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January 17, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century by Phillip Knightley (Penguin Books: $7.95)

A comprehensive and damning account of the rise and proliferation of modern-day intelligence agencies, from the creation of Britain's secret service in 1909 on a budget of 7,000, to the CIA's 1985 annual budget of more than $1.25 billion, "more than the entire budget of many a Third World country."

Before the modern era, according to Phillip Knightley, espionage expert for The Times of London (and who has himself survived recruitment efforts from both Eastern and Western intelligence networks), "spies for collecting military intelligence flourished in wartime, but usually wilted when peace arrived." Today's vast bureaucracies, employing more than 1.25 million people, using satellites, computers and other high-technology capable of monitoring anything from radio or telex communications to private telephone calls, are of a "size and power which is unprecedented," and, ultimately, out of control.

"There might . . . be some justification for the intelligence community if it did what it claimed to do," Knightley writes, "provide timely warnings of threats to national existence. But . . . this claim is exaggerated even in wartime and, in peacetime, intelligence agencies seem to have spent more time trying to score off each other, protecting their budgets and their establishments, and inventing new justifications for their existence, than in gathering intelligence."

Britain's secret service was established in response to a perceived, but utterly fictitious, threat of German spies. Germany founded its own spy network in 1913; Russia, in 1917; France, in 1935, and the United States, in 1947. Knightley traces the evolution of each in turn, noting that from its humble beginnings, "espionage has exploded into one of the 20th Century's biggest growth industries."

At once skeptical and chilling, "The Second Oldest Profession" is a powerful analysis of the business of espionage, and it is as readable and compelling as a spy novel.

THE SELECTED POETRY OF JAROSLAV SEIFERT translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers; edited by George Gibian (Collier Books/Macmillan: $9.95)

The poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, the Czech poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984, is not widely known in this country. "The Selected Poetry" spans the six decades of Siefert's work (he died in 1986 at age 85) and is an important addition to the collection of prose and poetry of Eastern European writers who are now increasingly being published in the West.

One of the first people to join the Communist Party after its formation in Czechoslovakia in 1921, Seifert was expelled from the party in 1929 when he joined a protest against a new party regulation against writers. Yet he continued to write on national events and gained the status of unofficial national poet. He published three volumes of poetry during the Nazi occupation (1938-1945), attempting, as Gibian writes, "to strengthen the nation's resolve to survive with dignity." Later he served as a conscience of sorts in the post-Stalin years, demanding that injustices be recognized and victims recompensed. As Seifert told the Second Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak writers, "If somebody else keeps silent about the truth, it can be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent about the truth, he is lying."

Seifert's poetry evolved from a brief early period of proletarian poetry through a form of modernism to a conversational mode at the end of his life. Yet the essential themes of his work did not alter: the beauty of women, love both romantic and sensual, the city of Prague, his native country. "I sang of their sufferings, their faith, their hopes," he wrote in 1967, "and lived with them . . . through their anguish,/ weakness and fear and courage/ and poverty's grief,/ And their blood, whenever it flowed,/ spattered me."

THE COUNTERLIFE by Philip Roth (Penguin Books: $4.95)

A fifth installment in the saga of Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared in Roth's "My Life as a Man" as the alter ego/fictional creation of that novel's protagonist, Peter Tarnopol. As in "My Life as a Man," "The Counterlife," winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, is a book of varying perspectives and points of view: of Zuckerman writing the story of his brother Henry, who undergoes open heart surgery and dies; of Zuckerman having the surgery himself and dying; of Zuckerman not having died but instead joining Henry in Israel; of Zuckerman in English society with his English wife, Maria, and more. Roth's subject, as it has been increasingly since the brilliant success of "Portnoy's Complaint," is the inner life of the writer, but one reads Roth for the power of his narrative and the fluency of his language.

ANYWHERE BUT HERE by Mona Simpson (Vintage: $6.95) In this highly praised first novel, Adele August and her 12-year-old daughter, Ann, leave their small Wisconsin town in a borrowed white Lincoln Continental bound for Beverly Hills with a dream of child stardom for Ann.

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