Posts Tagged ‘John le Carré’

John le Carré on George Smiley: “Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020
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Smiley had been his “secret sharer.” (Photo:Francesco Guidicini)

John le Carré, born as David Cornwell – and perhaps even better known as George Smiley, his literary invention – died of pneumonia last weekend in Cornwall at age 89. (We wrote about that here.) The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written, as well as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and many others. Bryan Appleyard interviewed him for the Sunday Times in 2017. An excerpt:

Does David Cornwell — better known as John le Carré — admire George Smiley, his most celebrated spy? “He is the best of me, the most rational — I admire his commitment to his task and his sense of responsibility to humankind. Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

Smiley was born in 1961, in Cornwell’s first novel, Call for the Dead. He was a spy himself at the time — hence his need for a pseudonym — and he says he carried Smiley around in his diplomatic baggage. “I finished another little book about him [A Murder of Quality, 1962], then I wanted something big for him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was sort of spun round for him. I gave him a job as the observing eye, the painful eye of conformity to operational necessity.”

Alec Guinness as the perfect George Smiley

Smiley has always been his “secret sharer”, “an unannounced companion with whom I am sharing the experience, an imaginary figure”. And they share one big, sad secret. “I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness.”  It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it. I do experience fulfilment with my children and my grandchildren.”

Now Smiley is back in Cornwell’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies. The news was a sensation because, first, he is not alone in loving Smiley — everybody does — and, second, he once said he had finished with him. Now he knows they’ll be together until the end.

They are roughly the same age — Cornwell will be 86 in October. “Smiley and I have caught up in age and in attitude.” This is harmless cheating. A pedantic reading of the books would suggest Smiley is somewhere between 102 and 111. But pedants tend to miss the big picture, so here it is.

***

“That book [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was written in a kind of blind anger when we were all being thrown away, so I wanted to look at it again now and see what might have happened. Spies have children, and children they don’t even tell you about. They have bigger concerns than they actually reveal.”

The blind anger that, in The Spy, created the doomed Alec Leamas and his lover, Liz Gold, was matched by a new rage that led to A Legacy of Spies. “I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I despise the whole Brexit operation, as Smiley does. One government after another blamed Europe for its own failures because they never invested in the concept of a united Europe.

In A Legacy, the past returns thanks to a legal action brought against MI6 over the events surrounding the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Public exposure threatens the now glitzy, tight-suited inhabitants of “Spyland Beside the Thames”, the agency’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in Vauxhall. Peter Guillam, once Smiley’s deputy, is called back from retirement (though there is no such thing in MI6). …  Smiley moves in and out of the action in the past before, finally, appearing in the present. Guillam asks him what all their work had been for. England? No. Europe.

“I think his whole genesis in life — his private dream, as he now expresses it — is the salvation of Europe. That was, for him, the battlefront of the Cold War — for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”

In A Legacy of Spies, poor Peter Guillam seems to show that, like it or not, once in, you are never out. It makes one wonder about David Cornwell, but, then again, it makes one wonder about oneself.

After all, none of this is just about spying. “I perceived,” he said at one point, “in the real world a reflection of the secret world.” We are all Alec Leamas or Bill Haydon, and, like Cornwell, some of us are Smiley — always secretive, always on call.

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
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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.

George Smiley is back. And he’s all about Trump and Brexit.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017
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You thought British spy George Smiley was gone for good?  He’s  back in John le Carré’s brand new novel, A Legacy of Spies. And though you may be calculating Smiley’s age, on the basis of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the other novels, to be somewhere around a century, he’s just about the same age as David Cornwall – a.k.a. John le Carré – which is to say, 86 next month. Bryan Appleyard has a new article and interview about Le Carré in The Times of London.

A Legacy of Spies is a Brexit novel, according to Le Carré, a former spook himself: “I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I despise the whole Brexit operation, as Smiley does. One government after another blamed Europe for its own failures because they never invested in the concept of a united Europe.”

He’s fed up.

“I understand why people who are socially deprived, with the safety net taken away from them and treated as second-class citizens, have every right to vote for some other dream. I understand that, and I understand it needs a desperate remedy, and fast, but Brexit isn’t the answer.”

About the book, which brings together characters from previous novels, including Alec Leamas and his lover, Liz Gold:

In A Legacy, the past returns thanks to a legal action brought against MI6 over the events surrounding the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Public exposure threatens the now glitzy, tight-suited inhabitants of “Spyland Beside the Thames”, the agency’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in Vauxhall. Peter Guillam, once Smiley’s deputy, is called back from retirement (though there is no such thing in MI6).

Revealing anything more would be a spoiler, but I think I can say this: Smiley moves in and out of the action in the past before, finally, appearing in the present. Guillam asks him what all their work had been for. England? No. Europe.

“I think his whole genesis in life — his private dream, as he now expresses it — is the salvation of Europe. That was, for him, the battlefront of the Cold War — for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”

My hearthrob

In the words of Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times way back in 1982 about Le Carré’s novel, “Western civilization is depicted as the residue of countless betrayals, as a kind of junk sculpture of discarded ideals. Its governments are so jaded that they can be animated or stirred only by what we might call the pornography of conspiracy.” Well, it’s still true, isn’t it?

Cornwall says that Smiley has always been his “secret sharer”, “an unannounced companion with whom I am sharing the experience, an imaginary figure … I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it. I do experience fulfilment with my children and my grandchildren.”

After all, none of this is just about spying. “I perceived,” he said at one point, “in the real world a reflection of the secret world.” We are all Alec Leamas or Bill Haydon, and, like Cornwell, some of us are Smiley — always secretive, always on call.

Read the whole thing here. And here’s why we love him (we’re not sure whether we love Smiley or Guinness, or both). “Reason is logic or reason is motive, or reason is a way of life…”

“Love at first sound”: John le Carré makes the case for German.

Saturday, July 8th, 2017
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In Hamburg, 2008, enjoying the “language of the gods.”

In The Guardian, John le Carré makes a pitch for the German language, which he learned in wartime England (he received the Goethe Medal in 2011). Since I’m currently reading Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and loving every minute of it), the article naturally caught my eye. But German, more than, say, Italian? Which not only sounds beautiful, but you get Dante thrown in for good measure. Or how about Polish, with its poetry that sounds like a caress?

No dice. He’s loyal to his wartime beloved. He calls it “love at first sound.”

Why was it love at first sound for me? Well, in those days not many language teachers played gramophone records to their class, but Mr King did. They were old and very precious to him and us, and he kept them in brown paper bags in a satchel that he put in his bicycle basket when he rode to school.

What did they contain, these precious records? The voices of classical German actors, reading romantic German poetry. The records were a bit cracked, but that was part of their beauty. In my memory, they remain cracked to this day:

Du bist wie eine Blume – CRACK – So hold und schön und… – CRACK (Heinrich Heine)

Bei Nacht im Dorf der Wächter rief… – CRACK (Eduard Mörike’s Elfenlied)

And I loved them. I learned to imitate, then recite them, crack and all. And I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear.

I also loved the idea that these poems and this language that I was learning were mine and no one else’s, because German wasn’t a popular subject and very few of my schoolmates knew a word of it beyond the Achtung! and Hände hoch! that they learned from propaganda war movies.

Even love has its reasons. As he explains:

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown- out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

And for all its pretending, the German language loves the simple power of monosyllables.

He would have agreed.

To quote Charlemagne (and he does): “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.

Of course, the very business of reconciling these two souls at any serious level requires considerable mental agility. It compels us to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively and never to be satisfied until we’ve hit the equivalent word, or – which also happens – until we’ve recognised that there isn’t one, so hunt for a phrase or circumlocution that does the job.

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

Read the whole thing here. He ends with a George Orwell touch that many will appreciate. (And what became of the Book Haven’s Orwell Watch? the system became overwhelmed, we think, sometime during the last election…)

V.S. Naipaul opens mouth, changes feet: A round-up of literary kerfuffles, and a soupçon of misogyny

Saturday, June 4th, 2011
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Friends again. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

V.S. Naipaul has offered definitive proof against the adage that to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

First, the happy news:  Naipaul has ended his 30-year feud-over-nothing with Paul Theroux.  The root of the matter seems to be that Naipaul thought Theroux was horsing around with his first wife.  From the Telegraph:

A furious Naipaul retaliated by trying to sell one of Theroux’s books, inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, online for $1,500. When Theroux found out, Naipaul told him to “take it on the chin and move on.” Naturally Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he’s said to detail Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”. The fracas went on until last weekend when – in what is surely Hay [Festival]’s biggest literary coup to date – they made up, “corralled” into a handshake by Ian McEwan in the festival’s green room.

Perhaps Hallmark ought to create a card for the occasion.  The forgettable feud and its resolution is recounted here and here.

The episode has brought to mind other great literary feud of our times, recounted here:

We all love a good literary feud, not least because they are much more amusing and erudite than a spat between, say, a footballer and a reality television star. Of Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Norman Mailer wrote: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Wolfe retaliated in his essay “My Three Stooges,” casting Mailer alongside his other critics, John Irving and John Updike.

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

Revenge can take many forms. Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” said Vidal. Evelyn Waugh used the name of his tutor at Oxford for such diverse characters as a quack doctor and a psychopathic burglar. Salman Rushdie and John le Carré had a row over who had suffered more at the hands of religious fanatics, which ended in Rushdie calling le Carré “an illiterate pompous ass”.

Rushdie not above the fray (Photo: Mae Ryan)

In 2006, Salman Rushdie also fell out with John Updike after the latter panned Shalimar the Clown, in particular Rushdie’s choice of names. “A name is just a name,” Rushdie retorted. “Somewhere in Las Vegas, there’s probably a male prostitute called John Updike.” The same year Bevis Hillier duped A.N. Wilson, the writer of a rival biography of John Betjeman, into publishing a spoof love letter; the first letter of each sentence spelt out: “A N Wilson is a —-.”

Which all goes to show that maturity or character, also, isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer, either.

But in the Telegraph here you can also read about the feuds between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (that one will not be resolved; the principals are dead) and Harold Bloom and J.K. Rowling.

And I thought the Poles were bad with their acrimonious literary feuds – I’ve recounted the one between Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert here, in “The Worst Dinner Party Ever.”

Naipaul must be anxious to promote himself, because he made these cranky comments to the press.  From the Guardian:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

Queen of literary mathematics

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

He added: “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

Of course that dropped the cat among the pigeons.  Why?  Why would one expect Sir Vidia to say something sensible on the subject?  He’s obviously not a careful reader of Austen.

Oh yeah?

As for women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world,” I have only two words to say:  Simone Weil.

Jennifer Egan took the bait, however, and made these comments on the kerfuffle to the Wall Street Journal:

“He is such a kook. It makes me laugh because he sounds like such a cranky old man. It’s the classic case of how prejudice works – you feel like you see it confirmed all over the world but the prejudice is tainting your perception everywhere you look.”

“I would put money on the fact that he has not read Jane Austen in 10 years. She’s the most cool, mathematical writer to come along, male or female. It’s a word no one who’s familiar with her work would call her. The nature of the comments read as so silly that it’s hard to see it spurring a gigantic turmoil. They’re not remarks that lead to a deeply-engaged conversation because they’re just so easily dismissible, largely because of what he says about Austen. He raises questions about his authority by calling her sentimental. Only a person with an idea of what Austen is — and not actual familiarity with her work – would say that. She’s not a melodramatic writer.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian has published “The Naipaul Test:  Can You Tell an Author’s Sex?” – it’s here.

Naipaul is said to be a great writer (I haven’t read him, so I’m taking that on authority), but a crappy human being.  So why do we take any of his opinions seriously?

If you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, Vidal and Mailer wrangle on fuzzy clip from The Dick Cavett Show below – journalist Janet Flanner takes the better part.  


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