Thursday, December 21, 2006

Penny Press! Spies in the London Review!

Several interesting items in the latest London Review of Books, as the year winds down and we all slow to a stop under the Christmas tree.

First up is a tiny thing, a small fraction of a long poem by Tom Lowenstein called 'Conversation with Murasaki' (the poem itself is flaccid and largely misfired ... which is annoying, since a very good poem with that same title COULD be written). The poem itself isn't worth quoting, but here's the line that caught my eye:

"You would be astonished
at the squalor of European history.
But you would have liked Jane Austen."

Trite, perhaps, but I liked the moment's pondering it afforded me, wondering either of the two great novelists would have thought of each other (two great women novelists from a depressingly long list ...).

Also in this issue is Stefan Collini's review of the new Kingsley Amis biography by Zachary Leader, a long, detailed, extremely satisfying review that completely eleminiates any desire one might have to go out and read the book.

Leader comes across as a faithful chronicler, and Amis comes across as a hopeless, helpless alcoholic who devoted as much of his life as possible to being unpleasant.

The thing that strikes you about this account of Amis' life is the same thing that strikes you about so many 20th century British writers (Anthony Burgess comes to mind): the staggering sheer AMOUNT they drank - amounts so regular and titanic that you inevitably wonder how they ever got ANY work done, much less the large amounts they did (not to mention how they managed to LIVE even as long as they did).

But the most interesting (albeit frustrating) piece in this issue is John Bossy's review of "Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy" by Park Honan.

Bossy is stern headmaster, and he starts off his review with a laundry list of Honan's factual errors. Well and good, this is a reviewer's office (and factual errors are what have always bugged us most about Honan's books). But Bossy seems determined not only to revoke Honan's credentials but also to destroy the printing press on which they were made. One wonders if he was tetchy when he wrote his review.

The crux of it all is that 'poet and spy' part of Honan's title. Bossy takes issue with it all throughout his review, saying there's no 'proper evidence' at all that Marlowe was ever any kind of spy. "It is virtually certain that he had not been to Rheims," Bossy writes, "and reasonably certin that he had not been doing any spying anywhere, since espionage tends to leave records."

That last assertion is a trifle dubious, but even if we grant it, we're driven to conclude that Bossy is being just a bit fussy about what constitutes historical evidence. Marlowe never stood on a crate in Cheapside and yelled 'I am a spy!' But then, more famously, Shakespeare never signed a single play.

I doubt severely that Bossy would fail to credit Shakespeare with the authorship of the plays known by his name, but for some reason he's unwilling to make that leap with Marlowe and espionage.

First there's the letter. In 1587, the Queen's Council sent a letter to Cambridge, summarily ordering the college to award Marlowe his degree - even though he'd been absent for nearly the whole of his last term. In the letter, Marlowe's Cambridge masters are told that he was engaged in 'matters touching the benefit of the country.' Bossy dismisses the Cambridge speculation at the time - that Marlowe was spying on the Catholic seminary at Reims - and suggests that he was in the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission.

And that's just fine - he can offer any alternate theory he likes. Since espionage usually DOESN'T leave records (um, duh), we'll never have the documents we need to say for sure. What we're left with is inference, and that's a shame, because Bossy seems to have had his inference gland removed.

Marlowe had a long connection with Thomas Walsingham, whose cousin Francis was the head of Queen Elizabeth's spy service. Bossy gets around this by rather pedantically pointing out that there's no evidence Thomas ever took up the family business. This again begs the question of what constitutes evidence.

Thomas was placed in charge of his cousin's London home in Seething Lane. We have no records of what he did there (Bossy renders him as some kind of groundskeeper), but when he left he was replaced by Walter William, and we have plenty of records of what HE did there: he worked as a spy for Francis. It's on occasions such as this that a bit of inference is the moral duty of anybody with a brain in his head.

But OK, let's say Thomas really was just a groundskeeper and had nothing to do with the dark underworld his cousin navigated so adroitly. We should then expect to find his record clear of ... ooops! Nope! Even Bossy is forced to admit that he had dealings with "the actual spy Robert Poley," who was often an operative of Francis. The Elizabethan record books are full of harmless Kentish landowners who had no dealings whatsoever with spies. Again, a little inference is called for.

But the real corker here, the part of Bossy's review that tips from stubborn to deceitful, is this:

"...there is no proper evidence at all to show that Marlowe was ever part of what is foolishly called the Elizabethan secret service. This conclusion ought to guide inquirers into what has become another cause of speculation, Marlowe's death in a hostelry in Deptford on 30 May 1593. The coroner's report, that it was the result of a dispute between Marlowe and one Ingram Frizer about paying the bill for their dinner, has been treated as a cover-up by several writers convinced that the government of Elizabeth practised a 'culture of surveillance' and maintained itself in power by dirty tricks."

Just look at the pristine neatness of that little summary: Marlowe and another man quarrel over the bill for dinner, the quarrel gets out of hand, and Marlowe gets stabbed to death. Sort of thing happens all the time.

Except for the truckload of stuff Bossy is leaving out or glossing over. My personal favorite is that 'one Ingram Frizer,' as though he were a name plucked from the Deptford phone book. In fact Ingram Frizer had a long and well-documented history as a ... wait for it ... spy. But there's also the fact that the fight took place after a whole DAY spent at this 'hostelry' - not just for a meal, but for many hours of quiet, intense conversation. Or the most interesting tidbit of all, something Bossy must have found too inconsequential to mention: that there were two other man with Marlowe that day, two other men present during the fight that ended Marlowe's life ... and one of those men was Robert Poley, who we've already established was a ... wait for it ... spy.

There's no evidence at all that Marlowe was a spy, says Bossy. And on one level, he's right: we don't have stamped W2 forms. But that doesn't mean all the historians who've speculated he was are gullible scandal-mongers. Hell, Bossy would probably raise doubts that I'm actually typing any of this ... is there any evidence that I am, after all? Sure, the words appear, but ANYBODY could be typing them!

Guess you'll all just have to do some inferring!


Sam Sacks said...

The wonderful portion here on Marlowe probably doesn't brook dissent or leave room for addition...but the quick Kingsley Amis invites all-hands-on-deck comment. Not just on Amis, but on his confreres, especially Larkin; and on Martin Amis. These people constitute a kind of two-generational school of literature that gets huge amounts of exposure, and, since everyone here is likely to have read something of one or all of them, I'm curious what you think.

For my part, I think they're very thin stuff to build a legacy on. Lucky Jim has funny bits the way Saturday Night Live has funny bits, but its story is limp and its characters are silly (except for the women -uh, woman?- who have no bearing on reality at all.) And then try to read something else of his where he doesn't have a reliable gag, like "Stanley and the Women," and the whole thing is just limp mysogynistic bonhomie--very much, I guess, like sitting next to a witty drunk at a bar.

It's the same thing with Larkin to me, even though his poems are so technically sharp and so often memorable. (And beautiful sometimes, too.) He DOES seem to stand out, but really, isn't he more like Ogden Nash than Thomas Hardy?

As for Martin Amis, I've only read Money, which was just trash--pulp paperback airport reading, which would be fine except that it assumed "intellectual" credentials by purporting to be a satire on something or other and then thickly moralizing for the last wretched fifty pages of the book. And moralizing in the most facile and hammy way. I'm willing to be convinced to try another of his, but until that time I remain baffled by his fame.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the Marlowe bit, Mr Donoghue definitely knows his Marlowe! But for the rest, please! Do you know what you're putting yourself in way of, soliciting his opinion on Larkin or either Amis (especially fils). Didn't somebody mention being seated next to a witty drunk at a bar? We'll be here all night!

Sam Sacks said...

I was soliciting opinions from YOU as much as from him, Anon. Even with your identity cravenly cloaked you can't venture SOMETHING?

steve said...

Besides, Jack, you might as well sign your work - there's no mistaking it on my part! If somebody takes particular tone about me and they're not Locke, they've got to be you!

Still, I promise to be good on the subject. You all already know in what contempt I hold Martin Amis. I agree with Sam completely about Kingsley. And I'll leave to the poets any evaluation of Larkin.

Beepy said...

I've only read one book each by the Amises. "The Green Man" by Kingsley and - gosh, I forget what by Martin. It was about a middle aged writer whose wife was cheating with his rival (or he was cheating with his rival's wife). Oh,yeah, and his new book was failing while his rival's was winning awards. Anyway, it gave me a big fat headache as do all such books written by men of a certain age who go on and on about their dissolving prowess. Yes, that includes Roth, Updike, the new Richard Ford, etc.

And I hate writers who treat women in their novels as if we are a completely different species (gosh, what are we thinking? Our manners and motives are sooooo mysterious! Look how amazing it is that the sexes end up together at all.) Better someone like Michael Crichton where every one is two dimensional and dull.

Even so I'll probably read on.

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