The Night Manager

Title:                      The Night Manager

Author:                  John le Carré

Le Carré, John (1993). The Night Manager. New York: Knopf

LCCN:    92055070

PR6062.E33 N5 1993

Date Posted:      May 16, 2016

Review by Julian Symons[1]

Few things are staler than a spy story with last week’s background. John le Carré, when planning his new book, had to devise a strategy for writing about a society in which, as one of his characters reflects, there is “no more Russian bear to fight, no more Reds under the bed at home.” Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, and Mr. le Carré’s superspy Karla with it, what can replace them? The writer’s answer is to blend international arms dealers and the bosses of drug cartels into a single individual, make him a lazy-voiced, arrogant, stylish Englishman named Richard Onslow Roper, and give him the persuasiveness of Mephistopheles. The result is a brilliant performance, executed with an exuberance, a richness of detail and a narrative drive that have been absent from Mr. le Carré’s writing for a decade.

The Persian Gulf war, with its immense possibilities for arms dealing, is the background of The Night Manager, but at the heart of the story is Roper, reinforced by his entourage and his arguments in defense of his activities. Does he help to establish dictatorships? “Armed power’s what keeps the peace,” he replies, while “unarmed power doesn’t last five minutes.” Is the responsibility for death and starvation in Africa and South America to be laid at his door? Not so. “Who are the killers, then?” he asks. “It’s not the chaps who make the guns! It’s the chaps who don’t open the larder doors!”

Swept along in Roper’s wake, as he moves around by plane and helicopter from luxury yacht to luxury hotel to his fantasy palace made real in the Caribbean, is a sleazy and sinister group of acolytes headed by the extravagantly homosexual and deadly clever Major Corkoran. Opposed to Roper is Jonathan Pine, first encountered as night manager of Zurich’s Hotel Meister Palace, but with a past that includes undercover work in Northern Ireland. Pine is backed by one of those underfinanced oddball secret agencies met in other le Carré books. This one is run by the well-named Leonard Burr from dingy offices in London’s Victoria Street and supported by a Whitehall mandarin named Rex Goodhew, whose puritan conscience makes him implacably opposed to Roper, whom he sees as the embodiment of all drug-dealing and arms-selling evil. A bigger British agency devoted to “Pure Intelligence” (which means gathering information, but most often refraining from using it for fear of disturbing the status quo) cooperates with the “American Cousins” in keeping a watchful eye on Burr.

Pine’s character is built up with great care. The opening 50 pages, which show him as a super-flunky at the Zurich hotel, disturbed by Roper and overwhelmed by the beauty of Roper’s English mistress, Jed, are written with a deliberate panache designed both to emphasize Roper’s high style and to show us that Pine is in retreat from tragedy and violence in his own life. He had tried to protect the mistress of an Arab colleague of Roper’s, but she was quite casually killed. In the Meister Palace, Pine is really hiding from himself and the effect of his own actions. Locked one day by accident in the hotel’s wine cellar with no prospect of being found, he decides that if he is saved he will “abandon his morbid quest for order and treat himself to a little chaos.”

Pine is enlisted by Burr, given a new identity and a background of drug-running and apparent murder. Burr then arranges a mock kidnapping of Roper’s son, Daniel, from which Pine is to save the boy. In the event, Pine, seeing the frightened child, loses his cool and breaks the arm of one of Burr’s agents. He is then badly beaten by another, and becomes the temporary favorite of a grateful Roper.

This is Operation Limpet. Pine is to be the limpet bomb that will cling to and finally destroy Roper.

Put down so simply, such plotting may sound like the ordinary material of an espionage adventure. That is not at all the effect. For an outline inevitably ignores brilliant set pieces, like the arrival of Roper’s party at Hunter’s Island in the Caribbean, before the failed kidnapping. There the gigantic Mama Low is preparing a meal for the party; Pine, renamed Lamont and hired as a cook, is preparing his famous stuffed mussels. Nor can it convey the subtleties of Pine’s interrogations by the suspicious Major Corkoran when Pine is recuperating after the beating that was not in the script.

Nor can any plot outline take in the long description of what is justly seen as a madhouse in the Panama jungle, where weapons are demonstrated in the presence of potential buyers and Roper’s friends and agents are gathered, Frenchmen and Germans and an Israeli, men who have “fought every dirty war from Cuba to Salvador to Guatemala to Nicaragua.” The story is built up with the relentless simplicity of Victorian narrative, but it is elaborated and enriched with what are often terrifying gargoyles.

Roper and his crew are not the only villains. Mr. le Carré’s distaste for the intelligence agency game and its most enthusiastic practitioners has never been shown more clearly than in his depiction of the Pure Intelligence outfit in London and its counterparts in Washington. Both groups are chiefly concerned with discomfiting and outwitting rivals, and are ready to dispose of their own agents when they pose awkward questions.

One scene shows the master manipulator Goodhew threatened with ruin or death by a committee man he has always thought an amiable cipher, unless Goodhew abandons support for Operation Limpet. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ed Prescott breaks the news to Joe Strelski, an American drug-enforcement agent, who is another Limpet supporter, that Pine must be left to his fate, abandoned in Roper’s hands. This scene is written with a controlled savagery rare in Mr. le Carré’s work. Isn’t Roper inextricably linked with dope-running and illegal arms sales, Strelski asks? Prescott smiles ruefully as he says that can’t be proved, and Strelski responds with heavyweight irony: “Don’t change, Ed. America needs you as you are. . . . Keep fixing things for us. The decent citizen knows too much already, Ed. Any more knowledge could seriously endanger his health.”

Mr. le Carré is a finely ambitious writer, concerned with producing stories that can be considered on the same plane as Conrad’s Under Western Eyes or the best of Graham Greene and Robert Louis Stevenson. His finest books, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[2] and The Little Drummer Girl [New York: Scribner, 2004; LCCN: 2003066306], show that in the architectonics of writing—the construction, shaping and pacing of a plot—he has no superiors and few equals among living novelists. The framework of Spy could serve as a model for any novelist concerned with old-fashioned matters like a closely plotted narrative, although it is true that in some of Mr. le Carré’s other books Conradian complexity too often obscures the story line.

Is The Night Manager up to the best of John le Carré? The equivocal answer has to be: yes, but only where it concerns the worlds of Roper and the London and Washington agencies. Their activities are handled with total assurance and an evident and infectious enjoyment. Elsewhere, however, Mr. le Carré sometimes surrenders to the inescapably sensational nature of the espionage thriller, and also to a romanticism about women that leads to the creation of a pipe-dream fantasy rather than a character in Jed, Roper’s mistress.

But the saddest aspect of The Night Manager is the surrender to conventional thrillerdom of the upbeat ending, tacked on to a book that cries out for a tragic one. Perhaps Mr. le Carré bent before his publisher’s demand for a hero who might beat enormous odds; perhaps the artistic miscalculation was his own. Whatever the reason, the result is a highly implausible conclusion, damaging our belief in what for almost all the way has been a splendidly exciting, finely told story. T. S. Eliot said in praise of Wilkie Collins’ thrillers that in those Victorian days the best novels were thrilling. A book like this one, masterly in its conception and in most of its execution, confirms that they can still be thrilling today.

[1] Symons, Julian, “Our Man in Zurich,” New York Times (June 27, 1993), downloaded May 16, 2016

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

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The Music of James Bond

Title:                      The Music of James Bond

Author:                 Jon Burlingame

Burlingame, Jon (2012). The Music of James Bond. New York : Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2012006979

ML2075 .B87 2012


Date Posted:      April 28, 2016

Review by Gary E. Harter [1]

British secret agent, James Bond, celebrated his Golden Anniversary on the big screen in 2012. As part of this celebration, MGM released 22 Bond titles on BluRay; all “official” Bond titles are now available individually or in a set in BluRay. Author, Ian Fleming’s sixth novel, Dr. No,[2] launched the series on an unsuspecting public. And the rest, they say, is history. The soundtrack from Dr. No was re-issued, and this 2012 version included much of the original score, missing from its initial original release.[3]

Of the twenty-five “official,” and “non-official” movies in the Bond series, Burlingame’s book covers the first twenty-four.[4] The movies are storyboarded through a melodic lens, and chronicle not only the particular movie, but the music within the movie. Each movie rates a chapter; and within every chapter is a helpful “Score Highlights” section explaining the music and cues from particular· scenes. The book is packed with photographs of the composers, singers, and actors.

There have been eleven com-posers for the twenty-five James Bond movies.[5] Of these, none has matched the style, or been more prolific than John Barry (1933—2011). You can’t discuss Bond music without mentioning his name. Barry was the dean of Bond composers, creating music for 11 movies.[6] He established the tone of Bond through the early years. Whether brassy and bold, or somber and mellow, Barry used his music to define the character. Barry’s footprint continues to influence the music in Bond films today.[7]

As the years went by, cultural changes occurred in popular music. Burlingame chronicled the changes to both soundtrack and title song, as both were a reflection of the music of the day. Thus, performers as diverse as Matt Monroe, Tom Jones, Louis Armstrong, Madonna, Paul McCartney and Wings, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass among others, performed a title song in a Bond movie.[8] The inclusion of locale music within the movie was often utilized to enhance the overall experience of the film.[9]

The answers to the following riveting questions are found in Burlingame’s book: Who wrote the James Bond theme? Did Tom Jones pass out while hitting that final note, lasting some 9 seconds, on the title song, Thunderball? Which popular singers came close to performing a title song, and why it didn’t happen? Which Bond film didn’t have a soundtrack? Both Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton contributed music for a Bond movie. Yet one of them did not make it on a soundtrack. Which guitarist and why? Speaking of guitarists, who played guitar on the original James Bond theme? The answers to these and other earth-shattering wonderments may be found in The Music of James Bond. If inclined, I would search by chapter (movie).

This is a book for the Bond aficionado, as well as the casual fan of the movies. The strength of The Music of James Bond is its research and depth of detail. It is a true masterpiece. If you enjoy James Bond movies, this is a book that should be on your shelf.

[1] Carter, Gary E. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 136-137). Former Special Agent Gary E. Harter joined the FBI in 1972 and focused on counterintelligence issues and spy cases for much of his career. His appointment letter was signed by legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He retired after more than 30 years with the Bureau, and after 10 years at BearingPoint. He is a frequent reviewer for AFIO publications. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the FBI.

[2] Fleming, Ian (1958, 1968). Dr. No. London: Cape

[3] The original Dr. No soundtrack is somewhat of an oddity. Respected British composer Monty Norman wrote the score for the movie. Only seven of the eighteen tracks on the soundtrack were included in the movie. The Norman compositions heard in Dr. No were the haunting, “The Island Speaks,” (Bond, Quarrel and Felix Leiter boating to Dr. No’s lair, Crab Key) and, the James Bond theme. The Bond theme was arranged by composer John Barry, which later created some controversy as to authorship of this seminal piece of music.

[4] Skyfall, released in 2012, is not included in this book. The original producers of Bond films were Albert (Cubby) Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Broccoli and Saltzman are considered the “official” producers of the Bond series. Their first collaboration was Dr. No. Saltzman sold his interest in the films in 1975, and Broccoli became sole producer of the franchise. Twenty years later, Cubby Broccoli turned over his responsibilities to daughter, Barbara, and stepson, Michael. As of this writing [2013], Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson remain co-producers of Bond films. Two Bond movies, unaccredited to either Broccoli and/or Saltzman, and thus “unofficial,” are Casino Royale (1967), and Never Say Never Again (1983).

[5] Bond composers include Monty Norman, John Barry, Burt Bacharach, George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michel Legrand, Michael Kamen, Eric Serra, David Arnold, and Thomas Newman.

[6] From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Man With The Golden Gun (1974), Moonraker (1979), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), and The Living Daylights (1987).

[7] Only Barry and David Arnold scored music for more than one Bond film. For those keeping score, Arnold composed music for 5 films. They are Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day, (2002), Casino Royale (2006), and Quantum of Solace (2008).

[8] Shirley Bassey was the vocalist for the most Bond theme songs. She sang the themes for Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker.

[9] Listen particularly to the soundtracks of Dr No, From Russia With Love, and You Only Live Twice. Each captured the spirit of the region; i.e., Caribbean, Turkey, and Japan, respectively.

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The Man Who Was George Smiley

Title:                      The Man Who Was George Smiley

Author:                 Michael Jago

Jago, Michael (2013). The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham. London : Biteback Publishing

LCCN:    2013376151

UB271.G72 B566 2013


Date Posted:      April 26, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

“There are currently two schools of thought about our Intelligence Services. One school is convinced that they are staffed by murderous, powerful, double-crossing cynics, the other that the taxpayer is supporting a collection of bumbling, broken-down lay-abouts.”[2] And so began John Bingham’s most famous book, The Double Agent, published in 1966. Bingham’s comments, suggests author Michael Jago, were directed at his onetime protégé, John Le Carré for le Carré’s “brutally inhuman” characterization of MI5 and MI6 in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold[3] (1963) and The Looking Glass War[4] (1965). Accurate or not, Bingham continued, “They could do no good to either service … and only encourage the enemies of democracy.” (p. 191) Despite the harsh critique, Bingham’s friendship with Le Carré “was not irreparably damaged,” (p. 193) The Man Who Was George Smiley explains how Bingham became Smiley.

When David Cornwell— Le Carré—joined MI5 in 1958, he found John Bingham leading a double life as a respected agent handler and a successful author writing under his true name. These unusual circumstances, Jago explains, were the one constant in Bingham’s life. Born in 1908 into an aristocratic family-he would later become Lord Clanmorris—he watched his parents squander much of the family fortune. His public school education didn’t lead to university, so he traveled to Europe to learn French and German, necessary qualifications for the Colonial Service. While there, he acquired both languages, a mistress, and a wife who was not in favor of service in the colonies. Through connections, he tried his hand at journalism, eventually becoming a successful but low-paid humor columnist. To add income, he joined the Royal Engineers. As war approached, Bingham decided to apply to MI5, though as Jago writes, he never told how he did it. He did reveal that he was interviewed by a legendary agent recruiter, Maxwell Knight, known as “M,” who became a valued friend.

Guided by Knight during the war, Bingham did well. But he was only a reserve officer, and when the war ended, MI5 had no full-time positions. Thus he spent two years interrogating ex-Nazis and POWs in Europe before returning to London and journalism. But he wasn’t happy, and in 1950, as the Cold War intensified and MI5 expanded, he contacted Knight. The extraordinary arrangement they worked out allowed Bingham to pursue a writing career and serve as a full-time agent handler. He had found his calling. Jago tells of one agent that Bingham ran successfully for 20 years. This was the John Bingham that Le Carré later acknowledged served as a model for George Smiley. Others argued that Smiley was based on MI6 officer Maurice Oldfield, an allegation Le Carré vehemently denied and, for reasons not explained, Jago does not mention.[5]

Bingham’s wife, Madeleine—she also worked for MI5 and was herself a writer—knew Le Carré well and always insisted her husband was the sole model. But, as Jago notes, Smiley possessed qualities that Bingham did not. The added qualities were supplied, he suggests, by the Rev. Vivian Green, whom Le Carré had known at Oxford.[6] (p. 251)

The Man Who Was George Smiley reveals that Bingham performed occasional tasks for MI5 after he retired in 1979, while still pursuing a writing career that turned out to be less successful than it was in his early years. After a slow decline into dementia, Bingham died in 1988.

This is a very interesting account of an unusual man, and it provides a link between espionage fiction and reality.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, p. 133). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at (

[2] Bingham, John (1966, 1967). The Double Agent. New York: Dutton

[3] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[4] Le Carré, John (1965). The Looking–Glass War. London, Heinemann

[5] Hoffman, Tod (2001). Le Carré’s Landscape. Montreal; Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 46-47. David Stafford suggests that David Cornwell himself was a convincing model for Smiley; see Stafford, David (1988, 1989). The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies. New York: Viking, p. 198.

[6] Hoffman cites an article by George Plimpton in the Paris Review (39, 1997), which quotes Le Carré as agreeing that Green also served as a model for Smiley.

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The Looking-Glass War

Title:                      The LookingGlass War

Author:                 John Le Carré

Le Carré, John (1965). The LookingGlass War. London, Heinemann

LCCN:    65005241

PZ4.L4526 Lo

Date Posted:      April 26, 2016

Review by George P. Elliott[1]

Earlier, John Le Carré wrote a couple of passable murder mysteries. A Murder of Quality[2] has nothing much to do with spies, and is also rather routine. Call for the Dead[3], though it concerns the murders of spies by spies, is not properly a spy tale. The interest is focused on the British secret agent, George Smiley, near but not of the police, who functions in this story conventionally as a super-rational detective.

Then, in the celebrated The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[4], Le Carré wrote a spy thriller par excellence. Smiley has faded into the background. Suspense is generated by information withheld—not from the reader artificially as in a detective story, but from the hero as it would have been withheld from such a man in life. Formally, The Spy is altogether satisfying. Moreover, it says something worth saying about international politics, about the cold war, about a modern state’s attitude towards the individual citizens for whose sake it is supposed to exist.

But a thriller does not—by its very form it cannot—explore the depths of personal relationships, as realistic fiction does. Take Leamas’s love affair in The Spy. Because it is of considerable importance to the plot, we are given enough of the affair to make it structurally valid. We are reminded every so often that it will re-enter the story at the denouement, and this is exactly right for a thriller of any sort, whether spy or other. But by the standards of realistic fiction, of a proper novel, this love affair is too simple, too thin, too manipulated to be satisfactory. In The Looking Glass War, Le Carré has written a story with some of the suspense of a spy thriller and also with some of the psychological, social density of a novel. But the two modes do not mingle well: a thriller relies upon speed and artifice, whereas a novel needs subtlety and truth of motive, which are attainable only in meditative leisure.

The spy part of The Looking Glass War is, of course, excellent. It concerns a former military espionage department in London (small, left over from the glorious days of World War II) and its struggle to train one of its former agents for a mission into East Germany. The technical background for the mission is well presented. The action itself, once it finally gets under way, is tense and doomed in a gratifying manner; we are given just the right sort of sketch-portrait of Leiser, the special agent. Moreover, as in The Spy, we are given a strong sense that all this tension, duplicity and personal betrayal exist within the little world of espionage mostly for their own sake and not very much for the sake of the greater political good they are supposed to serve.

We are not in the least persuaded, nor does the author try hard to persuade us, that it makes any significant difference, politically or militarily, whether the Russians have installed a medium-range war missile in Kalkstadt, near the border between the two Germanys. On the contrary, we are persuaded by the story that the military significance of this installation by no means justifies the appalling betrayal of Leiser.

The betrayal is essentially human and not just political, since it is out of personal love for Avery (the agent who makes a preliminary “run” to check out details) and personal respect for the Head of the Department, not for money or any political idealism, that Leiser takes the job.

This much the story does and does well. But Le Carré also has novelistic pretensions, and in this respect—as a novel whose subject is people who happen to be spies—it is no better than it ought to be.

After a conventional opening in which a British spy is murdered in a foreign country, the novel settles into a long account of interdepartmental rivalry and the retraining of Leiser for his “run.” The central character of this story is Avery. Like Leamas in The Spy, Avery is a very sound man. He is high enough in the hierarchy to understand what goes into the policy decisions that he executes and that devastate his humanity. He is not high enough to make the decisions or to have been entirely dehumanized by having made them.

Avery is developed as a character far beyond the formal requirements of a thriller. For example, his estrangement from his wife, and her bitterness toward him for holding out on her in favor of the service, are of no real consequence in the development of the thriller. A touch of it would have been enough to highlight the depersonalization and estrangement which espionage demands of its servants. But Le Carré gives us so much of this relationship that it takes on a life of its own, yet not enough to be satisfying in itself.

The same criticism applies to the way the author handles the machinations of two secret services against one another. Avery’s group and the Foreign Office’s “Circus.” For a good half of the book this is the main conflict. Then, instead of developing the struggle in its own right, the author subordinates it to the spy tale which concludes the book. The result is that the novel, by being required to do less than it promised, looks weasened—and the thriller, by being asked to do more than it can, is in danger of inflation.

It is a question of emphasis. As the writer of a thriller that says something about the world, Le Carré ranks with Greene and Chandler. But as a true novelist he has a long way to go.

[1] Elliott, George P. “It’s the Spy Who Counts,” New York Times (July 25, 1965), downloaded April 26, 2016

[2] Le Carré, John (1962). A Murder of Quality. London: Gallancz [LCCN: 62051633]

[3] Le Carré, John (1962, 2012). Call for the Dead. New York: Penguin Books [LCCN: 2012019583]

[4] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

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The Double Agent

Title:                      The Double Agent

Author:                  John Bingham

Bingham, John (1966, 1967). The Double Agent. New York: Dutton

LCCN:    67020535

PZ4.C588 Do3


Date Posted:      April 26, 2016

KIRKUS Review[1]

The scene shifts between Moscow, where double agent Sugden is holding out against his Russian inquisitors, and the London office responsible for placing him as bait in a defector exchange. It’s low level Le Carré, ending in a double switch and a pat spot of romance for Sugden.

[1] Kirkus Review, downloaded April 26, 2016

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Mother Russia

Title:                      Mother Russia

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1978). Mother Russia. London: Hutchinson

LCCN:    78324392

PZ4.L772 Mo 1978

Date Updated:  April 21, 2016

Littell goes tongue-in-cheek in his fiction on Russia under Soviet rule. He reminds me of Dickens and his discussion of the “Office of Circumlocution.” It gives an “under the skirt” view of life under the Soviet fist.


Littell’s puckish send-up of modern Russian life rides upon the zig-zagging back of one Robespierre Isayevich Pravdin, a Jewish ex-camper, a cheerful graffiti artist and black-marketeer a hustler who’s got big plans for Russian society, like the introduction of Q-tips, classic comics, Red Army exercises, vaginal deodorant sprays, instant matzos. . . . Living in the last wooden house in Moscow, he has as neighbors an aging general, a weatherman, a hippie named Ophelia, a beautiful mute girl with whom he has an affair, and Mother Russia herself−an old woman named Zoya, conveniently classified by the government as insane and so left alone to send a steady stream of letters to the United Nations, the Kremlin, the White House, even the sewing machine company that won’t send her a badly needed part (“zingers to Singer”). When Pravdin comes into possession of the original manuscripts of a famous Russian novel, proof is served up beyond doubt that the Sholokhov-like author who claimed the book as his−and who won a Nobel for his talent−merely plagiarized. And Pravdin’s crusade to uncover the impostor, now elevated to an Honored Artist of the Soviet Union, lands him in the Lubyanka again, and then the mental hospitals. Littell’s light touch saves all this from grimness: with Pravdin he’s got a holy fool, and the upshot may be loony shading toward fey, but it certainly has its charms.


[1] Kirkus review, downloaded January 5, 2016

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The October Circle

Title:                      The October Circle

Author:                  Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1975). The October Circle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    75026955

PZ4.L772 Oc3


Date Posted:      March 24, 2016

This novel is not a spy novel, but sheds considerable light on the social/political times of the old Soviet Union. It is amazing, to me at least, that so much changed in Russia in such a short time. Not all of the old is gone, for sure, but a great deal of pent up feelings have been released, and I certainly witnessed that in St. Petersburg in 2015.


Littell (The Defection of A. J. Lewinter[2]) is our best exponent of the real Realpolitikal thriller—this one taking place in Sofia in 1968, in a thin, gray “present ridiculous” after the Russians impose their so-called peaceful counterrevolution on Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The October Circle, a group of old-line, ’30s-style Communists who will remind you of the worn idealists of La Guerre est Finie[3], sit around coffee-housing about Malraux and Sartre and the better old days when you could still distinguish right from wrong and retain some hope for a humanity without checkpoints. They polarize around the Flag Holder, a once-writing writer with no fingernails, who keeps everyone at a distance except his son Georgi; a mistress; a magician; and the young bicycle racer who will pick up the “flag” after the dreadful cycle of arrests, mutilation (Georgi) and terrorism is generated. In a desperate protest—perhaps only “theater” will be effective—the Flag Holder sets himself on fire. His suicide is dismissed summarily with his burial as a nonperson. This leaves only the young legatee Tacho to make the ride across the border and choose between freedom—or another unremembered martyr’s death. Littell has a graphic command of the “present ridiculous” while lending here and there, through assorted characters, an inventive sense of the absurd—but then can we quite demarcate the absurd from the heroic? He’s also a fine ironist, with lines like “A Communist is someone who, when he smells roses, looks around for a coffin” branded on the pages of his intensive, involving novel. Littell writes not only above the genre but beyond it—with smoke rings of conjecture and a striking show of courage.

[1] A Kirkus Review, downloaded January 29, 2016

[2] Littell, Robert (1973). The Defection of A. J. Lewinter. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

[3] A 1966 French film (The War is Over)

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