I’ve long believed the Nobel committee should bestow its laurel, at least once, on a genre novelist. Someone like Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Anne Rice, Patricia Highsmith, JRR Tolkien, or Elmore Leonard whose work generally takes a recognizable form — say, the detective, horror, scifi, or romance novel — yet at its best transcends that form to rank among the very best works of world literature. My nominee is John le Carré, who died before Christmas at the age of 89.
I was late to le Carré (David Cornwell). I’ve never been a fan of spy novels. I rolled my eyes the first time I read that Philip Roth considered A Perfect Spy to be the greatest British novel since the Second World War. Better than Ishiguro? Graham Greene? Anthony Powell? Iris Murdoch? Another dozen names flashed to mind. It was impossible. I was slow to Roth, too, after reading that.
Later I picked up A.N. Wilson’s Our Times, a history of England in the reign of Elizabeth II. I enjoy Wilson especially for the cultural lens through which he views the passage of time. Particular paintings, novels, or works of music are accorded a significance usually reserved for elections, wars, and economic calamities. He explained how much more there was to le Carré than clock-and-dagger thrills.
The 1950s and 1960s brought a string of stunning revelations of well-born, well-educated Brits serving as Soviet agents. The likes of Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby. In le Carre’s hands, these defections provided a template through which to address British decline in the post-war period, a time of real distress in the U.K, made especially unpalatable for the conspirators by the fact that the U.S. and the Soviets were meanwhile racing ahead for global domination and the heavens. Writes Wilson:
The British could not afford spaceships and rockets. The Union flag was never going to be planted on the moon, but in the ideological conflict between big clumsy market-led democracy and big brutal Marxist-Leninism, a certain breed of British could indulge in skills which they had perfected at their public schools: double-think, lying and treachery.
The double-think is especially important if we are to understand the spies, and the creepy-silly-undeveloped-schoolboy world they inhabited.”
All of this is uniquely captured by le Carré, writes Wilson, and something more: “The resentment at the loss of British power in the world fed into a hatred of America, which derived real satisfaction from the notion of joining forces with the only power in the world which could at that date plausibly challenge the military muscle and political influence of Washington.”
That was enough to get me to try A Perfect Spy, which may well meet Roth’s estimation (which has since been echoed by Ian McEwan, one of the best British novelists now writing). And from there I became a convert and read le Carré’s whole shelf.
The New York Times had the best obituary:
Wry, dryly funny, patrician, a great mimic, a seasoned anecdotalist, handsome into old age, his spoken sentences as beautifully constructed as his written ones, a lover of the crystalline prose and perfect plotting of P.G. Wodehouse, Mr. le Carré charmed the armies of interviewers who came to his cliff top house in Cornwall, where he liked to go for long walks. (He lived part-time in Hampstead, London, but avoided the literary social scene.) Spies came to visit, too, treating him like a kind of oracle for their own profession.
What set le Carré apart, gave him his edge, and kept it whetted from one decade to the next was his forensic skill. Ideas and passions, under his guiding hand, are never floated; they are tethered down and incarnated in his characters—in their particular speech patterns, and in the inch-by-inch inflection of their movements.
David was not so interested in the tech, the calibers or the weaponry. “That’s easy to get, and I can fill that in later,” he told me when we were alone. He wanted the feel of the relationships between the characters, the casual talk, the unexpected detail that resonated or revealed new depths.
After one meeting with a powerful senior agent, David remarked on the man’s “dorsal muscles,” and how they revealed his inner tension, power and control, all in conflict and all finely balanced, as if on a knife’s edge. Another time David pointed out that one agent he had just met really disliked another at the meeting, his boss. It was all communicated through the body language, the tone and the silences that hung in the air. It was only years later that I saw the enmity between them emerge and I realized David had been right.
The best and truest quote about the novelist I’ve read over the last month was from Timothy Garton Ash two decades ago in the New Yorker:
Thematically, le Carré’s true subject is not spying. It is the endlessly deceptive maze of human relations: the betrayal that is a kind of love, the lie that is a sort of truth, good men serving bad causes and bad men serving good.
I’d second that and go a bit further. John le Carré was a chronicler of the crisis of human identity that befell the Western World towards the end of a tumultuous and ruinous century, and that remains perhaps the most vexing problem of our times.
Not incidentally, his prose stands with any of his contemporaries’ for economy, clarity, precision, and fluidity. A true master.
He’ll never win the Nobel — although he’s at least as deserving as Dylan — but he doesn’t need it. And he might not have wanted it. From the NY Times: “He said he would never accept a knighthood or other state honor, though there were offers. ‘I don’t want to be Sir David, Lord David, King David,’ he said. ‘I don’t want any of those things. I find it absolutely fatuous.’”