I read two novels as perfect as the novel can and should be: exhilaratingly intelligent, downright cerebral, and yet strangely knot-in-throat moving. They’re also as unlike as two novels can be and yet, both about turmoil and war, inner and outer, of the historical-literal variety and domestic-lethal one. You don’t have to read the rest of this post, but you should run, don’t linger, to read Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2009) and Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare (1954; reissued by Virago in 1983). Thanks to the Eiger Mönch Jungfrau blog for suggesting the former and the Backlisted podcast for the latter. Linked here, please check them out. (more…)
Review: Ben Macintyre’s AGENT SONYA
I haven’t found a nonfiction book as compelling as I did Macintyre’s Agent Sonya since last year’s summer Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. Though the books don’t have much in common by way of sensibility, or topic, they are both fascinating, stay-up-too-late-reading products of talented writers, who know how to tell a story and make you care about it.
The present volume tells the story of “Agent Sonya”, Soviet spymaster, aka Ursula Kuczynski, a woman whose long life spans the 20th century’s cataclysmic history, from post-WWI Weimer Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A remarkable life, a remarkable story, as Macintyre concludes: “She lived several whole lives in one very long one, a woman of multiple names, numerous roles, and many disguises.”
I had read Macintyre’s account of another Soviet master-spy, Kim Philby, in A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. In truth, I found it a slog, less because of Macintyre’s story-telling prowess than how incredibly unlikeable Philby was: his drinking and womanizing and poshy-posh affectations and then his avowal of true happiness in the Soviet Union, ughs to it all. But Ursula/Sonya was fascinating, likeable, even admirable at times in her convictions, her equal commitment to motherhood and spyhood, an Everywoman’s story, in the midst of the most harrowing aspects of 20th century history, about having a career and being a mother and lover/wife. Maybe this is why Macintyre tells us over and over again that in the double-crossing, dangerous world of spying, where careers rise and fall with régimes like lightning striking the ground, Sonya was never betrayed by any of her comrades, even under torture. Her likeability, intelligence, resilience, and the best spy’s disguise in the world, her womanhood/motherhood, ensured her survival time and time again and to the end of her life, her ability to remake her life, to start over and over again, in new countries, new careers, with new friends. I never understand anyone’s adherence to ideology, a skeptic I am and always have been; Sonya, Macintyre claims, wasn’t driven by ideology, but justice, Macintyre’s most interesting insight. (more…)