Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Once and Future Spy Novelist

[[B O O K S]] * Many years ago, on the basis of a recommendation by one of my college journalism professors, I read a novel called The Defection of A.J. Lewinter. It turned out to be a spy thriller, the plot of which grew around the decision by an eccentric U.S. engineer, Augustus Lewinter, to switch sides, abscond to the Soviet Union with all of his knowledge about ballistic-missile nose-cone technology. This traitorous act incites a quite comical competition between intelligence agents representing the two Cold War rival countries, amid which the author illuminates deficiencies in both the democratic and socialist political models. Lewinter was pretty much my introduction to espionage fiction. It was also my introduction to novelist Robert Littell, a former Newsweek reporter who’d once been involved in the clandestine effort to make public the real story of Czechoslovakia’s 1968 invasion by the Soviet Union, and whose work has since been compared favorably with that of the rather better-known John le CarrĂ© (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Constant Gardener, etc.).

I mention all of this by way of pointing you to an intriguing, in-depth, and rare interview with Littell that was posted this morning in January Magazine, the books-oriented Webzine I have helped edit for many years now. Over the course of Littell’s exchange with British freelance journalist Ali Karim, the novelist recounts his memories of World War II and the Cold War, as well as his brushes with fame (including an unlikely encounter with actor Errol Flynn); suggests that a former CIA counterintelligence chief might in fact have been a Soviet agent; explains the inspirations for his latest pair of novels, The Company and Legends; and worries that George W. Bush, “for all his posturing,” doesn’t begin to understand the terrorist threats present in our modern world.

If you’re already familiar with Littell’s excellent work, you will certainly not want to miss this interview. If you’ve never read any of his 14 novels, this is just the sort of introduction to get you interested. Read on.

(Photograph by Ali Karim)

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