In Ben Macintyre’s newest book, “The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” he recounts the many high-stakes twists and turns in the career of Oleg Gordievsky, a top KGB spy who was actually a British double agent for more than a decade before being brought down by the traitorous CIA agent Aldrich Ames. Macintyre is a columnist and editor for The Times of London and has made documentaries for the BBC based on his nonfiction work.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MACINTYRE: I always have three or four books on the go. It might be a sign of incipient madness. I’m reading Jonathan Coe’s new book “Middle England,” which is a hysterical, satirical look at Brexit. He also wrote “The Rotters’ Club,” which is good fun. I’m also plowing my way through Christopher Andrew’s magisterial “The Secret World,” a history of intelligence from classical times to now. He pretty much invented intelligence studies in Britain. I’ve been rereading quite a bit of Evelyn Waugh. I think a lot of the writers from his era haven’t survived. For example, I don’t think people read Kingsley Amis anymore. Waugh is the one who stands the test of the time. His novel “Scoop” never fails to make me think that what we journalists do is both noble and idiotic.
BOOKS: Do you make a point of reading contemporary fiction?
MACINTYRE: I do, but I still read a lot of Dickens. I recently reread “Bleak House.” I just love his sort of characterization. In a few lines, he can tell you everything you need to know about a character.
BOOKS: Are there any literary classics you’ve struggled with?
MACINTYRE: I’m quite good at throwing books at the wall. I’ve struggled with the Russian classics. It’s been a long time since I read any Dostoevsky though I, like all adolescents, went through a phase.
BOOKS: What kind of book would you never pick up?
MACINTYRE: I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction. Some of it is obviously very good, but I get frustrated by not knowing what is true. At what point has the author’s research ended?
BOOKS: Is there an espionage writer you wish were better known?
MACINTYRE: One that I think is much under the radar and is extremely good is the British writer Charles Cumming. I think he’s going to be the next big thing in spy fiction.
BOOKS: Do you have a favorite fictional spy character?
MACINTYRE: John le Carre’s George Smiley is hard to beat. I think the weary, morally compromised figure that has a sense of duty and honor is both true to life and also just amazing.
BOOKS: Which spy books turned you on to the genre?
MACINTYRE: I grew up on le Carré. I also read a lot of W. Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming. Whatever you say about the James Bond books, they created an entire universe. Many of the practioners of fictional spy stories have been a spy themselves. David Cornwell, who is John le Carré, Maugham, Fleming, John Buchan, Graham Greene all were [former spies]. You can make an argument that the work of espionage and the work of fiction are not so very different. You are making a counterfeit world. Many spies are frustrated writers. Of the six officers in Britain’s foreign intelligence agency station in Spain during the first part of World War II, one was a poet and two were published novelists. Only one of them wasn’t a writer. When Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI5, Britian’s domestic counterintelligence agency, left her job the first thing she did was to start writing the Liz Carlyle novels.
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