Jef­frey Mey­ers

The Ti­tans Clash: Graham Greene vs. John Le Carré on Kim Philby

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In 1968 two ma­jor Bri­tish nov­el­ists, Graham Greene and John le Carré, clashed in a bit­ter pub­lic dis­pute about Kim Philby’s ethics and the ef­fect of his trea­son. A prod­uct of West­min­ster School and Trin­ity Col­lege, Cam­bridge, Philby had been re­cruited in 1934 to spy for the Rus­sians, and went to work for SIS (the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice) where he be­came chief of Bri­tish es­pi­onage against Rus­sia. The most fa­mous Bri­tish spy and dou­ble-agent, Philby was fi­nally un­cov­ered in 1963 and de­fected to the Soviet Union that year.

Both Greene and le Carré be­came in­creas­ingly anti-Amer­i­can af­ter the in­va­sion of Viet­nam and the mas­sive anti-war protests in 1968, but Greene rel­ished the dam­age Philby had done to the United States and le Carré did not. Greene had been Philby’s col­league and friend, while le Carré did not know him per­son­ally. Greene, un­like le Carré, was im­pressed by the au­dac­ity and cun­ning of Philby’s de­cep­tion, which lasted—de­spite the sus­pi­cions he aroused—for three decades. Greene ad­mired Philby’s se­cret sac­ri­fice, le Carré thought it was patho­log­i­cally evil. Greene be­lieved that per­sonal loy­alty was more im­por­tant than pa­tri­o­tism, le Carré was loyal to his coun­try and to the se­cret ser­vice. Greene’s rea­son­ing was per­verse, his tone cool; le Carré’s ar­gu­ments were log­i­cal and in­can­des­cent with anger.

Greene and le Carré had both worked as Bri­tish spies, Greene in West Africa and Eng­land dur­ing World War II, le Carré in post-war Ger­many and Aus­tria. Both nov­el­ists used this ex­pe­ri­ence in their fic­tion and cre­ated mem­o­rable char­ac­ters who mir­rored their con­flicts as spies: be­tween per­sonal af­fec­tion and the dis­ci­pline de­manded by the work, the de­sire for love and the need for iso­la­tion and se­crecy. Both nov­el­ists wrote about de­cep­tion and be­trayal, were fas­ci­nated by Philby and de­scribed his life and char­ac­ter in their nov­els. Greene, who had sat­i­rized the in­ep­ti­tude of

the se­cret ser­vice in Our Man in Ha­vana (1958), por­trayed the fic­tional Maurice Cas­tle, who ab­sconded to Moscow for the same rea­sons as Philby, in The Hu­man Fac­tor (1978). The mole’s story in le Carré’s Tin­ker, Tai­lor, Sol­dier, Spy (1974), re­sem­bled Philby’s ca­reer in sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant ways.

The be­liefs of both writ­ers were in­flu­enced by their am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to their fa­thers. Re­fer­ring to his con­flict be­tween fidelity to his fel­low stu­dents and to his fa­ther, the head­mas­ter of his prep school, Berkham­sted, Greene ac­knowl­edged, ‘Per­haps my child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence of di­vided loy­al­ties has helped me to sym­pa­thize with peo­ple like Kim Philby.’ Le Carré, who ar­gued that Philby had in­her­ited the neg­a­tive traits of his fa­ther, had also grown up un­der the shadow of a treach­er­ous par­ent. His charis­matic, con-man fa­ther, Ron­nie Corn­well, had three wives and sev­eral chil­dren, mo­lested his son, shared a bed with a wife and mis­tress, was un­faith­ful and bru­tal to all his women, and in­fected le Carré’s preg­nant mother with syphilis. Ron­nie’s friends were sin­is­ter, his as­so­ciates vi­o­lent, and he was on sev­eral oc­ca­sions caught, con­victed and im­pris­oned. Le Carré fan­ta­sized about killing him, and his at­tempt to es­cape his fa­ther’s in­flu­ence was— like Philby’s—a cru­cial part of his life. But Greene ad­mired his fa­ther; and though le Carré had a grudg­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for Ron­nie’s Philby-like de­cep­tions, he re­ally hated him.

Greene’s short in­tro­duc­tion to Philby’s My Silent War (1968) is a spe­cious and un­con­vinc­ing defence of the spy. He calls the book ‘an hon­est one, well-writ­ten, of­ten amus­ing . . . a dig­ni­fied state­ment of his be­liefs and mo­tives.’ Greene states that ‘his ac­count of the Bri­tish Se­cret Ser­vice is dev­as­tat­ingly true. . . his char­ac­ter stud­ies are ad­mirable if unkind.’ Greene fondly re­calls work­ing for Philby’s counter-es­pi­onage branch dur­ing World War II: ‘No one could have been a bet­ter chief than Kim Philby when he was in charge of the Ibe­rian sec­tion of V. . . . I re­mem­ber with plea­sure those long Sun­day lunches at St. Al­bans [north of Lon­don] when the whole sub-sec­tion re­laxed un­der his lead­er­ship for a few hours of heavy drink­ing.’

He states that ‘if one made an er­ror of judge­ment he was sure to min­imise it and cover it up, with­out crit­i­cism.’ But a sec­re­tary in sec­tion V later

re­mem­bered how cold-hearted Philby could be in his han­dling of staff. She re­called com­ing into Greene’s of­fice one day: ‘He was grip­ping the chair and his eyes were glint­ing with anger. I asked him what was the mat­ter and he said: “I’ve just had a can­ing from the head­mas­ter.”’ Though Philby was eight years younger than Greene, he be­came a fa­ther-fig­ure and ad­min­is­tered a prep school pun­ish­ment.

Greene quotes with ap­proval Philby’s re­mark, ‘It can­not be very sur­pris­ing that I adopted a Com­mu­nist view­point in the Thir­ties,’ and ig­nores the great dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a Com­mu­nist and a traitor. Though Philby got away with his es­pi­onage and was never ar­rested, im­pris­oned or ex­e­cuted, Greene weakly ar­gues, ‘Af­ter thirty years in the un­der­ground surely he has earned his right to a rest.’ But few would agree that Philby had earned a right to any­thing.

Al­lud­ing to John 8:7, ‘He that is with­out sin among you, let him first cast a stone,’ Greene con­cedes ‘per­haps he did [be­tray his coun­try], but who among us has not com­mit­ted trea­son to some­thing or some­one more im­por­tant than a coun­try?’ But he does not de­fine the de­lib­er­ately vague ‘some­thing’ or ‘some­one,’ nor ex­plain what is ‘more im­por­tant than a coun­try.’ Apart from Philby, very few peo­ple in the se­cret ser­vice were traitors, whom Dante con­demned to the low­est cir­cle of Hell. It was pre­cisely Greene’s Old Boy and Es­tab­lish­ment at­ti­tudes that pro­tected Philby and en­abled him not only to sur­vive but also to pros­per as a spy. He ig­nores the fact that Philby’s trea­son helped Stalin re­main in power af­ter he had killed mil­lions of in­no­cent peo­ple in the Ukraine famine, the Purge Tri­als and the Gu­lag ar­chi­pel­ago.

Greene re­mained staunchly devoted to Philby and be­came his most prom­i­nent and only de­fender. In 1949 Philby had sent his own for­eign agents into Al­ba­nia and then be­trayed them to the Rus­sians, who im­me­di­ately cap­tured and shot them. Greene’s cold-blooded jus­ti­fi­ca­tion could have been con­jured up by the KGB. The Al­ba­nian rebels ‘were go­ing into their coun­try armed to do dam­age to that coun­try. They were killed in­stead of killing.’ In an­other twisted ar­gu­ment, the Catholic Greene com­pared Philby

to the re­bel­lious English Catholics who in 1588 had hoped for the vic­tory of the Span­ish ar­mada, the in­va­sion of Protes­tant Eng­land and the restora­tion of the true faith:

He was be­hav­ing well from his point of view. He was run­ning great risks for a cause he be­lieved in. I think you can draw a com­par­i­son be­tween Philby and cer­tain Catholics in Eng­land dur­ing the reign of El­iz­a­beth I, who sin­cerely be­lieved that the vic­tory of Philip of Spain would be for the good of their coun­try, and be­came in­volved in plots against the Queen.

Greene cor­re­sponded with Philby for twenty years and called him, with far­fetched compliments, ‘a good and loyal friend’ and ‘a dis­tin­guished of­fi­cer of the KGB.’ In an in­ter­view of 1978 he stressed their per­sonal friend­ship, over-val­ued Philby’s ca­pac­ity for drink and re­peated, ‘I was very fond of him. He was amus­ing. . . . He was a good drink­ing com­pan­ion and he was a very nice and agree­able boss. And at the time he was fight­ing the same war [against Nazi Ger­many] as I was.’ Philby re­cip­ro­cated Greene’s warm feel­ings. ‘When asked in 1975 what he would like if he had a magic wand, he replied: “Graham Greene on the other side of the ta­ble, and a bot­tle of wine be­tween us.”’ Philby got his wish. In 1987 alone Greene vis­ited the Soviet Union three times and met Philby on four sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions. When I met Philby’s Rus­sian wife, Ru­fina, at Phillip Knight­ley’s Lon­don house, she was fiercely loyal to her late hus­band. She had told Greene that the three days the Philbys had spent with him in Moscow ‘were among the hap­pi­est of her life.’

In a let­ter of Jan­uary 1990 Greene de­clared, ‘I never be­lieved in the prime im­por­tance of loy­alty to one’s coun­try. Loy­alty to in­di­vid­u­als seems to me to be far more im­por­tant.’ Since Philby was his friend he for­gave him for trea­son. Greene pub­licly pro­claimed this para­dox­i­cal be­lief in ‘The Virtue of Dis­loy­alty,’ a 1969 speech made at the Univer­sity of Ham­burg when he was awarded the Shake­speare Prize. Ig­nor­ing the cru­cial dis­tinc­tion be­tween a dis­si­dent and a traitor, Greene in­sisted, ‘One can­not help putting a higher value on what rulers have re­garded as dis­loy­alty. . . . Isn’t it the

story-teller’s task to act as the devil’s ad­vo­cate, to elicit sym­pa­thy and a mea­sure of un­der­stand­ing for those who lie out­side the bound­aries of State ap­proval?’ Greene’s claims for the nov­el­ist were valid, but they did not ap­ply equally to traitors in the real world.

In his es­say ‘The Spy’ (1968), a slightly longer ver­sion of his in­tro­duc­tion to My Silent War, Greene sug­gested that Rus­sia and Bri­tain were equally cor­rupt and ex­claimed, ‘moral judge­ments are sin­gu­larly out of place in es­pi­onage.’ He re­peated this be­lief in his Ob­server re­view (Fe­bru­ary 18, 1968) of Page, Leitch and Knight­ley’s Philby: The Spy Who Be­trayed a Gen­er­a­tion. Re­fer­ring to Philby’s col­leagues and fel­low-spies, he cal­lously main­tained, ‘No harm done by Philby, Burgess and Ma­clean can out­weigh the en­ter­tain­ment they have all given us.’ But the hun­dreds of Philby’s vic­tims in Al­ba­nia and through­out Eu­rope were not at all en­ter­tained when they faced the fir­ing squads.

In a re­veal­ing un­pub­lished let­ter of April 1968 to Macgib­bon and Kee, the pub­lish­ers of My Silent War, Greene re­ferred to ‘my not very se­ri­ous in­tro­duc­tion to Philby’s book.’ Greene liked to shock his read­ers and jolt them out of their com­pla­cent ideas. This let­ter sug­gests his in­tro­duc­tion may have been a char­ac­ter­is­tic provo­ca­tion that de­lib­er­ately de­fied moral stan­dards, a devil’s ad­vo­cacy that was not meant to be taken se­ri­ously, but had badly mis­fired. Though he re­peated his views in pub­lic, he dis­owned them in this pri­vate let­ter. His re­peated ef­forts to jus­tify Philby, his sanc­ti­fied sin­ner and se­cret sharer, made him look both gullible and fatu­ous.

In 1968 le Carré wrote a long in­tro­duc­tion to Page, Leitch and Knight­ley’s book on Philby. His first sen­tence—‘The avenger stole upon the ci­tadel and de­stroyed it from within’—al­ludes to the Greek cap­ture of Troy with their de­ceit­ful wooden horse. He ar­gues that, like the Tro­jans who ac­tively par­tic­i­pated in their own de­struc­tion, the Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice ac­tu­ally helped Philby, the en­emy from within. Strongly af­firm­ing his op­po­si­tion to Greene’s views, le Carré states, ‘I have no af­fec­tion for Philby and no ad­mi­ra­tion.’ He calls Philby an ‘ag­gres­sive, up­per-class en­emy. . . spite­ful, vain and mur­der­ous,’ and ex­presses out­rage at his life­time of de­ceit and

‘his de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­stroy us.’ Le Carré also pro­vides a caus­tic sum­mary of Philby’s ca­reer:

a boy of twenty gives him­self body and mind to a coun­try he has never vis­ited, to an ide­ol­ogy he has not deeply stud­ied, to a regime which even abroad, dur­ing those long and aw­ful purges, was a peril to serve; [and] re­mains ac­tively faith­ful to that de­ci­sion for over thirty years, cheat­ing, be­tray­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally killing.

He states that when Philby was fi­nally un­masked and had to flee for his life, ‘Rus­sia, for so long an il­lu­sion, was threat­en­ing to be­come a re­al­ity.’

Le Carré then ze­roes in on Philby’s ‘bru­tal mem­o­ries of his fa­ther,’ St. John Philby, an ad­vi­sor to King Saud, no­to­ri­ous anti-Semite, Bri­tish spy and traitor. ‘From his fa­ther,’ he writes, ‘Kim ac­quired the neo-fas­cist in­stincts of a slightly berserk English gen­tle­man’ and ‘his rich­est as­set as a spy: an ef­fort­less fa­mil­iar­ity with the quarry.’ Like le Carré’s fa­ther, Ron­nie Corn­well, to the very end St. John Philby ‘re­mained de­pen­dent on the peo­ple he de­ceived.’ Knight­ley told me that le Carré’s in­tro­duc­tion had helped to sell an ad­di­tional 10,000 copies of his best-sell­ing book.

In 1977, af­ter le Carré’s blis­ter­ing at­tack, Philby sent Knight­ley an ironic let­ter. Us­ing the royal ‘we,’ he feigned in­dif­fer­ence to the wounds in­flicted by his ad­ver­sary and al­luded to le Carré’s prof­itable use in his nov­els of Philby’s own charis­matic char­ac­ter: ‘From le Carré’s in­tro­duc­tion to your book, I get the vague im­pres­sion, per­haps wrongly, that he didn’t like me. But we are gen­er­ous, and have no ob­jec­tion to con­tribut­ing to his vast af­flu­ence.’

Le Carré’s furious ob­ses­sion with Philby con­tin­ued in his long af­ter­word to Ben Mac­in­tyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Be­trayal (2014). He wrote that ‘I now have it on pretty good [undis­closed] author­ity that Philby knew he was dy­ing and was hop­ing I would col­lab­o­rate with him on an­other vol­ume of his mem­oirs. I re­fused to meet him.’ Le Carré’s bi­og­ra­pher Adam Sis­man, adopt­ing a scep­ti­cal at­ti­tude, re­ported that, in

con­trast to Greene:

he has talked re­peat­edly about his re­fusal to meet Kim Philby when the op­por­tu­nity arose on a visit to Moscow in 1987. By 2010 . . . this de­ci­sion had be­come el­e­vated to one of the high­est prin­ci­ple. ‘I couldn’t pos­si­bly have shook his hand. It was drenched in blood. It would have been re­pul­sive.’

Le Carré would have liked to en­counter his in­trigu­ing lit­er­ary in­spi­ra­tion, but only with the fi­nal pro­viso: ‘He also said at that time, “he would dearly love to meet Philby—purely for zoo­log­i­cal pur­poses, of course!”’

In his 1968 re­view of the Page-Leitch-Knight­ley bi­og­ra­phy, Greene fiercely con­demned le Carré’s ‘wild spec­u­la­tions’ and his ‘vul­gar and un­true por­trait of Philby.’ In 1974, when tem­pers had cooled, le Carré—re­turn­ing from Viet­nam—sent an emol­lient and flat­ter­ing let­ter to Greene, who was twenty-seven years older and had pub­lished his first novel two years be­fore le Carré was born. He re­called Greene’s gen­er­ous and in­flu­en­tial praise of his first suc­cess­ful novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (pub­lished in 1963, the year Philby de­fected to Rus­sia), as ‘the best spy story I have ever read.’ Le Carré wrote:

Af­ter our pas­sage of arms over Philby a while back it is a lit­tle dif­fi­cult for me to write to you. But I should hate you to think that the dis­pute ei­ther soured my grat­i­tude to you ten years ago, or— for what it is worth—my ad­mi­ra­tion for your work. . . . The Quiet Amer­i­can which I re-read in Saigon seems to me still as fresh as it did nine­teen years ago, and it is surely still the only novel, even now, which does jus­tice to its theme. But the sheer ac­cu­racy of its mood and ob­ser­va­tion, is as­ton­ish­ing.

Gra­ciously ac­cept­ing his bid for dé­tente, Greene replied that he had ‘never for a mo­ment felt that our lit­tle pas­sage of arms over Philby was a se­ri­ous one,’ and in­vited his old com­bat­ant to visit him in An­tibes and talk about In­dochina.

Philby, an ex­pert ma­nip­u­la­tor, may have ex­ploited his old friend­ship with Greene in or­der to per­suade the nov­el­ist to pro­pa­gan­dize on his be­half. In a let­ter to Greene of Novem­ber 1982, Philby, who loved all the at­ten­tion, com­mented on this in­tense tri­an­gu­lar drama. As­sum­ing his typ­i­cally ironic and self-serv­ing tone, he in­sisted that le Carré’s ideas were fic­tional rather than re­al­is­tic and that Philby’s old friend Greene had a much bet­ter grasp of his char­ac­ter:

I had been star­tled by the news that you had bro­ken up a close friend­ship for so triv­ial a cause as le Carré’s at­tack on me. I was happy to learn that there had been no close friend­ship and there­fore no breach. I don’t think that le C’s pref­ace could have added much to his rep­u­ta­tion, ex­cept per­haps as a writer of fic­tion. Over­con­fi­dent, long-range anal­y­sis of some­one you have never met, is a risky busi­ness.

But the dam­age had been done, and it was clear that le Carré had won the bat­tle and Philby was still out in the cold.

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