Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring, by Andrew Lownie (New York: St. Martin’s Press; 433 pp., $29.99). This book, the first full biography of the most important of the Cambridge spies, is also a first-rate work of social and intellectual history and a highly successful character study of a man who lived, Andrew Lownie concludes, various parallel lives, not a double one. A descendant of Huguenot immigrants and the son of an officer in the British navy who failed to make flag rank, Burgess—also a graduate of Eton and Cambridge and a London clubman who moved in the highest social and intellectual circles and positioned himself critically in the Foreign Office—seemed the quintessential product of the British establishment. Though his work as a spy for the Soviet Union appears not to have been terribly damaging, his betrayal of his country delivered a psychological shock that lingers today. Why did he do what he did? A personal friend remarked that “The very existence of a secret service was for Guy a challenge to curiosity.” Yet Burgess knew little about the Soviet Union, while, according to Harold Nicolson (one of his innumerable lovers), “He publicly announced his sympathies with communism and yet he heartily disliked the Russians.” In exile in Moscow after his flight from Britain in 1951, Burgess kept English hunting prints on his walls and arranged for his interment in England. Lownie writes that, while he never felt he “belonged,” his sense of estrangement was unconnected with his homosexuality, for which he felt no shame while it allowed him a pleasing sense of defiance. Homosexuality was then a crime in Britain, and acts of sodomy gave Burgess a frisson of the kind that spying for the Soviets did. Further, “Guy Burgess sought power and realizing he was unable to achieve that overtly, he chose to do so covertly.” And the moral vacuum in which he existed did not pass unnoticed by his acquaintances. “He had literally no moral principles at all. None at all,” according to a colleague at the BBC. Beyond spying, Burgess devoted his life to homosexual and alcoholic dissipation, though when sober he could be a brilliant conversationalist. “It was a wasted life,” Steven Runciman thought. “There was a solid core missing . . . épater le bourgeois. That’s what really started him off.” It says much for the artistic skill of Mr. Lownie, a literary agent, that while his story is frequently a depressing one, his fine book never is.
Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius, by Laurence Bergreen (New York: Simon & Schuster; 519 pp., $32.50). This highly readable biography of one of the most brilliant and remarkable rogues in history is, I suppose, a work of popular biography. But what biography of Casanova would not be “popular”? An academic one is unthinkable—or it should be. On the other hand, Giacomo Casanova was not Hugh Hefner, and the story of his life is a great deal more than a succession of romantic pursuits ending in sexual couplings. Born in Venice in 1727, he was the son of a singer and actress eventually celebrated across Europe, and her husband, a far less successful actor. As a very young man Casanova trained for the priesthood and was actually entrusted with a parish shortly before deciding to dedicate his life to women—to making an almost scientific study of feminine psychology as well as bedding women—and to libertinism. Bergreen describes Casanova as a characteristically 18th-century figure, though perhaps he was more a Renaissance man living in the Age of Reason. He pursued, in addition to seduction (122 women, Casanova claimed), the study of mathematics and wrote a history of Poland in several volumes, a science-fiction work among many other novels, a polemical treatise on Voltaire, 400 poems, a 3,700-page autobiography (also in French), and almost 2,000 letters. He was also an expert at cards. His friends and correspondents included Rousseau, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, and Voltaire, as well as Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. But he was not a rationalist—rather, he had a strongly irrationalist, even a superstitious, side. Casanova on his deathbed claimed to have lived as a philosopher, and to be dying as a Christian. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem in which he imagined meeting God, Who when the moment arrived must have been bemused by the confession of a man who, by seducing an illegitimate daughter, sired a child who was his son as well as his grandson.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
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