Undercover, Between the Covers: Simon Mawer on Trapeze

Spying is always in style. In Simon Mawer’s novel Trapeze (Other Press), the brilliant Brit takes us back to the roots of espionage, writing the graphic and gripping tale of Marian Sutro, a female spy. In World War II England, Marian is another smart, pretty woman struggling through violent times, yet her patriotism and passion for French—both the language and its people—make her a prime candidate for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive).

Air-dropped into France to help with the resistance through destruction, to “set Europe ablaze,” these first secret agents were normal people in extraordinary times. Mawer writes Marian suspenseful but not lurid, her story told in vividly visceral details, planes in black night flying low over small towns, identification cards in different names but the same face staring back from each.

Perhaps Mawer’s sensitivity comes from a personal place. Both his parents were intimately involved in the war effort. Mawer paints poetically a time when chaos was an unavoidable part of life and clandestine bravery necessary for survival. We spoke with Mawer in Rome about the history of spying, big adventures, how keeping secrets leaves us lonely, why women may be better at it, and how war is different today.

ROYAL YOUNG: Let’s start by talking a bit about the history of espionage.

SIMON MAWER: Unlike the American side of things, the American equivalent of SOE was the Office of Strategic Services, which was disbanded immediately after the war, but reformed very quickly. Of course, they changed its name to the Central Intelligence Agency. So they had continuity. Americans had the Secret Service, which is still in existence to guard the president, but they had no secret intelligence agency.

YOUNG: It seems to me that it’s natural for people to create some form of secret communication. There must have been some precursor.

MAWER: Well, the FBI was trying to become that and I think did operate in South America. But there was no proper secret intelligence service. The British had that. So when the British SOE was established, it was still a load of amateurs, trying to be secret while planting bombs in factories. When SOE was disbanded at the end of the war, it was done very quickly. Suddenly, you’ve got a whole lot of very individualistic people, I mean some startling characters who are no longer employed by anybody.

YOUNG: What motivating factors draw people into a calling like spying?

MAWER: In terms of motivation, one was very definite: simply a belief in what they were fighting for. The other thing you can’t get around is an extraordinary sense of adventure. People go mountaineering now for the thrill. I used to do that, and I once said to my father who was a pilot in the war, when it looked like my mountaineering career would come to an abrupt end because of a serious accident, “This is my war.” And he said, “I know exactly what you mean.”

YOUNG: Does that need for thrill, rush, and adventure come from something that’s missing in the everyday?

MAWER: Oh yes. It’s also connected with youth very often.

YOUNG: What happens when it’s over? The chaos has cleared and these people’s particular set of skills seems no longer to be needed.

MAWER: There were a number of SOE agents who had trouble after the war, difficulty settling down. Some didn’t. Some went on to be eminent in completely other fields. Though for some, life must have seemed pretty dull.

YOUNG: The ability to keep deep secrets over a long period of time. What does that reflect in the person that’s keeping them?

MAWER: This was very variable. There were stories of the head of the Paris SOE circuit and his mates meeting regularly in the same bistro in Paris, wining, dining and talking in English. All of them died. The ones that were able to keep secrets were the ones that tended to survive. Yet, you had to live a lie.

YOUNG: I would imagine keeping this level of secrecy would keep you pretty alone.

MAWER: Yes. One of the reasons for recruiting women, which was a fairly new thing at the time, given by one of the recruiters was that he believed women were essentially much more capable of being on their own. That men were more likely to need mates around. That made women more secure spies.

YOUNG: What do you think?

MAWER: I find it very easy to be alone. I’m a writer, for heaven’s sakes! But really, I don’t think it’s gender-based. Though they would have been looking for people who were very much self-reliant.

YOUNG: What made you decide to tell this story this now?

MAWER: It’s writing about a time when we had a very real threat. When you look around now we have the war on terror. Yes, okay, the World Trade Center was sort of like a single act of war, but nothing else has been. We’ve turned it into war. We’re talking about a bunch of semi-lunatic, fanatic criminals. That’s the way they should be treated. In 1943, things were seriously different. We’re talking about huge, huge, unavoidable war.

YOUNG: I do think that’s something that has become increasingly hard to imagine for the modern mind.

MAWER: Yes, one of the things I become increasingly aware of is how the firsthand witnesses are going. As far as I know, there is one of the women of SOE still alive. She actually was captured and spent eight months in a concentration camp and survived.

YOUNG: Obviously, talking to these people is of huge importance. But I also think we create new people to talk to as we speak. Right now, there are soldiers and spies out there having experiences that will become history.

MAWER: Absolutely. The huge difference now is that these are people who voluntarily signed up. In 1943, it was you and me.