handed him the coin he will hand you the box. Deception and ruthlessness are not “Machiavellian” wisdom as the vulgar think; they overshoot policy and recoil on the user. The modern spy, being sophisticated, works for both sides—a double agent—is therefore trusted by neither side and thus loses his only value. Similarly, in literature as in life, the double bluff wears out and can only be succeeded by the triple cross. It is an endless series in which agent and principal are both likely to lose their wits. Who is fooling whom and when? In the end, espionage modern style is like advertising: the participants deploy their gimmicks and make their shifty eyes at one another exclusively. The lack of pragma throughout is as shocking as the reckless expense.

As for the game, one can understand why the reader and the spy relish the permissible depravity that goes with it. But why insist that the spy take sides and risk life without conviction? The only answer that suggests itself is that the lukewarm agent can avoid being torn between his conception of his own cause and the acts of his own party. No need to wonder why their enemies hanged Major André and Nathan Hale so reluctantly and unavoidably. Indeed, one need not go back as far as the American Revolution to find out what preceded the universal loss of honor and conviction. From medieval chivalry to Elizabethan times, the spy was a “base fellow,” known as such to others and to himself. This notion survived from then to within recent memory: when Henry Stimson, as Secretary of State, was shown the progress of code-breaking, he pushed the documents aside and said curtly: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Now, we hear, every citizen has a democratic chance of serving as a spy. Housewives, students on their travels, foundation officials, merchants, scientists, exchange professors and visiting virtuosos are eligible. Only the New York Times protests, on the antiquated ground that duplicity may damage the once trustworthy professions.

The most that can be said in extenuation of the citizen-spy’s bad taste is that it corresponds to the decline of a world system. The phases are: 1900, 1914, 1945. At the turn of the century, when Erskine Childers wrote The Riddle of the Sands,15 no one could mistake the amateur spy for anything but a patriot, and the professional on the “wrong side” was partly excused by a mixed ancestry aggravated by private misfortune. Even after the Götterdämmerung of the First World War, John Buchan could make his hero pursue espionage and chivalry without a split psyche. If today The Three Hostages16 were by a fluke to reach the screen, Richard Hannay would be hooted at by every thirteen-year-old of either sex. His soldierly attempt to save the life of his deadly enemy while chasing him across the scree and gorges of Scotland would seem puerile; and the valuing of every man in the tale, not by his ruthlessness, clothes, or sexual potency, but by the pain it causes him to be a spy, would be adjudged the improbable invention of a maiden aunt. This contrast in conduct and instinct reminds one of the fate of the old German army in the face of Hitler’s shirts. This is but another way of saying that we live in times like those that led Thucydides to make one of his tyrants say to his victims: “We give you joy of your innocence, but covet not your silliness.”

But let us be careful. Let us not put this love of spying—one might almost say this love of dishonor—to the sole account of the dictatorships. It grows just as naturally in the soil of democracy; for it has something to do with equality and the confused emotions relating to class. Few people, no doubt, remember James Fenimore Cooper’s early and internationally popular novel, The Spy, which dates from 1821. I had to refresh my vague memories of a French translation to find that Harvey Birch, the spy who mysteriously helps George Washington, was no hero but a frightened, mean and mercenary character. He was moved by patriotism, to be sure, but also by a restless envy. This was a shrewd insight of Cooper’s. Kill the patriot by sophistication and what is left is the competitive egalitarian, the status-seeker powered by envy.


Out of envy and the will to arrive comes the whole apparatus of personal, industrial and governmental spying. Mr. Richard Rovere has written with justified passion about the multiform attack on privacy that implements this vast jealousy and fear. When no one can take his own merit and place for granted, no one can look upon the world with that “well-opened eye” which Conan Doyle ascribes to “a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and be obeyed.” Whatever bad things went with the system that produced such men—and these bad things are many—did not lead to prying. The Henry Stimsons refrained from reading others’ mail, not because they controlled an itch to do so, but because they were not interested. By contrast, the great democratic virtue is to be “interested in people,” which undoubtedly fosters sympathy and helpfulness. But it also fosters mutual surveillance and social tyranny.

True, in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas the entry “Spy” reads: “Always in high society.” But that is the spy of the Age of Reason, polite and cosmopolite, who comes historically between the base fellow and the modern Every Man His Own Secret Agent. E. Phillips Oppenheim gave the ultimate renderings of that delightful intermediate type, a suave habitué of the Orient Express and a willing prey to the svelte seductress whose prerogative it was to transfer the naval plans from his well-marked dispatch box to her bosom, no less well marked. Protocol required these trappings, and this too rested on presumption.

So far from presuming, the democratic character, for all its uneasy claims to equal rewards, is not quite sure of its own existence. Psychoanalysis has taught even the common man that he is in some ways an imposter; he has spied on himself and discovered reasons for distrust and disgust: in all honesty he cannot turn in a good report. Nor do his surroundings help to restore his confidence. The world is more and more an artifact, everywhere facsimiles supplant the real thing—the raucous radio voice, the weird TV screen. Just to find his bearings he must fashion a computer simulation of his case. So mimicry, pretending, hiding, which are part of the child’s first nature and used to be sloughed off as true individuality developed, now stay with us as second nature, and indeed as the only escape from the bad self and the bad world. Or as a tough dick in a crude story tells another: A false name, a false address “gives them an immunity from the dreadful actuality of being themselves. . . . Perfectly respectable people, too.”17 Which is to say: for “privacy” read “secrecy.”

But I must close with literature, for heaven knows it is literature—the best and the worst—that our feelings have had to imitate in order to make our world what it is. The petering out of an era, the grubby romances of the envious and the blasé, mirror themselves in the mechanical moves, aggressive and sexual, of Candy and the Cold Spy. But there is more than one underground and one resistance, and here and there one hears echoes of Conrad’s dictum that “it is conscience that illumines the romantic side of our life.” Any other point of view, he goes on, is “as benighted as the point of view of hunger.”18 Thus in effect speaks also the late Arthur Upfield after some violent doings in the bush: “No, I tell you. It’s loyalty. Only the basest of us are not actuated by loyalty.” 19 And in a remarkable story to end all spy stories, that unfailing virtuoso Andrew Garve winds up a harrowing scene in which is disclosed a spy’s lifelong deception of his daughter as to all his beliefs and all their circumstances, by saying: “I’d been too fair to Raczinski. No one had the right to do what he’d done to Marya—not for any reason on earth.” 20

1 Southern, Terry and Hoffenberg, Mason. Candy. New York: Putnam. 1964. $5.

2 Le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. New York: Coward-McCann. 1964. $4.50.

3 Ambler, Eric. The Light of Day. New York: Knopf. 1963. $3.95.

4 Fleming, Ian. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. New York: New American Library. 1963. $4.50.

5 Head, Matthew. The Devil in the Bush. New York: Avon Books. 1964. 50 cents.

6 Haggard, William. The High Wire. New York: Ives Washburn. 1963. $3.50.

7 Montheilhet, Hubert. Return From the Ashes. New York: Signet Books. 1964. 50 cents.

8 Chandler, Raymond. The Raymond Chandler Omnibus. New York: Knopf. 1964. $6.

9 Hamilton, Donald. The Ambushers. New York: Gold Medal Books. 1963. 40 cents.

10 Maugham, Somerset. The Narrow Corner. New York: New Avon Library. 1944. 25 cents.

11 Felix, Christopher. A Short Course in the Secret War. New York: Dutton. 1963. $5.

12 Gielgud, Val. Through a Glass Darkly. New York: Scribners. 1963. $3.50.

13 Stein, Aaron Marc. Days of Misfortune. New York: Collier Books. 1963. 95 cents.

14 New York Times, September 5, 1964.

15 Childers, Erskine. The Riddle of the Sands. London (1903): Penguin Books. 1952. 65 cents.

16 Buchan, John. The Three Hostages. London (1924): Penguin Books. 1950. 65 cents.

17 Roeburt, John. Triple Cross. New York: Belmont Books. 1962. 40 cents.

18 Conrad, Joseph and Hueffer, Ford Madox. Romance. New York: Nelson. $1.25.

19 Upfield, Arthur. Bushranger of the Skies. New York: Maxwell. 1963. $3.50.

20 Garve, Andrew. The Ashes of Loda. New York: Harper. 1965. $3.50.

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Jacques Barzun (1907–2012) was a historian of ideas and culture and the author or editor of more than 40 books, including From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000). He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.


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