A biography of “the most complex and enigmatic of the Cambridge Spies,” a group of men recruited during the 1930s to spy for the Soviet Union.
Guy Burgess (1911-1963) was well-born, well-educated, intelligent, and completely spoiled. Through his days at the Royal Naval College, Eton, and Cambridge, he fought to be accepted and, failing that, turned to outraging the bourgeois. In the 1930s, Cambridge was an intellectual maelstrom, and students felt that their generation had to do something significant. Through societies such as the Apostles and the Cambridge University Socialist Society, the lure of communism provided an answer. Leaving school, many then got on with life, but Burgess and at least four of his friends ended up spying for the communists. His antics are legion, his drunkenness unceasing. The book is full of dramatically opposing visions of his personality, but one element that all agree on was his brilliance. Politics, sex, and gossip were Burgess’ main interests, all easily fed by his work at the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5, and MI6. Also well-fed were his Russian controllers, to whom he transmitted thousands of documents. In fact, he gave the Russians so many documents that many were never translated, decoded, or read. But Burgess was politically naïve, ignoring the failures of communism’s purges and communes. In this entertaining biography, literary agent Lownie (The Edinburgh Literary Companion, 2005, etc.) gives the impression that spying was almost a game for Burgess; deceit was integral to his life. At the same time, he was upfront about his homosexuality and, when drunk, often spoke of working for the Russians. He was never monogamous, cruel to his lovers, a natural liar, manipulative, louche, and slovenly, and he always did just what he wanted. He never had boundaries as a child, and even his mother said perhaps the Russian discipline might be good for him. Lownie amply demonstrates Burgess’ wily intelligence in navigating the spy’s life while often living so indiscreetly.
A crack biography of a man who was a preposterous enigma.