A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: espionage’s literary roots, Chaplin’s exhaustive biography, and Frances Partridge—a no-fuss socialite.
William Empson’s Influence on the CIA
If, as W.H. Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen, where on earth does that leave literary criticism? Yet, it turns out, at least one defector from the KGB during the Cold War might have disagreed with him. According to a new book, James Jesus Angleton, the first head of counterintelligence at the CIA, applied in his professional life “the reading arts he had learned in the Yale classroom,” and saw his work in “turning” or interrogating agents as “the practical criticism of ambiguity.” In the heyday of William Empson and the New Critics, any self-respecting student knew to look for the hidden meaning behind the overt one. The TLS reviewer, Terence Hawkes, takes his readers on a literary tour through Michael Holzman's subtle new addition to the history of espionage.
The Real Tramp?
An even older set of assumptions about biography and creativity underlies Simon Louvish’s book about Charlie Chaplin—or rather, as Sarah Churchwell finds, about Chaplin’s creation, the Tramp. Louvish provides an exhaustive and sometimes enlightening guide to the films, but in trying to separate the man and the mask, he “loses sight of the complex personality pulling the strings.” It was no fun being a living legend. “Like Marilyn Monroe after him, Chaplin felt imprisoned by his own creation as his audience refused to let him play anyone else.”
The Lost World of Frances Partridge
It was only a few years ago that literary party-goers in London could be introduced to a frail old lady who could justly be designated as the last surviving member of an extinct species, the one known as the Bloomsbury group. Frances Partridge, a somewhat detached figure in the emotional turmoils of Lyton Strachey, the Woolfs, and the Garnetts, died in 2004. Lindsay Duguid has been reading Anne Chisholm's evocative biography of a self-effacing diarist and translator who left a unique insight into the most-studied associations of the century. She was not fond of fuss. Her decision to have Harrods remove her son’s body after his death with “no funeral, no wake, no grave” is seen as a particularly striking example of her “detached stance.”
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.