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May 20, 2008

CAAF: 5 x 5 Books Where Double Agents Lurk by David Samuels

5 x 5 Books ... is a recommendation of five books that appears regularly in this space. Today's installment comes from journalist David Samuels, who has two new books out from New Press: Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which collects a decade's worth of reportage and essays for Harper's and The New Yorker, and The Runner, an expansion of Samuels's well-known New Yorker article on James Hogue, the 28-year-old drifter who conned his way into Princeton.

In a favorable review of Only Love Can Break Your Heart that ran in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, the reviewer noted how Samuels's journalism, which is populated with portraits of the self-deluded, the washed-up, and con artists, is "a tribute to the twin American traditions of self-invention and self-deceit." Fitting then that what Samuels chose to contribute here is his top five books featuring double agents.

1. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. Joseph Conrad's answer to Crime and Punishment is a sophisticated portrait of the psychological blankness and lack of any settled sense of self that are essential ingredients for at least one major character in every decent modern spy novel. Narrated by an old Conrad-like Englishman living in Switzerland, the novel tells the story of a Russian university student named Razumov who betrays the confidence of the revolutionary terrorist Victor Haldin only to fall in love with Victor's sister, Natalie. The story of Razumov's serial betrayals and the final disappointment of his hopes for redemption and forgiveness are opens up the cold landscape of betrayal that generations of brilliant spy novelists like Eric Ambler, John Le Carre, Charles McCarry and Alan Furst would populate with betrayers and seducers whose job was to teach readers the cruel lessons of the 20th century, etc.. A much better novel than The Secret Agent.

2. Out of the Night by Jan Valtin. Jan Valtin's account of his life as an agent of the Communist International -- the Comintern -- working to destroy the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s is one of the most horrifying and illuminating political memoirs of the 20th century. The communist decision to form a strategic alliance with Hitler proves to be one of the most deluded and disastrous political miscalculations of modern history. Valtin is captured, then tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo for three years before he offers to become a Nazi agent in the hopes of saving his dedicated and long-suffering wife Firelei and their young son. Secretly remaining under communist discipline, Valtin finds himself caught between the horrors of the Stalinist purges and dank Nazi torture chambers. He eventually immigrates to America, though it is hard to say that this book -- a huge bestseller when published in 1941, and almost entirely forgotten today -- ends well. A good primer on 20th century Europe, and how political ideologies eat the brains of their adherents.

3. Really The Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. Famous as a friend and sometime musical collaborator of the brilliant and canny jazz originator Louis Armstrong in the 1920s and 1930s, Mezz Mezzrow was equally famous in jazz circles for selling some of the best marijuana on the East Coast. His autobiography tells the story of the birth of jazz as American popular music with a fan's love and a musician's insight. Mezzrow's hipster vibe is balanced by his personal modesty and his unbounded admiration for Armstrong's genius. Mezzrow eventually came to believe that his deep love for black music and his years of sharing the Negro condition had actually transformed him from a dark-skinned, curly haired Detroit Jew into a black man, a form of personal rebirth that was formally certified by the New York State prison system when Mezzrow was incarcerated as a Negro, making him the first official White Negro, Wigger, or what have you.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré. John Le Carré, now an ill-tempered author of crappy thrillers, once wrote cold, witty, mean-spirited books with a painterly feel for the shades of gray inhabited by the middle-aged men who fought the battles of the Cold War. While Graham Greene may be hopelessly overrated, Le Carré is a great 20th century novelist whose four or five best books about the shadowy intelligence and counter-intelligence wars of the Cold War are sure bets to be read fifty or a hundred years from now for subtle psychological portraiture and for pure entertainment. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is Le Carré's thoroughly depressing version of the Philby-Burgess-MacClean spy scandal that exposed the rottenness of the British ruling class. Wives betray their husbands, pudgy men read old documents in ill-heated rooms, idealism dissipates into the disappointments of late middle age, and hate and spite reign superior to generosity and love. The BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness is nearly as good as the book; the BBC version of LeCarre's sequel, Smiley's People, is even better.

5. Libra by Don DeLillo. The displaced, cocky, abusive idealist who makes defining choices only to end up as a pawn in someone else's game is Don DiLillo's greatest fictional character (the character named Jack Ruby in this novel might rank fourth or fifth). Like many other DeLillo's novels, Libra is both a po-mo book about storytelling and a brilliant rendering of life on the fringes of American mass society. What makes this novel special is DeLillo's ability to concentrate for so long and at such a high poetic pitch on the contradictions of Oswald's character until he breaks free from the mass of conspiracy theories and counter-conspiracy theories to become a flesh and blood character in DeLillo's own novel. DeLillo may be a poor heir to the mantle of Pynchon and Gaddis but he does have the makings of a truly great modern spy novelist. I would like to suggest that Mr. DeLillo read Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries and Deadly Games by former CIA counterintelligence officer Tennent "Pete" Bagley, and get to work on a double agent novel about the fake KGB defector Yuri Nosenko. I'd love to read it.

Posted May 20, 2008 12:05 AM

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