In one of my posts earlier this month, Pasternak’s Zhivago came up, a scandal from the late 1950’s that resulted in the poet, by then long extinguished as the once-in-a-millennium genius he had been, receiving the Nobel Prize for a trivial and pusillanimous novel. The other day, coincidentally, a book sent to me for review by our pansophic Chilton Williamson arrived at the door, and its title was The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book. I don’t want to spoil the fireworks I hope to set off for Chilton in the magazine, but a little squib here, if it isn’t too damp, may be all right.
Not many people realize that CIA top brass, in the early days of the organization that has gone from hilariously inept to vaguely criminal, had a penchant for matters literary. Like Lenin, who fancied himself a connoisseur of Beethoven, James Jesus Angleton, for example – who had been editor of The Yale Literary Magazine – believed he knew a thing or two about poetry. Cord Meyer, another Yale Lit alumnus and CIA grandee, published stories in the Atlantic Monthly, and, when Robie Macauley, one of Meyer’s recruits, put his cloak and dagger away to edit Playboy, Meyer was tempted to try his luck there, albeit pseudonymously. The spooks were free to indulge their dabbling in the privacy of their offices, since no taxpayer was likely to show up and yell, “Hey, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Is your reading up on Ezra Pound what I’m paying my taxes for?”
Here is a sample of what the CIA’s best and brightest would come up when their literary gifts were actually called upon. “A new wind is blowing. New hope is stirring. Friends of freedom in other lands have found a new way to reach you.” So began an address to the people of Eastern Europe delivered to them – don’t laugh – by balloon. 600,000 balloons, to be exact, that vanished into the night, together with the American taxpayers’ money, somewhere east of Bavaria between 1951 and 1956. “There is no dungeon deep enough to hide truth, no wall high enough to keep out the message of freedom. Tyranny cannot control the winds, cannot enslave your hearts. Freedom will rise again.” In short, all that reading up on Ezra Pound seems to have had little effect on the intelligence community’s notions of prosody.
Even fewer people realize that Pasternak resolved to write Zhivago after witnessing the international success of the 1939 film made from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 pot-boiler, Gone with the Wind. The man of genius, by then in a kind of totalitarian dotage, disoriented and voiceless, seized on the idea of writing a Russian Civil War equivalent of what Wikipedia’s hacks describe as an “epic historical romance.” And when, some years later, his pot-boiler was ready – with the manuscript safely in the hands of the Italian Communist renegade Feltrinelli – CIA’s amateur litterateurs seized on the same idea with similar alacrity.
After all, wasn’t Mitchell’s novel about how “a new wind is blowing”? Well then, up with the balloons! And about how “tyranny cannot control the winds”? Isn’t that something! Get Stockholm on the line, and give that Russki the Nobel Prize for Literature.