Plan of Attack

22 Oct

Last Friday I met with my adviser to go over my Topic Sheet. This is the piece of paper I turned in to the English Department five minutes after his office: my plan of attack. Of course, my focus will and should shift over the next months–and I will continue to blog here about anything and everything related to my topic–but it was nice to get something down on paper.

When asked, “Describe your topic in more detail: the questions you plan to ask, the critical debates or discussions you expect to join, and directions for further thinking and research,” I wrote:

In her question session in parliament exposing Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy, Margaret Thatcher asked her listeners to remember that “it is important not to be so obsessed with yesterday’s danger that we fail to detect today’s. We know what happened to a very few of that pre-war generation who had Marxist leanings and who betrayed their country. We find it contemptible and repugnant. Our task now is to guard against their counterparts of today.” While we may or may not disagree with Thatcher on particulars, it is always true that literature has implications for the world beyond the page. I am very interested in looking at how John Banville, and especially John Le Carré, do or do not make judgments about secrecy, nationalism, and memory. If history repeats itself, does literature as well?

My thesis draws and expands on my spring JP, “‘I Hadn’t Realized’: Homosexuality, Espionage, Betrayal, and the Cambridge Spies.” In the JP, I looked at the historical phenomenon of the Cambridge Spies through the literary lens provided by my primary texts, John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and John Banville’s The Untouchable. (I also drew from the plays Alan Bennett’s Single Spies and Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, and, for a factual grounding, Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt: His Lives.) For my thesis, I will step beyond my previous focus on sexuality and address questions of genre, betrayal and treason, and confession. All of these topics played roles, to varying degrees, in my junior paper, but I was not able to address them as meaningfully as I felt they warranted. Specific questions I expect to address include: What choices do authors face when their writing is based in the historical record? Who tells these stories? Do they have an agenda? Is art necessarily confession?

Sampling from other spy literature and confessional narrative will also be useful for the purposes of my thesis. I have also sought funding to travel to London during intersession break. There, I will visit the British Library and access the Manuscripts Reading Room, home to Anthony Blunt’s memoir. Although my primary focus is literary, a significant portion of my thesis will concern how these authors navigate the border between fact and fiction. Memoirs, as a genre, are notorious for bending that line. Finally, I am intrigued by the press coverage surrounding the unveiling of Blunt’s memoirs, with many news outlets remarking that he neglects to apologize in this text, which they read exclusively as a confession. Of course, this raises more questions on the nature of confession. Is confession meant to involve an act of contrition? If it does not, is it somehow less genuine? Does it pass more directly into the realm of the fictional?

Today I will make tea and press on through the George Smiley canon, hopefully finishing The Honorable Schoolboy by evening. Seventy pages in, I have already come across something which leaped out at me, especially in relation to my thesis topic: A journalist has written about the decampment of a British spy in Hong Kong. In his exposé, he links this to similar retreats all over the world, and speculates that this is taking place as a result of the discovery of a highly placed Russian mole in British intelligence. He is perfectly right.

Only those at the inmost point saw things differently. To them, Craw’s article was a discreet masterpiece of disinformation; George Smiley at his best, they said. Clearly, the story had to come out, and all were agreed that censorship at any time was objectionable. Much better therefore to let it come out in the manner of our choosing. The right timing, the right amount, the right tone: a lifetime’s experience, they agreed, in every brush-stroke.

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