The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940 and the year he wrote The Stop in Oran, and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide – about confronting this ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in a 1945 interview where he pointed out that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) – and the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the sometimes obscure nature of the text. Camus is often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

Hope by Len Deighton (1995)

‘There are more important things in life than money, Bernard,’ she said.
‘Prove it,’ I told her. (p.301)

This is a cracking book: by turns complex, puzzling, full of pungent local colour, humorous and touching.

Spying as soap opera / Espionage as sitcom

From the previous seven novels about the 40-something MI6 agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and kids and father-in-law and sister- and brother-in-law, and old friends in Berlin and the gang of eccentrics who (apparently) populate the European Department of MI6, we have become as familiar with the cast of these novels as with the characters in a favourite soap opera or sitcom.

In the first trilogy Samson realised his wife was a Soviet double agent, and the set climaxed with her bolting to East Germany. In shock he takes comfort in a new relationship with glamorous young Gloria, who also works at the Department. In the second trilogy Samson slowly realised that his wife was, after all, a triple agent, only pretending to work for the KGB while all along the plan was for her to ‘defect’, infiltrate the East German set-up at a high-level, report back solid gold intelligence and foment insurrection among East Germany’s churches and civil society.

This second trilogy climaxed with Fiona’s escape from the East once her mission was up – but the escape was badly bungled. In a rainswept layby on an Autobahn between East and West there is a very messy shootout in which several KGB agents were shot dead as well as Fiona’s own sister, Tessa, there, apparently by chance having clambered into Bernard’s pickup van drunk from a party. Samson does some of the shooting and they both witness Tessa being mown down before he sweeps Fiona into the pickup van, drives into the West, loads her into a waiting plane and they both fly out to California to recuperate and be debriefed at the luxury home of American MI6 agent, Bret Rensselaer.

The second trilogy added the twist that the third novel in the series was the first not to be told in the warm first-person persona of Samson, but narrated by a detached third-person narrator. This objective version of events takes us all the way back to 1977 to show the genesis and slow incubation of the Fiona Plan, codenamed Operation Sinker (hence the titles of the second trilogy, Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker) seeing things mainly from Fiona’s point of view and showing how the plan was conceived by Bret and signed off by the doddery old Director-General and the wily éminence grise of the Department, old Silas Gaunt.

The impact of this sixth book, Spy Sinker, is devastating to the reader of the series, upsetting loads of our preconceptions. It shows Samson as a rather pitiful patsy, wholly unaware of the conspiracies going on around him, unaware that his wife is a double agent, let alone a triple agent, something almost everyone else knows about, even his best friend, Werner Volkmann. Most upsetting is the way the death of Fiona’s sister, Tessa, at the ill-fated shootout, is revealed to have been not a ghastly accident, but part of a horrible plan to try and convince the KGB that Tessa’s badly-burned body is really Fiona’s, so the Stasi/KGB will think that Fiona didn’t succeed in defecting and will carry on using the old codes and security protocols for a bit longer. The story is given out that Fiona was killed and that Bernard has run off with her sister Tessa.

This seemed, when I read it, grotesquely improbable and needlessly violent. It also seemed fundamentally stupid because sooner or later Fiona would resurface, the other side would know they’d been fooled – and Bernard would, presumably, eventually return to London, and everyone who’s been told the cover story of his elopement with Tessa would realise they’d been lied to and want to know by who and why. It seemed cack-handed, solved nothing and created untold problems for the callous nitwits who conceived it.

Deighton’s Secret Intelligence Service

In fact Deighton’s entire depiction of the SIS is very odd. It reads more like the staff room at Hogwarts or the Addams Family. At the top is the Director-General of the SIS, Sir Henry Clevemore, who is portrayed as a senile headmaster, cloistered in an incredibly cluttered, dingy office, littered with ancient books and forgotten paperwork, refusing to use a computer or allow his staff to, and accompanied by a filthy ancient Labrador who slobbers and growls under his desk (and which at one point bites Dicky, drawing blood).

The power behind the throne is Silas Gaunt, a canny old posh man who lives in a decaying mansion in the Cotswolds where the other characters regularly go for bracing country weekends, gossip and off-the-record briefings. He comes on as an uncle figure for Samson but in Spy Sinker we learn that he lied his head off to Samson for years about the Fiona Plan of which he was a prime mover.

Dicky Cruyer is the preposterously dim, flashy desk jockey who has manoeuvred his way to becoming Head of Operations, then Controller of Europe. Samson does nothing but take the mickey out of him, laughing at his ludicrous outfits (faded jeans and cowboy boots!), his taste in music (Elvis Presley played on a tinny cassette player) and his steady stream of tawdry affairs with younger women which are driving his sweet if pretentious wife, Daphne, to drink.

Off to one side is the ageing American, Bret Rensselaer, who was head of an Economics Unit in the early books but found his empire being sidelined, before being suspected of himself being a double agent, and then badly wounded in a shootout in Berlin. He disappeared off to the States, at first thought dead, then we are told he is recuperating. First of all, what the devil is a Yank doing in the SIS? Don’t they have their own intelligence services? Can’t we staff our own secret service? Number two, what is going on when, at the end of Faith, it is revealed that Bret – old, white-haired, wounded and you’d have thought, well past it – turns up and we learn he is moving back into the London office as temporary Deputy Director-General. This is funny insofar as it scuppers Dicky’s scheming for promotion. But surely the antics of all of these grotesques is some kind of comedy or satire?

For is the SIS really like this? Was it really like this in 1987, at the end of the Cold War? I can’t believe it. I’ve worked in UK government IT for some years, and the whole point about a bureaucracy is that it has hundreds, if not thousands of people, all drafting memos, reports and proposals and then having hundreds of meetings to discuss them. a) Deighton’s portrayal of the Department makes it sound as if there are only four or five notable people in it, and b) they spend all their time discussing each other and Samson’s private life and c) it makes these senior personnel sound like characters from a freak show. It chimes with neither le Carré’s sober depiction of cunningly scheming public schoolmen nor Frederick Forsyth’s depiction of super-slick modern professionals.

Thus the scenes featuring any of these characters, even when they’re discussing grown-up spy stuff, feel essentially comic in conception, with a cartoonish unreality. This, along with Samson’s steady stream of sarcastic but essentially affectionate commentary on them and his family and job, explain the friendly, sitcom feel of the books. They’re so quick and enjoyable to read that the occasional interruptions of some kind of violence – stabbings or shootouts – come as unexpected shocks, as if someone got shot dead in an episode of Friends.

Faith

In the first of this third and final trilogy, Bernard and Fiona return to London and resume their working and domestic lives almost as if nothing had happened. Tessa’s husband, George, has left the country for tax exile in Switzerland, letting them move into his luxury flat in Mayfair. They both go back to work in the MI6 building and are soon gossiping about the ups and downs in the bureaucracy which really boils down to how their boss, Dicky Cruyer, is faring in his schemes to become Deputy Director General. Both of them have to deal with the presence of Gloria, the gorgeous young woman half Samson’s age, who he took up with after Fiona’s ‘defection’ and now is struggling to drop and forget; a struggle made impossible by the fact that she, too, works for the Department, in the same building, even on the same floor.

The novel is ostensibly concerned with arranging the defection of a KGB colonel, code-named VERDI, who’s been instrumental in migrating all the KGB’s data to a new computer system and so would be able to provide a gold mine of information. After several hundred pages of false trails and dead ends, VERDI is successfully transported across the Wall and to freedom in the West. Samson and his long-time German buddy Werner Volkmann are given the job of protecting him and beginning his debriefing when, not unexpectedly, VERDI is assassinated by a sniper.

He is bumped off immediately after he’s told Bernard and Werner a completely different version of the Fiona shootout than the one we read in Spy Sinker, namely that Tessa was never killed, it was a woman KGB officer that was following Fiona who was shot, Tessa was in fact captured by the East German secret service and is currently being held in prison.

Really? But before anyone can interrogate VERDI further, bang! he’s shot dead by an assassin. Was he a plant? Was his sole function to sow the seed of an alternative narrative of Fiona’s escape and Tessa’s death? Who would benefit from such a thing? Well, Silas and Bret and the higher-ups in the Department who conceived the wicked plan to kill Tessa to facilitate her sister’s escape would be off the hook if this version is believed; and anything bad which subsequently happens to Tessa could be conveniently blamed on the KGB or Stasi.

Having been shown in Spy Sinker how completely ignorant Samson is of every important thing that was going on around him, it’s impossible to read his analysis of events with any confidence. No doubt that’s the aim, to create the dramatic irony that we the readers now know more about things than the narrator: in fact at one point there is an immense moment of dramatic irony, when Samson moans about why he always knows far more about what’s going on than anyone else:

What was wrong with me? I never made sufficient allowance for the slowness of people like Rupert, Dicky and Bret and the rest of them. They never understood what was really happening. (p.279)

As we now sadly know, nothing could be further from the truth, Bernard is completely deluded. And yet for all that we know this, the warmth of Samson’s narrating voice and the humour of the oddball cast of characters tend to outweigh the intended ironic situation. I find the comic scenes and dialogue more immediately engaging than the multiple levels of intrigue which may, or may not, be playing out. Even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I enjoy the voice.

Hope

Once again, according to Deighton the main focus of MI6 in the year 1987, as Gorbachev promoted perestroika and glasnost, as the Baltic republics became restive, as the Poles demonstrated in favour of Solidarity – was investigating the family affairs of Bernard Samson, namely trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle, Who Killed Tessa?

This novel, part two of the final trilogy, circles around the attempts by Tessa’s husband, George Kosinski, to get to the bottom of her death.

Chapters

1 Mayfair, October 1987 Opens dramatically with a man ringing the doorbell of the flat Bernard and Fiona have inherited from her dead sister, Tessa. Bernard answers and the man stumbles inside, badly stabbed and bleeding. Moments later Bernard’s brother-in-law George Kosinski arrives to take charge: the man is one of his more dodgy employees. George apologises, and takes him off to his car. The real purpose of this event is to establish George as the focal point of the novel. –At the office Bernard meets with his reliably flashy and superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer, and finds himself invited to fly with him to visit George at his lakefront house near Zurich. Why? George is reported to have been visited by some known Stasi goons. –Fiona and Bernard wake up on the night of the Great Storm, 15 October, finding themselves estranged and full of unspoken thoughts: maybe the storm is a symbol of their marriage. –In Zurich, at the house, Dicky is cavalier with the housekeeper and authorities but canny Bernard manages to wangle out of the housekeeper and some contacts that George appears to have smuggled himself back to his homeland, Poland. But not before George went to a jewellers with a ring. It is Tessa’s engagement ring. Dicky jumps to the conclusion: so the Stasi men came here with Tessa’s ring? What are they up to, Bernard?

2 Warsaw To find out Bernard and Dicky fly to Warsaw. Berlin dominated the first set of books. Here Deighton does an equally thorough job of describing Warsaw in the early snows of winter, the geography, the history, the sights and sounds and smells. An old contact of Samson’s, Sarah, comes to his hotel room to deliver some goods promised by her husband, Boris. There’s talk she prostitutes herself and that he beats her; she certainly has bad bruises. The package was meant to contain a gun but instead has two heavy tyre levels and some garrotting wire. Warsaw can be a tough town. –This is proved when they go to the notorious Rozyckiego market, looking to find a sniff of George. Instead they are picked up by two thugs pretending to be secret police who escort them not to a station, but to a squalid hovel above a pawn shop and into a room which is obviously an execution room. Here, in the split second as they lock the door, Bernard hits first one then the other with the silly umbrella Dicky’s been taking the mickey out of. He breaks the first one’s arm and just managed to smash the other one’s jaw as he’s raising his pistol. Bernard hits them some more, then kicks them for good measure. Inside the umbrella he had packed the tyre levers. Taking the goons’ guns, they scarper.

3 Masuria, Poland The market trip had paid off. Just before they were set on, one of Bernard’s contacts told him that George had been seen and is known to have set off for his family mansion in the country. Dicky and Samson hire a crappy East European car and drive along terrible roads into the snow-bound desolate countryside. They pass vast Russian barracks and get through two scary roadblocks before arriving at one peopled by a militia. I wondered if there was going to be a firefight, but they eventually agree to escort our boys up a windy track into the middle of nowhere where they reach the Kosinski mansion, situated by a lake. Here they are welcomed by a real Addams Family crew, skinny Uncle Nico who has been writing a book about Poland’s national saint for thirty years, his deaf wife Aunt Mary, the gaunt ancient (male) secretary, Karol, and the master of the house, the flamboyant actor and writer and self-proclaimed legend, Stefan Kosinski, brother of our George.

4 The Kosinski Mansion, Masuria, Poland We really get to marinade in the weird atmosphere of this shabby, rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere in the middle of high snowdrifts, with its silent children and invisible servants. At one point locals come to say they’ve found a body. Stefan takes Dicky and Samson to the place, a grave where just a leg has been found, mutilated, its big toe and other bits chewed off and what is undoubtedly one of George’s smart London shoes nearby. They are turfed out of the mansion while the local priest holds an exorcism. Bernard insists they sneak back in and they see it is another charade, his servants are in fact sounding for hidden secret police microphones, the whole thing put on by Stefan who melodramatises himself and the house in order to maintain kudos with the locals and with his devoted followers among the intelligentsia. Unsurprisingly, Bernard has come to the conclusion he is a prancing fraud. He also thinks the leg has got nothing to do with George. He and Dicky leave before the real snow hits and they get marooned in this madhouse.

5 Kent, England A short detour while Bernard goes to visit retired SIS man Harry Strang at his Kent home. Harry was a veteran of Spanish-speaking countries going back as far as Franco, with the scars to prove it. Just before retirement he was assistant to the Deputy Director-General. Bernard pushes him about the events of the fateful night: who ordered the ambulance; who made all the arrangements; who booked the RAF plane on standby? All that took lots of co-ordination. Harry is taciturn and tries to blow Bernard off with his poor memory, his dim recollection, not sure, can’t remember.

6 Mayfair, London Long conversation in their flat between Fiona and Bernard. He rubbishes the idea that it was George’s leg. He says George was whisked off to Poland by professionals; he’s in league with someone. Conversation moves on to the method Fiona was paid by during her double and triple agent period, by a fund set up by Bret and administered by one Jim Prettyman. And then onto office gossip and promotion possibilities: Bernard is on a five-year fixed-term contract which can be terminated at any time, with no pension or other perks. Fiona says Dicky wants to appoint Bernard as deputy in the Berlin Field Unit, the job he should always have had because of his Berlin childhood and flawless German. Is this a trick to get rid of him from London? Why is Fiona taking Dicky’s side, is it because she also wants him to change focus and out of the way, or does she think it is a genuine opportunity? Bernard, for his part, immediately grasps that, if he owes the job to Dicky, he will become Dicky’s creature and forced to spy on the present Head of the Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, his dad’s old friend. The books are full of long discussions of who’s up, who’s down, what various promotions mean or don’t mean, the office politics entangled with operational plans, with the lies and betrayal going on ‘out there’.

7 Fletcher House (SIS Annexe) London Gloria comes to visit Bernard in his shabby little room in an annexe building off Tottenham Court Road. She is explaining how devastated she is by the end of their relationship when Dicky arrives and gloatingly takes the mickey out of the ‘two love-birds’. The conversation is interrupted by the unexpected delivery of a package for Bernard which, when opened, turns out to be a medical jar containing preserving fluid and a human hand, one finger bearing a signet ring like George Kosinski’s. Dicky insists this is proof George is dead, Bernard is sceptical. While they’re arguing a bearded man who had been prowling the corridor outside the room unexpectedly runs into the room, grabs the jar and nips off down the corridor. While Bernard hesitates, Dicky pulls out a massive revolver and goes haring off after him, letting off pot shots. As Bernard catches up with them he sees Dicky let off a shot which sends the man sprawling and the jar flying to shatter against the wall, but the man must be wearing a bullet-proof jacket for he gets up, bursts through the emergency doors and into a waiting car which speeds off.

8 SIS Offices, Berlin Cut to Bernard in Berlin, in the house of the Head of the SIS Field Unit Frank Harrington, where he has, apparently, accepted the post as Frank’s number two. They review the man running off with the hand incident. Bernard insists they wanted us to see the hand long enough to confirm Dicky’s theory that George is dead, but not long enough to send it to a lab and get it analysed and discover it isn’t George’s hand. Was he Stasi? Yes, same as one of the four guys who visited George in Zurich. Frank tells him the latest news, that one of their networks in the East, DELIUS, has gone silent: it’s the same one Bernard used in the previous novel after he shot at the car following him after discovering VERDI’s dead body, the same pastor who protected him and young Robin in that episode fro the previous novel, Faith. As soon as Frank has departed to fly back to London on a family visit, Bernard requisitions a motorbike and crosses the border on a forged passport, swaps the bike for a car and drives to Allenstein bei Magdeburg. Here he first visits the wretched home of Theo Forster, a sick man who works in the local bicycle factory and who Bernard was at school with back in Berlin (as he was at school with so many of the novels’ characters). Theo explains that the pastor has been causing trouble but they’ll be able to deal with him. Bernard drives off to confront the pastor who initially recalls Fiona’s good work for them, encouraging the churches. But under bullying and provocation from Bernard, goes on to reveal himself to be a Stasi agent. But Bernard pushes him further, into an ambiguous psychological space where he proposes the pastor become a double agent working for us. As Bernard leaves, the pastor gets into his car as if to follow him but the car explodes dramatically. It was booby-trapped. Why? By Theo and the network? That was suicidal of them. Bernard drives like a maniac to the safe house, swaps the car for his motorbike and has crossed the border an hour later. — Next day Frank’s efficient secretary, Lida, begins bringing in radio intercepts of the DELIUS network being ‘rolled up’ ie arrested one by one. — Depressed Bernard goes to an all-night bar near the Witzleben S-Bahn. Here Theo’s devout communist son, Bruno, finds and confronts him. He is allowed out of the East because he is a Marxist zealot and so allowed to work on the overland railway which crosses the border. He rails at Bernard for bullying his father into joining the opposition and his stupid ‘network’ and now he’ll die in a labour camp. He throws at Bernard the parting gift Theo asked his son to give him, a Nazi medal, which Bernard collected as a boy and Theo knows he loves.

9 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Bernard recovers from the Bruno encounter by chatting with ancient Aunt Lisl in her hotel. This is where Bernard’s dad based himself immediately after the war and where he has his earliest memories. (Liesl’s childhood and young adulthood, marriage and mature life are one among many lives described in the one-off epic background to the series, Winter). Bernard goes into the ballroom where Werner is decorating the Christmas tree. Werner steels himself and tells Bernard that he, Werner, was Fiona’s case officer during her period in the East. Not only that: Werner tells Bernard that Fiona had an affair before and during her mission, with a Canadian doctor who was himself a communist spy set to monitor her. Bernard is left reeling from ‘the knife-thrust of my wife’s betrayal’. His whole world is turned upside down. Again.

Throughout the book thus far we have seen him repressing his feelings for Gloria, being standoffish, insisting on being professional, avoiding even a polite peck on the cheek – all in the name of trying to stay faithful to Fiona, to re-orient his feelings towards her and a happy family life, despite the lies she told him and the hell she put him through, and despite the continual bickering or misunderstandings in their conversations. But now – now maybe he should follow his heart and express his feelings for Gloria…

10 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Fiona wakes Bernard with a phone call from London, asking if it’s alright if Daddy takes the kids on a jamboree holiday to the Caribbean? ‘And if I go, too’? Bernard grits his teeth and agrees. Christmas alone in Berlin brooding on the news that his wife betrayed him. In every sense. Wonderful. The next morning he has a very thick head and feels dizzy. When he tries to get up he gets as far as dressing but, on the narrow attic landing, has a dizzy spell and ends up falling down the stairs. He regains consciousness to find Werner has called an Army doctor who now gives him a powerful sedative.

11 West Berlin After a day or so recovering Bernard manages to get up, shower and shave and make his way to the glamorous hotel where he knows Bret Rensselaer has come to stay along with Gloria. (It feels like a tiny, tiny, tiny world of the same half-dozen characters endlessly circulating and bumping into each other). After the usual expressions of how difficult she finds it to be working alongside him and Fiona (and while Bernard resists his longing to reach out and kiss her), Gloria tells him the latest speculation about when the D-G will retire and who will replace him (will it be Dicky or Fiona? probably not Dicky because Bret will try to block it) and so on. More usefully, she goes on to tell him signals section have intercepted lots of traffic between the Stasi and Warsaw about delivery of a package: could it be Tessa’s body? At which point Gloria walks through into the bedroom where the maids have been working and shrieks in horror: there in the bed is a bloodless corpse! Bernard realises it’s young Robin. Before Bernard took to his bed, he remembers now Lida saying something about Robin checking out the Unit’s motorbike and probably following Bernard’s trail to Alleinstein and the assassinated parson-cum-spy. The fool! The Stasi were, as he feared, waiting for him. Bernard has Lida call in an explosives and disposal team from the British Army (it turns out to include the same fix-it doctor who injected him in the previous chapter). Gloria and Bernard fly back to London on the next Army plane, and Bernard is met at the airfield and driven to a midnight meeting at Dicky Cruyer’s house. Here he finds Bret and a new character, Rupert Copper, our man in the Warsaw embassy. Our Warsaw people have spotted George. Turns out the Kosinski family have some kind of guest accommodation not far from the main mansion: George must have been hiding out there. The meeting ponders the possible meanings and discuss the Big Question: Is Tessa alive or not, while Bernard realises he’s the schmuck who’s going to be sent back to Poland to find his damn brother-in-law. Bret, the smart one, asks Bernard why the Stasi and Poland’s secret police, the Bezpieca, are helping George? Are they, replies Bernard. Maybe George has bought influence at every level; he is loaded, after all. And he is obsessed with being reunited with Tessa. Or maybe, says Bret, they are trying to turn him so they can use him against us? — Rupert gives him a lift back to the Mayfair flat and fills Bernard in a bit: Does he realise the story of his wife’s defection, her violent rescue and the Tessa affair, are the talk of the entire organisation? Does he realise he is in over his head? Does he realise that if he dropped dead tomorrow nobody would be very sorry? Bernard asks Rupert why he thinks George has gone to such trouble to whisk himself away from Zurich and then fake his own death? Doesn’t Rupert realise it’s because he’s scared that we – MI6, the SIS, the good guys – are out to kill him? In a concession, Rupert shows Bernard the photos his men took of George in the Warsaw market. Bernard is staggered but manages to hide it; for in the photos he sees, next to the blurry shape of what might or might not be George, the image of Fiona’s dad, his poncy old father-in-law!

12 Warsaw Rupert and Bret are picked up from the windswept freezing Vilnius Station by two tough guys in an old ambulance. Someone has been in contact to say they have information about George Kosinski. During the drive they’re not sure if they’re going to be gassed or shot at any moment, but after 25 nerve-racking moments they arrive at a large maternity hospital and are shown into the office of the podgy, auburn-haired blue-eyed Director, Dr Urban. He says the entire mystery is simple: Tessa is pregnant; she is being moved from Berlin to Warsaw to be reunited with her loving husband. George has taken Polish citizenship and Tessa will too. So their baby will be entirely Polish. Rupert in his naivete becomes quite cross, pointing out that by making the child Polish it will never be able to escape or travel and thus will keep its parents safely trapped here forever. Dr Urban doesn’t deny it, stands to signify the interview is over, and puts on his brown military jacket. Like everyone in a position of power in Poland, he is an Army placeman. — For a second time Rupert gives Bernard a lift, this time back to the seedy friend’s apartment he’s staying in, initially speculating about whether Tessa is alive, what George’s real motives are, and so on, before Bernard persuades him to delay making his report until Bernard can ‘confirm or deny it’; upsetting a good pen-pushing Embassy man like Rupert. Parked outside the flat, Rupert says he was instructed to give Bernard the following: and opens a bag containing rolls of local currency, dollars, pounds, a pistol and a sub-machinegun. Aha. That kind of ‘confirming or denying’. Bernard’s last words are, ‘Alert the Swede’. The Swede?

13 Masuria, Poland The final chapter is quick and violent. Bernard is talking to George. Doesn’t say where so we assume it’s the holiday home near the Mansion, which had been mentioned earlier, the ground around buried in metres of snow. Bernard is relentlessly interrogating George. He says he loved Tessa. He says he’s always been a Polish patriot. He says he’s a devout Catholic. He tells a long story of remembering where he was when he heard a Polish cardinal had been made Pope. And so when the Bezpieca first approached him he thought he’d be helping his country. All they wanted was gossip from the parties he attended and people he met. It wasn’t really spying. Now Bernard is telling him that Tessa is not pregnant and on her way to be with him, she’s not alive – she is dead. He’s saying the the Bezpieca lied to him, have used him. — Bernard controls his anger and explains that they will leave by plane that night: is he coming or not? — That night they drive in Bernard’s rented Fiat to the area of the Wolfschanze, the vast compound of bunkers, roads, checkpoints, railway line and airstrip built as Hitler’s forward command post during the invasion of Russia. They are followed by four figures in a battered old Volvo. Bernard tells George the plan: when he stops the car, George is to scrabble free and run off into the snow shouting as if for help. This is what happens. As the four followers get out of their car and pause wondering what’s going on, Bernard sets fire to the Fiat and, as it explodes, runs towards the Bezpieca men firing the machine gun. At least one falls and the others scatter as George runs back towards him and they both jump into the Volvo and drive on along the old runway by the lake, just as they hear the sound of airplane engines overhead. It is The Swede, a freelance pilot, one of the Department’s most reliable contractors. Bernard parks the Volvo at the other end of the runway and sets it, too alight. The Swede brings the plane down on the runway mapped out between the two burning cars, taxis to walking pace and Bernard stuffs George into the plane, which turns and begins its take-off as they hear the bullets of the surviving Bezpieca men bounce off the fuselage. — In the plane George complains about the violence, ‘Did you have to shoot those men?’ etc, until Bernard explodes in rage: ‘Yes I did, because those are the men who beat up protestors, run the prisons and the labour camps and have repressed this nation for 45 years. Those are the men you’ve been helping, you scumbag.’ Bernard has to restrain himself from throwing George out of the plane into the Baltic. — When they arrive at the little Swedish airfield, an Embassy official and doctor are waiting to take custody of George. He is under arrest. He will be interrogated and probably tried for treason. And Gloria is there. She claims under orders from her boss, Bret. The Embassy car sweeps off leaving them alone on the chilly airfield apart from the Embassy’s official Lear jet. It’s there in case George or Bernard had been injured and needed to be flown back to an English hospital. Now it is sitting there vacant. Bernard lets off steam to Gloria: Tessa is dead. The nonsense with the leg and the hand were to persuade London that George, also, was dead. He was just worried the truth about his spying would get out, and he genuinely believed the lies the Bezpieca told him. God knows how long he’s been betraying his country, feeding back to his communist paymasters the titbits he picked up from Bernard and Fiona and all the other SIS people he hobnobbed with.

You need a drink, says Gloria, and it’s freezing, let’s get aboard the plane. Oh isn’t it warm. And look at the galley, good food. And the bar. And through here, the beds! The big soft beds.

‘Goodness,’ said Gloria, looking at me and smiling demurely. (p.305)

Like so many comedies, from Shakespeare to James Bond, this one ends with a heterosexual bang, as the male lead and the female lead bring closure to the story with an act of union and completion.


Spy fiction and the fall of the wall

It’s worth pointing out that these had become historical fictions even as they were published. The third of the second trilogy, Spy Sinker, published in 1990, must have been completed over the period when the Berlin Wall came down – November 1989, and I’ve remarked that Deighton showed admirable ingenuity in making the true-life participation of the East German churches in the fall of the regime into one of the central planks of his story.

But he was then faced with the same problem all other spy novelists faced (le Carré, Forsyth, Cruz Smith to name just the ones I’ve been reading): whether to move with the times and set their adventures in the post-Soviet world, or whether to cling to the (fictional) certainties of the Cold War.

We’ve seen that after a farewell to the Cold War and to his legendary spy, George Smiley (in The Secret Pilgrim, 1990) le Carré moved with impressive alacrity into the New World Order, where he found a sufficiency of baddies in international drug smuggling and gun-running.

Forsyth similarly packaged up all his Cold War yarns into a retrospective collection (The Deceiver, 1991) before moving on to new subject matter, to novels about the Gulf War (The Fist of God) and the corruption of post-Soviet Russia (Icon).

Deighton, however, was working in a different situation. He knew he had to complete the story – and the umpteen plotlines – left hanging at the end of the previous trilogy. Maybe he had mapped out the complete storyline before 1990. And certainly, the way he’d set most of the action in the late 1980s, but with room to spare before the collapse of communism, gave him to the room to complete the entire story well before the actual collapse began in 1989.

Hence the importance of emphasising the datelines: summer 1987 is when Fiona and Bernard return from R&R in California to start Faith; October 1987 is where Hope begins and carries on to Christmas Eve 1987. Plenty of time to wind up the whole affair and be home in time for tea.

Credit

Hope by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins in 1995. All quotes and page references are from the 1996 Harper Collins paperback edition.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

%d bloggers like this: