Posts Tagged ‘Kim Philby’

R.I.P. John le Carré: Recalling Soviet Russia, the KGB, and a fateful lunch with Joseph Brodsky in a Chinese restaurant

Sunday, December 13th, 2020

Novelist John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell, at the German Embassy, 2017

Author John le Carré died of pneumonia last night in Cornwall at age 89. The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written (as well as a shelf of other books). I loved it for sentences like these:

“There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.”

“Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future: there was only a continued slide into the still more terrifying versions of the present.”

“Haydon also took it for granted that secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”

Although the news is only a few hours old, lots of obituaries are up already – the Guardian’s is here. I didn’t know him, and never read a novel besides the first. But one of the things I remember him most for is that he was at a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when the Russian poet won the Nobel in 1987. He said of his friend: “My enthusiasm for him and my admiration for him were of course in the first instance not so much  poetical but political. I loved the cuts, the courage that he displayed in 1964” – that is, during his Leningrad show trial.

Sentenced to internal exile near the Arctic Circle, 1964

Here are his memories of that event, as told to Valentina Polukhina, in her Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries:

Yes. I was with him at that moment. I took him to the Chinese restaurant, which is gone now; I’ll show you where it was. It was a lousy little restaurant anyway, but it was quite good food and I used to go there. When I invited Joseph for lunch, he said ‘yes’, I think for two reasons: first, Rene Brendel [wife of the pianist Alfred Brendel] would not let him drink, not much, not as he liked to drink, and also of course he was killing time while he waited to hear the news. I had no idea of this. I actually didn’t know that the Nobel Prize winner was at that moment being selected … and then Rene Brendel appeared in the doorway. She is big, German, tall, lots of authority, still speaks with a slight German accent, and she said, ‘Joseph, you must come home.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ He had two or three large whiskies by then. And she said, ‘You have won the Prize.’ He said, ‘What prize?’ And she said, ‘You have won the Nobel Prize for Literature’. I said, ‘Waiter, a bottle of champagne’. She she sat down and accepted a glass of champagne, and I said to her then, ‘How do you know?’ She said, ‘The whole of Swedish television is waiting for Joseph outside the house’. I said, ‘Well, you know, there are three or four candidates; they may be outside every door. We need more than this before we can drink champagne in comfort’. Joseph’s publisher, Roger Straus, was in London, so Rene telephoned him at his hotel, and he confirmed that he had received official word from Stockholm that Joseph has got the prize. So, we drank the champagne. Joseph didn’t like champagne, but accepted it as a symbol. He wanted more whisky, but Rene said he must come home.  …

More … on the U.S.S.R.

Can you recognize a KGB man inside or outside Russia?

It was easy to recognize them in Russia in 1987, because those who were put alongside me had the veneer of Western manners and spoke unnaturally good English, and made fatal mistakes, like trying to talk like sophisticated Europeans. It’s very funny when somebody pretends that he knows whiskies or something like that. I don’t know whiskies, but I know this man doesn’t.

We seem never to be able to produce a realistic portrait of each other. Another fatal mistake that Western writers make in trying to depict a Soviet person.

And vice versa. I just wonder how Joseph saw the rest of his writing life, where it was going to take place. What was the grit in the oyster. Where would he get his aggravation from?

… If you didn’t know Joseph at all, what would you have made of him after reading the essay ‘A Collector’s Item’ [about British spy Kim Philby]? Is it written by a poet, a university professor, a philosopher or an amateur-psychologist? Are his analyses of the phenomenon correct, profound or superficial?

I was fascinated that Joseph got into the spying business, because it raises all the literary questions: who am I? To what am I responsible? Where do my loyalties lie? What is the true me? You are deliberately contrasting behavior with emotion. You may detest being in my company but I would never know, because the courtesy of our existence tells otherwise. You may be reporting me to the new KGB, I will never know. In a sense, the Russians knew more about psychology before Freud than ever since.

Because it was a matter of survival.

Yes, it was a matter of survival and their literature was so perceptive. They have by instinct a greater understanding of human nature than can ever be given by a scientist. I think, Joseph probably knew more about me than any analyst would after 20 years.

… If Rainer Maria Rilke is right, that Russian is sharing a boundary with God, then Russians are paying the price for the privilege.

I met in Russia so many wonderful people. Every encounter in all four visits has been so electrical, so unpredictable. You just never know whether you are going to walk into a palace or a thief’s tent. I was shocked when I went in 1987 for the first time and took my own interpreter, which disconcerted everybody; then we went again in 1993 and I couldn’t believe that Estee Lauder had replaced GUM in Red Square. The capitalization of Russia is as disconcerting to me as it is for Russians. Money is utterly mysterious. It seems to be in all the wrong hands.

You also perhaps notice that the KGB and the Party knew where the money was and is.

Nobody else does.