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Before she became the scourge of thoughtful people everywhere, Arianna Stassinopoulos (she had not yet dug the gold of marriage to the profoundly confused Michael Huffington) actually wrote a very amusing biography of Pablo Picasso (Picasso : Creator and Destroyer).  As I recall, in her introduction to the book, Ms Huffington said that David McCullough had actually been working on a Picasso bio too and that she contacted him to see if he'd mind her simultaneous effort.  Mr. McCullough responded that she had the field to herself; he'd dropped the idea because he found Picasso to be such an abominable human being and he preferred to write about folks he admired.  To her eternal credit, Ms Huffington solved this problem by just eviscerating Picasso in her book.  Unfortunately, Miranda Carter availed herself of neither of these option--dropping the subject or butchering him--when she turned her attention to a man who is every bit as atrocious, though much less culturally important : Anthony Blunt.

The basic facts of Blunt's life are familiar enough.  After an unpleasant stretch in public school (Marlborough), he went to Cambridge where he became a junior don and associated with the Bloomsbury Group.  Falling madly in love with Guy Burgess, he was recruited into the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring and himself recruited Donald MacLean, John Cairncross, and others.  A wartime stint in British Intelligence gave him the opportunity to hand over some 1,700 documents to his Soviet handlers.  After the war he apparently left Soviet employ and concentrated on his career as an art historian, becoming director of the Courtauld Institute in 1947, a position he held until 1973, and an art advisor to the Queen, who eventually knighted him.

While Burgess, Philby and MacLean were all publicly exposed as traitors and fled to the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, Blunt might have never been found out but for the 1960s FBI confession of Michael Straight, an American whom Blunt had tried recruiting as a spy at Cambridge.  The Americans informed the British of the allegation and in 1964 Blunt cut a deal that kept him from being exposed or prosecuted in exchange for his secret testimony about his crimes.  Given this official clean slate, Blunt was able to pursue his twin passions, for art, particularly the work of Nicolas Poussin, and for men, particularly his social and intellectual inferiors, like sailors and Guardsmen.

It all came a cropper though on November 15, 1979, when Margaret Thatcher took to the floor of Parliament and confirmed press reports that Blunt was the long looked for Fourth Man in the Cambridge ring.  Conservative politicians and commentators and the British press had great good fun attacking this member of the privileged classes who had betrayed the country that had done so well by him.  The tawdry sex angle gave the story an even more sensational angle and all kinds of rumors, many of them dubious, were printed.  Blunt's solicitor informed him however that there was nothing he could do about such theoretically libelous stories because Blunt no longer had any reputation to protect.  Physically debilitated, disgraced, and stripped of his knighthood, Blunt died of a heart attack on March 26, 1983.

Ms Carter, improbably and quite unsuccessfully, tries taking this story and turning Blunt into a sympathetic figure.  For the most part she does so by portraying him as a man who should really be remembered for his writings in the field of art criticism and history; neither of which have I read, but I'll take the word of those who have that they are mediocre at best.  It also seems worth noting that staking Blunt's reputation on his career in the art world is problematic in light of his relationship with the forger Eric Hebborn.  Given Blunt's wretched behavior in every other aspect of his life, we have to be at least skeptical that his dealings with Hebborn were entirely wholesome.  At any rate, it seems pretty safe to say that the book would never have seen the light of day if Sir Anthony had been only a leading figure of the British art world.

She also tries to minimize Blunt's spying, suggesting that it was motivated more by anti-fascism than communism, that he stole far less material than the others, and that the stuff he stole didn't actually do much damage.  These claims seem truly bizarre.  Even if we strain credulity and grant her arguments, you don't get to be a traitor just because your intentions are good; you aren't less guilty because others committed greater crimes; and we don't excuse your attempt to damage your nation's interests just because you may have failed.  No matter how you slice it, Blunt placed the interests of the murderous Soviet Union above those of Britain.  He was a spy and a traitor.

Finally, as the book's title indicates, she portrays Blunt as a man of extraordinary complexity, who lived several different, wholly compartmentalized and contradictory, lives.  She labors mightily to make the duplicity that defined his character seem unique and fascinating.  It is anything but.  It is fitting that Blunt's name will always be tied to those of men like Burgess because, despite inevitable individual peculiarities, they were all of a type : drawn from the privileged classes of a privileged nation, educated at the best schools, communist, homosexual, amoral, etc..  Ms Carter speculates that the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain may have made Blunt especially prone to duplicity, but here is how the writer Andrew Sullivan describes the formation of the gay male character generally in his fine book, Virtually Normal:

    The homosexual learns to make distinctions between his sexual desire and his emotional longing--not because he is particularly
    prone to objectifications of the flesh, but because he needs to survive as a social and sexual being.  The society separates these
    two entities, and for a long time the homosexual has no option but to keep them separate.  He learns certain rules; and, as with
    a child learning grammar, they are hard, later on in life, to unlearn.

    It's possible, I think, that whatever society teaches or doesn't teach about homosexuality, this fact will always be the case.
    No homosexual child, surrounded overwhelmingly by heterosexuals, will feel at home in his sexual and emotional world, even
    in the most tolerant of cultures.  And every homosexual child will learn the rituals of deceit, impersonation, and appearance.
    Anyone who believes political, social, or even cultural revolution will change this fundamentally is denying reality.  This isolation
    will always hold.  It is definitional of homosexual development.

Given this perspective, Blunt's distinctiveness quickly evaporates into sameness and we are left with the fact that where most gay men apparently have little trouble remaining loyal to their countries, even serving them with honor, Blunt and his cronies chose to betray theirs.

It is obviously unrealistic to expect all authors to adopt the David McCullough standard, and only write about pleasant people.  But it doesn't seem too much to ask that, given an unappealing subject, authors adopt the Stassinopoulos-Huffington approach and proceed to bludgeon them like baby seals.  Ms Carter's decision to treat Blunt as some kind of victim (of anti-gay repression, anti-communist hysteria, and Thatcherite class envy) demonstrates appalling bad judgment and makes it a complete waste of time to read about this horrid man.  After 400 pages of reading about this cretin, you're totally fired up for the hammer to fall, but Ms Carter seems to genuinely, and unfathomably, like the guy, so she frustrates our bloodlust.  What a gyp!


Grade: (F)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Blunt, Anthony (Frederick)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "anthony blunt"
    -BOOK SITE : Anthony Blunt : His Lives by Miranda Carter (FSB Associates)
    -ESSAY: Stalin's ghost sits too easily among us (Ferdinand Mount, March 9, 2003, The Sunday Times of London)
    -ESSAY : Spy who came in from the Courtauld : As a KGB talent-spotter, Anthony Blunt was a failure. But as an art historian, he excelled. It's because of his influence, Miranda Carter says, that many of his students became big names in the arts world (08 November 2001, Independent)
    -ESSAY : The Forger and the Spy.(Eric Hebborn and Anthony Blunt)(Igor Golomstock, May 1999, Commentary)
    -ARTICLE : The 'Fifth Man' insisted he never harmed Britain (Paul Peachey, 17 October 2001, Independent)
    -ARCHIVES : "anthony blunt" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "anthony blunt" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Hywel Williams, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Charles Saumarez Smith, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Frank McLynn, The Independent)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Nicholas Penny, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (David Pryce-Jones, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Richard Gott, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt : His Lives by Miranda Carter (Jeremy Treglown, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter (Brian Sewell, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Steve Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (James Bowman)
    -REVIEW : Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter (John Banville, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of ANTHONY BLUNT: His Lives, By Miranda Carter (Christopher Hitchens, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Anthony Blunt (Margaret Gunning, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Untouchable by John Banville (Patrick McGrath, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Comintern 'control' of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-43 (Andrew Thorpe, June 1998, English Historical Review)