Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Guy Burgess seen through the lens of Lawton's imagination

Just finished John Lawton's latest Troy novel. Once more I'm in awe of his reconstruction of the past, his living and breathing characters, and his masterfully delectable handling of the English language.

In an addendum to the novel, Lawton explains that his portrayal of Guy Burgess is "an interpretation, a fiction based upon a real man rather than a representation of the real man." He includes only one actual quotation, a rude throwaway line Burgess uses on a superior who's advising him on etiquette for a U.S. posting. Lawson's invented Burgess is seen through the eyes of Chief Superintendent Frederick Troy. Watching Guy pass a joint to a world-famous cellist who survived Auchwitz (a character first seen in A Lily of the Field), Troy feels sure "they'd both be happier if he minded." He sees their behaviour as "the self-regarding defiance of naughty children."

Troy does not much like Burgess, but Guy keeps turning up. In one conversation between the two men, Troy observes how Burgess "seemed to perk up at the word Moscow, a glimmering pointless self-respect surfacing in the pool of booze and self-pity."

Glimpsing Guy after some years stuck in Moscow, the reader learns that while "a sentimental, self-deceiving man -- and Burgess was both -- might be able to recreate the illusion of the flat in Bond Street," the constant view of the Novodevichy Cemetery and the Orthodox convent make that illusion of home impossible to sustain.

The text is rich with such well-put ironies. For instance, Yevgeni Ivanovich Dragomirov proves to be an unexceptional man who looks "more like the Liberal candidate in a rural English by-election than a KGB officer."

Naturally, Guy himself is an ironist, albeit a self-serving one. Yet he is aware, at least in middle age, of the repetitive nature of his witticisms. In Russia, he is homesick. Meeting a US diplomat, Guy feeds him a line he's used before and recognizes that he'll likely use till the day he dies. Living in England, he claims, he missed ideas, while here in Moscow he misses "the trivia, the unimportant things." He goes on to ask the American to bring him some Patum Paperium, Fortnum's Gentleman's Relish on his next trip.

This novel includes plenty of real people besides Guy Burgess. Harold Macmillan features in the tale, although the author claims to have made up all his lines, including this recollection of the one and only time the PM met Burgess: "'Can't deny the wit, but his manners were deplorable, and his personal habits disgusting. You could raise a crop of spuds in the dirt under his fingernails.'"

In this story, much is made of a closed power elite bases on class and caste. Troy was born in England, yet remains somewhat of an outsider, because his elite journalist father was a Russian emigre. He enjoys wealth, a private education, a country house, and a respected MP brother with a knighthood. Yet even these trappings are not quite enough to secure his immunity from censure when the chips are down.

Gus fforde, Troy's insider diplomat friend admits he "bumped into" Burgess "a few times during my years with Five." Even before that, they "overlapped at Cambridge. Can't say I knew him, but his set were very high profile, always being seen, always wanting to be seen."

Insiders and outsiders. From this novel's perspective, the Cambridge Five appear as rich spoiled young men whose connections provide them with unearned immunity from practically any kind of mischief. The rash manner of the defection by the bickering Burgess and Maclean seems to take place in a moment when their showy bravado carries them unwittingly past a point of no return.

Double agent Bill Blaine is another Cambridge man, a rower not a debater. His comments about his time at university are described by a colleague as "little short of vitriolic." Blaine refers to the Cambridge spies as "fair-weather Marxists," or sometimes, "a bunch of poofs who were in it for the rough trade."

Appearance versus reality is another recurring theme. The novel is shot through with toxic secrecy. This shadowy atmosphere is reflected in everything from the hidden yet open gay culture of the times to the political pretensions of governments and the schoolboyish rivalry between competing MI services and the police. At one point, as Troy trades information with a contact in St. James's Park, he remarks that they should bring some food for the ducks next time, so they don't "look like a couple of spies."

In spite of the delightful linguistic hijinks, and the near-perfect sense of historical immersion (Lawton has also written history books), this, like other Inspector Troy novels, offers a rather dark vision. Stuck in Moscow in mid Cold War, both the world-famous cellist and a sad and rather pathetic Guy Burgess want to go home, but they cannot. Troy wants to avoid involvement with the deplorable machinations of MI5, but he cannot.

As always bored with desk work, Troy tells a colleague he needs a good murder to keep his mind occupied. As things turn out, if he'd known who was about to be killed, he might well have thought twice about what to wish for.

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