Wednesday, January 12, 2011

From the Gallery of Heroes - John Le Carré [Part Two]

The Nobel Prize for Literature has usually been regarded as an honorific offered to authors who take on a symbolic polish for their respective nationalities. Slavic naturalists and rebellious Hispanic poets, renegade political activists and misbegotten émigrés. These all find welcome. But writers of mysteries and fantasy and other sub-genres of literature are uniformly shunned, since it seems that their efforts, as ingenious and biting as they may be, aren't somehow as "serious" and committed as they must be to be considered important art.

But the Committee could do worse than award it to le Carré, a writer who, though originally devoted to the stock mystery story genre, expanded the espionage novel to major dimensions, in effect erasing the artificial distinctions intended to limit its importance and range. How could the contentions of the great superpowers, through their respective Intelligence apparati, be somehow a less respectable or relevant subject than the vicissitudes of a Hungarian farmer, a Chilean miner, a Chicago salesman, or a Russian physician? There are few other writers with as just a claim to international fame, recognition and accomplishment as he.

In March of this year (2010), John le Carré let his hair down just a bit to give a lecture at Oxford University. Here is the second half of the text of that speech. I don't know if the man is much given to talking shop; this is mostly composed of anecdotes. But it's pieces and incidents like this from which interesting fictions may be inspired and derived.


I took my family to Greece for a year, then to Vienna for another. I pined for my vanished colleagues and the chatter of the corridors and the daily buzz.
Stuck in the trough of self-doubt that follows a big success, I came up with a spy story that told of catastrophic failure and cover up. Alan Dulles, former head of the CIA, pronounced it the real McCoy. My readers were less sure.
I returned to England, wrote a novel set in the British Embassy in Bonn that dwelt on Germany's unvanquished Nazi past.
I wrote a love story and it bombed.

* * *

It was during this same troubled period of my life that I experienced a surreal end-piece to my career in the secret world.
I was languishing in Somerset, trying to live the life of a settle writer and a country gentleman, and fearing I was neither. My front doorbell rang.
Before me stood Sir Roger Hollis, former Director-General of MI5, whom I had got to know a bit in the line of duty. He was soliciting donations for Wells Cathedral where his father had served as Bishop.
Of course, I said. Come in. I'll sign you a cheque.
So he came in. And stayed in.
Sitting in my studio in its one armchair.
Reading his Times newspaper.

* * *

And I crouched at my desk and pretended to write, while I beat my brains out trying to fathom what on earth he wanted of me.
He must have come four or five times over a period of a few weeks, to sit in my studio and read his newspaper while I pretended to work.
It was only years later that I read that during this time Hollis was being subjected to hostile interrogation by Government lawyers in London who were determined to prove that all the cock-ups on his watch were the result of a conspiracy, and that Hollis was the Russian spy responsible for all of them.
Which he wasn't. H never had been, as the world now knows. Those cock-ups on his watch were just cock-ups.
And it is my sad conviction that the poor man was using my studio as a safe house where he could rest his weary head between their assaults on him.

* * *

I was in low water.
Or thought I was.
I seemed to have run dry, the writer's nightmare.
I wanted to write a story about how a secret service could be turned inside out to the point where it was operating against itself.
But how to tell it? The complications seemed insoluble.
Above all, how to tell it without George Smiley, because by then, he and I had had a serious falling out. My readers might still fancy him, but I was sick of him.
When you're a forty-year-old writer, as I was, and having a Force 12 mid-life crisis, there's not a lot of incentive to re-enter the over-familiar soul of a man too old even to be your father, who has a tart for a wife, and wipes his spectacles on the fat end of his tie.
Or so I reasoned.
For six months I flogged away, and every time Smiley knocked at my door, I refused to let him in. Until one day I took the entire manuscript--boxes of it--up to the headland of the Cornish cliff where I was living and put a match to it.
My wife told me later she had a copy in the office, but that just spoils a good story.
So obviously, all I could do after burning the manuscript was swallow my pride and open the door to Smiley after all. No context. He had won.
And no sooner had he won than he was stolen from under my nose by Alex Guinness, leaving me with nothing to do but complete the Karla trilogy, and enjoy the master-class.

* * *

"May I speak to David Cornwell, please?"
"Hullo, Alec."
"How did you know it was me?"

* * *

Alec wanted to meet a real spy. I introduced him to Sir Maurice Oldfield, a former Chief of MI6.
For years the press had insisted that Oldfield was the model for Smiley which, despite a physical similarity, simply wasn't true.
But after a long lunch in Chelsea, if my Smiley wasn't based on Sir Maurice Oldfield, from now on, Alec's was.
And when Oldfield, after a brandy or two, got up from the table, and strode off down the King's Road swinging his umbrella, Alec was out on the pavement in a flash, studying his movements with the same intensity with which, we are told, he studied orang-utans in London Zoo.
Then he hurried back to the table, sat down, grabbed a water glass and started running his finger round the rim.
"I've seen people do this before," he said.
Then he gave the glass a meditative flick with his forefinger:
"And I've seen people do this."
Then he put his forefinger inside the glass, and whirled it round the inside of the rim.
"But I've never seen anyone do this before. Do you think he's looking for the dregs of poison?"

* * *

But Smiley and I hadn't buried the hatchet. The Cold War was on its last legs. I longed for it to end. Did Smiley? I wasn't sure.
But how to plan my escape?
Smiley was above all a European. All right, from now on I would write about non-European places: Asia, the Middle East, Central America, Africa, the Caucasus.
Here are a few snapshots from the album of my writing life after Smiley.

* * *

In Phnom Penh and Saigon, cosseted by seasoned foreign correspondents, I had my first glimpse of warfare, and human courage and cowardice in the raw.
The cowardice was mostly mine.

* * *

In an opium den in Vientiane, I reclined beside a French colon who, when the pain of missing France became too much for him, would place a telephone call to the Café Flore in St Germain, personal for Mademoiselle Génévieve du Clos.
Then he would listen to her name being called out above the babble of customers--Mademoiselle du Clos, Mademoiselle du Clos--until the cafe hung up.

* * *

At the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, a waiter whispered to me over dinner: Mr David, Our Chairman will see you now!
For an hour boys with Kalashnkovs drove me without lights round Beirut in a sand-coloured Volvo. In a block of flats peppered with shell holes, the lift was miraculously working.
ON the twelfth floor, in a hermetically sealed apartment filled with Palestinian flags and cigarette smoke, Arafat's High Command sat waiting.
I sat with them. Finally he entered. Black and white keffiyeh. Silver pistol at his side. Khaki uniform with razor-sharp creases.
Mr David! Why have you come to see me?
Mr Chairman, I have come to put my hand on the Palestinian heart!
Arafat seizes my hand and presses it to his breast!
Mr David, it is here!
We embrace. His beard is as soft as a girl's hair, and he smells of Johnson's baby powder.

* * *

An Israeli Intelligence colonel in his twenties drove me into the Negev desert to mee a young German woman terrorist from the Baader Meinhoff years who was being held in a secret prison. Her name was Brigitte.
The prison Governor, a much older woman, summoned her and introduced us to one another in English, which was evidently their common language, and sat with us, patiently, while I interviewed Brigitte in German.
Soon she got bored with me and asked the Governor, in English, to be taken back to her cell.
A guard was called and Brigitte was taken away. The Governor and I sat alone.
"I never have to let her know that I was speak German," she confessed to me--in German. "You see, I was in Dachau. I know voices like hers a little bit too well."

* * *

In the first free-enterprise restaurant in what was still Leningrad, in the year of perestroika in 1987, I sipped tea with Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who, having provided the Soviet Union with its hydrogen bomb, had become its leading persecuted champion of human rights.
He and his wife Elena Bonner had just been released from Gorki after eight years of incarceration. Sakharov described the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev urged him to return to Moscow and take his place in the new Russia.

* * *

In the Russian Embassy in London, I dined with Yevgeny Primakov, then Russian Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister, and a former head of the KGB.
So who do you identify with in my work, Yevgeny?
Smiley, of course!

* * *

In Panama City, the fifty-something President Endara summons me to the Palace of Herons and introduces me to his very young student bride as she crouches on the floor in jeans, doing Lego with Endara's children.
Darling. Meet the great writer, John le Carré.
The name means nothing to her, as her expression makes embarrassingly clear.
But darling, he is a genius!
The old diplomat stirs in me.
Madam President, there is no reason why you should have heard of me. But you will be familiar with Michele Pfeiffer and Sean Connery who both starred in a recent film of my work.
The new First Lady's gaze softens.
You know Mr Connery?
Well, met him a few times, you know.
You are very welcome in Panama.

* * *

And of course the President was right: I am a genius--but only alas because I comply with Scott Fitzgerald's definition of the man who can hold two opposing views on any one subject and still function.
My garden in Cornwall is presently being desecrated by badgers. I wire up their holes. I barricade my plants.
But secretly, I want the badgers to win.

* * *

I will leave you with the words of Joseph Brodsky. We were having lunch together in Hampstead when the news was brought to him that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We walked out into the sunshine and embraced.
"And now," he said, "for a year of being glib."


Craig said...

My dad has read nearly all of Le Carre's novels, most of them several times. He may have read one of two of them before he went into private practice as a clinical psychologist around 1980. It's practically the only fiction he's read in the past thirty years. I think it appeals to him because confidential communication with clients from all walks of life, helping them to sort out their difficulties, can have much in common with the intrigues of the spy world.

I started one or two Le Carre novels, but never got through any of them. They make me feel claustrophobic. I see him as the Dickens of the Cold War era.

J said...

I started one or two Le Carre novels, but never got through any of them. They make me feel claustrophobic...

I made it through about 20 pages or so of one--, fell asleep, nauseated....then... the recurring V2 dream. Watching the Tinker- Tailor thing on PBS years ago: was waiting for like John Cleese to arrive doing the Silly Walks sketch

Pynchon for NP-Lit, Sir F.

Kirby Olson said...

I started one on an airplane, -- the Spy who came in from the Cold, and just couldn't do more than the first ten pages. There was something so icky about it, it was like looking into the mind of a man who had been in a cryogenic refrigerator for several centuries.

I'm sometimes incredulous at your choices for reading. Venn Diagrams would show however that we do have some things in common!

Is there humor of any kind in this writer?

I think it's the weirdest choice you've ever presented here!

He strikes me as a guy who never laid in the sun and just relaxed.

Word verification: untan.

Curtis Faville said...


The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is probably Le Carré's least interesting book--at least for me. It's very grey and flat.

It was innovative however in portraying the realities of spy work, whereas genre had mostly been confined to the heavily romanticized romance previously.

Tinker Tailor, Smiley's People, The Russia House, and A Perfect Spy are all much better books, and I'd recommend those. Tinker is his best, and Perfect Spy the most personal.

I think Le Carré did indeed "lie in the sun"--else he would have stayed in the Secret Service and never ventured out of the office!

מבול said...

This guy has written a lot of books. His two or three earliest are tentative. His numerous later books ( after Tinker Tailor ) are perfunctory and formulaic, stale and predictable. Spy and Tinker are in a class by themselves. Le Carré could see the need to render something in prose, was able to compose entirely in his head, and then set it down - in long hand. Dickens couldn't do this. The description of Tempelhof Airport in Spy, the incident of the owl in Tinker, Tom Tower striking the evening six in Tinker. Nobody else can get this. And it cannot be made into a movie, which is one reason the Alec Guinness thing is a failure.

Curtis Faville said...


I wouldn't disagree with anything you've said here, except for the bit about Guinness. I've always been an admirer of his, so it's difficult to think of his efforts as being somehow inadequate. He reportedly gained a lot of weight to play the role, and consulted at length with Le Carré before setting out to create Smiley.

There were parts of Tinker and A Perfect Spy which I agree could not be brought to the screen. Which is a failure I've commented on previously here and elsewhere on the internet. All his books were written, I think, as literature, without an eye to their being adapted to the cinema. That's a strength qua literature, but presents some insurmountable obstacles to adaptation. Thanks for commenting!

Craig said...

I think it was The Little Drummer Girl that got my dad hooked on Le Carre. Wiki describes it as the only one of his novels that transcended the genre and points to the absence of George Smiley as its notable feature.