Young Philby – Robert Littel

Hollander as Philby in BBC production The Company
Hollander as Philby in BBC production The Company

I can really recommend this clever and well written account of the young Philby’s life: it’s dramatic, witty and informative.

Young Philby covers the thirties and early forties, with a couple of concluding chapters dealing with 1945, and 1963 – the end of Philby’s career as a spy.  It is well informed and shows Philby in Vienna at the beginning of the decade, and in Spain during the civil war, when he was the Times war correspondent.  These sections show details of the political situation at the time – a meeting between Philby and Franco is imagined, and we are shown the workings of the underground group Philby was part of in Vienna.  At the same time we are given insights into Philby’s personal life – his relationship with his first wife Litzi Friedmann, and later with an actress called Frances Doble – a supporter of Franco and admirer of Hitler.

If there is a kind of romanticism in the portrayal of Philby it’s not really surprising considering the life he lead: his father was a British orientalist who converted to Islam and had connections with British intelligence; he rode to Vienna on a motorbike to support the communist struggle against Austrian chancellor Englebert Dollfuss; he spent the thirties as a war correspondent in the Spanish civil war, was blown up at this time, and seems to have had the sort of amoral approach to sex and marriage espoused by cliched spy heroes such as James Bond.  At the same time the story is quite honest about Philby’s weaknesses – his stammer, his fear of blood and violence – and he comes across as a real character, not a caricature.

All this quality is perhaps not surprising – Littel it seems is something of an expert on this subject, having written The Company which was turned into an excellent TV series starring Tom Hollander as a very credible Philby.

Littel isn’t only an expert on the historical aspects of the Philby story though – he adopts a clever and witty approach to the narrative that makes each new chapter a surprise and a delight.  Littel shows Philby from a different point of view each time, setting the first and some subsequent chapters in Russian prison cells where characters are interrogated about their knowledge of events connected to him, and showing other events through the eyes of Doble, Friedmann and Guy Burgess, as well as from the point of view of Philby’s Russian and British controllers. Each of these stories is well managed: Littel is both simple – it’s never difficult to recognise each speaker and their role – and subtle in his characterisation of these different people, and it is here where some elements of satire are to be found – in the character of St John (Singeon), Philby’s father – in the character of Stalin, who makes an appearance in one of the Russian sections, and in the complex world of bluff and double bluff that was at the heart of betrayal and of the Great Game.

I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Company – NY Times Review of TV series

Philby continues to fascinate – Daily Telegraph April 2014

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One thought on “Young Philby – Robert Littel

  1. Mmm, this looks interesting – the TV adaptation, as you say, was very good. I recently finished Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends about Philby, mainly focused on his work within MI6, so this would be a good companion. My review of the Macintryre book isn’t up on my blog yet, as I’ve got a backlog waiting to post, but is on the Amazons. And I’m going to check this one out, thanks!

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