Of all the portraits of modern spies in novels, stories, biographies, and histories, the treatments of Harold “Kim” Philby seem to fascinate us the most. How else to explain the appearance of this young British aristocrat turned Russian agent (and perhaps triple agent for the British) in so many novels? Graham Greene portrayed him as Harry Lime in “The Third Man’’; John le Carré as Bill Haydon in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’’; Robert Littell made him one of the actors in “The Company,’’ his fictionalized history of the CIA; Frederick Forsyth based a character on him, as did Tim Power, and several others.
Now here’s Littell (arguably, along with le Carré and Alan Furst, one of the best three or four espionage writers alive) revisiting the life of Philby for a full-dress portrait in his latest novel, a story that shows off his best powers at creating characters and plot that reveal the inner workings of individual lives and the nearly overwhelming forces of politics and history.
Littell focuses his story on the evolution of the young operative. He cleverly chooses to present Philby, who proved unknowable for both East and West, through the prism of chronological, first-person accounts from a number of sources, including: some of his Russian spy masters, the Jewish Austrian left-wing battler he married, his university chum — and fellow spy — Guy Burgess, a wry, older female recruiter who served with the long-time head of British intelligence, and letters, from among others, his father, Sir John Philby, a.k.a. The Hajj, an associate of the British Intelligence Service.
From their accounts emerges a fascinating portrait of a young English schoolboy who, as one of his Soviet handlers put it, “was born into the wrong century.” Says one of his early Russian contacts, on the verge of execution as a spy himself in one of Stalin’s many purges, Philby “was one of the last romantics. Naive perhaps, but an idealist to the marrow of his bone.”
That’s how we first meet the young Philby, in the streets of Vienna during the days of a repressive right-wing purge of Austria’s left, a dashing young man on a motorcycle dodging bullets and bombs to rescue the red-haired Communist Litzi Friedman whom he marries and carries away to freedom on his bike. She herself has no illusions about him, or so she thinks. When he first turns up on the doorstep in Vienna on the verge of the Dollfuss purge, the once married, promiscuous Austrian comrade sees him as having arrived “from another planet looking, no doubt, for adventure, a cause to believe in, comradeship, affection, love, sex.”
By the time the novel ends Philby seems to have found all that he was looking for, from reporting during the Spanish Civil War from behind the fascist front line for British newspapers to helping his Soviet comrades put together a spy ring in England that drew on American intelligence as well as British and compromised the West for many years.
The great irony is that in this fact-based work of fiction we learn most about all of his activities from the very spies who handled him even as they are about to suffer torture and death at the hands of Stalin and his crew. Whomever Philby was in his heart — and we end the reading of the book with only a few hints that he was perhaps a triple agent who fed Soviet intelligence back to British spy masters — thanks to the narrative gifts and psychological insights of Robert Littell we come away from the novel with a dramatically inventive and utterly entertaining portrait of a deceptive young genius in a confusing and murderous time.
Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction is a trio of novellas titled “Paradise.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.