Archive | January, 2011

Seven Hours With Anthony

19 Jan

Thanks to Princeton’s very generous Office of the Dean of the College, I received funding to travel to London over intersession in order to read Anthony Blunt’s unpublished memoir at the British Library.

And that’s where I’m sitting right now.

Yesterday was my first day in London and I plunged right in. Having reserved the manuscript for three days in advance, I registered for my reader’s card and went up to the Manuscript Reading Room where I was handed the first of two folders containing the memoir and was told that this would be my only day to see it; someone influential and unnamed had snagged it for the next two days. Okay, I thought, okay, I may be jet-lagged and I may not be able to take time to grab lunch, but I can do this.

Anthony Blunt’s memoir is about 30,000 words, i.e. about the length my senior thesis will end up being. I initially conceived of my thesis as having only a very cursory relationship to the historical accounts of the spies’ lives, but as I worked my way through the funding application, I became more and more interested in the question of where the boundary between fact and fiction can be drawn, when fiction is about real people and memoirs are suspect. In my application, I wrote

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?

I am happy to report that over the course of the seven hours I spent in the Manuscript Reading room, only leaving my chair to receive the second installment from the librarians at the desk, I was able to read the memoir twice and to take thirteen pages of notes. I had anticipated getting some good material for my thesis. I had not anticipated the depth and breadth of this material.

Readers are provided with insights into Blunt’s days at Marlborough and his friendship with Louis Macneice. Apparently the two of them were voracious readers, but thought Shakespeare was too “Establishment.”

It may seem paradoxical to say so, but this did not imply a political attitude; it was rather a moral judgment; and in fact politics in the strictest sense were the one subject which we never discussed, and we were almost completely unconscious of what was going on in the outside world. Inflation in Germany meant that one could get incredibly cheap holidays there.

We get point-by-point refutations of claims made in books and in the press immediately following Blunt’s unmasking. As the journalists who were the first readers of Blunt’s manuscript indicated, he does not apologize. The closest he comes is in the rather moving and oft-reported passage:

What I did not realize at the time in that I was so naïve politically that I was not justified in committing myself to an political action of that kind. The atmosphere in Cambridge was so tense, the enthusiasm for any given anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the greatest mistake of my life.

This is not to say that the memoir is dry, single-minded, or devoid of humor. Although Blunt goes to great lengths to rehabilitate the image of Guy Burgess, he is not above telling hilarious stories as well.

Gorowny’s account of Guy’s sexual behaviour at this time is also a total fantasy: ‘Guy brought home a series of boys, young men, soldiers, sailors, airmen, whom he had picked up among the thousands who thronged the streets of London at that time.’ It is true that Guy had a number of friends who visited him regularly, but it was a rule of the house that the casual pick-up was forbidden, and Guy observed this rule. Gorowny presumably based his statement on what Guy himself told him, and he seems to have had an inexplicable belief that on the subject of sex Guy told the truth.

And:

At the end of April 1951 [Guy] was arrested three times in one day by the American police for speeding. He pleaded diplomatic immunity, but he was sent home, arriving in England on May 7th.

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