Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive acc
" Spying is waiting. " - The Russia House, 1989
Adam Sisman's large, official biography of 'coldwar laureate' John le Carré, is a fairly exhaustive account of the family background and business dealings of the famous writer. Occasionally it is able to glance beneath the surface, though it operates under the cover of Authorized Bio and feels like le Carré had veto privilege. Long before this volume it had been established that le Carré worked for the Secret Service in some capacity after the war; generally this bio goes no further than what is already known, and does not much to strip the secrecy away from the murky past.
Mr. le Carré is established as a mercurial, conflicted young man, both stirred and shaken by the exploits of his unreliable, criminal con-man father. That he was sent to private schools put him within range of the Secret Services, who actively recruited in those quarters. It appears that Oxford and Cambridge both supplied footsoldiers in the Intelligence wars, and were necessarily fertile grounds for plotting and Red hunting amongst the dreaming spires.
Nothing happens to le Carré in a vacuum, however, and his early years coincided with the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, the Berlin Wall and the Airlift, Kim Philby, Cuban Missile Crisis. Keeping track fairly vicariously, author Sisman is able to convey the effect or what may have influenced the beginner spymaster along the way; it is left to the reader to draw the inevitable lines from the events to the books like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
By mid-life le Carré is married and a philanderer; the facts are firm but understandably neither author, Sisman or le Carré-- is very forthcoming on what drove the events. In a bio where the subject is participating, it would seem that infidelity is one of the red lines that gets drawn early in the proceedings. After his escape from academia, le Carré would always travel widely, appearing and disappearing where he pleased, often without notice; while it's tempting to ascribe some of this mysterioso to a longterm service engagement in MI6, it is just as explainable as youthful hedonism, stepping out on the wife and kids whilst maintaining an alternative aura to suit the new job.
After a couple of books, le Carré was no beginner spymaster in an underling capacity; in graduating on paper to Narrative Spymaster, he was now running the show, and on both sides of the geopolitical table. To his credit, Sisman does find room to equate tensions, deceptions and dualities in the extramarital realm with the content and mood of the written work, concerned as it is with double agents and misdirection.
Let's have an interesting example! Here we must introduce the Binghams. John Bingham was the young le Carré's manager for awhile in MI6. He was also an accomplished author of intrigue/ suspense novels, but less in the realm of 'spycraft', and more in the Hitchcockian 'wrong man' or innocent-enmeshed-in-evil school. It was understood amongst the secret services that anything done for print or media would always be forbidden unless buried beneath layers and layers of narrative analogy-- and Bingham's books preserved that agreement; le Carré's books did not, quite so much, edging close to the legality line, and to the limits of the Official Secrets Act, which both men had signed long before.
The interesting part emerges when the case is made that 1) John Bingham was a fair percentage of what comprised le Carré's fictional 'George Smiley' character, and that 2) Smiley's wife in the le Carré books, named Ann*, was unfaithful to him and subjected him to understated mockery in the service. It transpires that the real wife of John Bingham, named Madeleine, participated in, and is often dismissed, in the present bio, as unreliable or uncooperative. It also transpires that Mrs Bingham, Madeleine, found this Smiley=Bingham equation distasteful, and also to imply that Ann Smiley=Mrs Bingham. With the infidelity element included, she was not at all pleased, by any of it. The reader does get the sense that le Carré took lightly any sense of harming real-world people, and in fact may have found some amusement in the double game.
Overall, the biography here doesn't satisfactorily discuss the work, the literary world, of John le Carré and the inhabitants he invented. It is easy enough to run thru the regularly reported themes, the inversion of the glittering James Bond world of casinos and fantastic villains to the banal and frowsy world of le Carré. Which was austerity Britain, with its little men who spy on each other. But Sisman isn't able to make the bigger case, of what the tragedy of the little official liars meant to a once-great Empire, or the domestic tragedy, that of learning and teaching deception, what it may mean to humanity.
An example of which, quoted near the end of the book but not discussed: "To categorize le Carré as a spy novelist is to do him a disservice; he uses the world of cloak-and-dagger much as Conrad used the sea--to explore the dark places in human nature."** Exactly so.
Although there are a few good tricky bits here, the general scope of this bio comes to outlining le Carré repeating the cycle : idea and research, often with travel, obstacles to completion solved by rewrite and general endurance, dealmaking, publishing, then the reviews, profits, screenplay and movie. Which might interest publishing insiders, but quickly goes pretty dry for the average reader. As le Carré himself put it (in describing the translation to the screen): You sit there and watch this great cow you've designed-- reduced to a bouillon cube.
Sisman's bio is that, a series of connected bouillon cubes, all leading up to but never revealing the secretive and dissembling cow-of-origin. Or something. _________________________ * Mr le Carré for some reason used the name of his own wife, the mother of his children, "Ann" --for the snippy and unfaithful --fictional-- Mrs Smiley. And to recap, that would be during the period that he was gaining international renown while also cheating on her all over Europe. ** Washington Post review of le Carré's Mission Song, Phillip Caputo, 2oo6. ...more
It had been an extraordinarily hard six years since the end of the war--in some ways even harder than the years of the war itself.
David Kynaston, Afte
It had been an extraordinarily hard six years since the end of the war--in some ways even harder than the years of the war itself.
David Kynaston, Afterword
From what gets dutifully reported in this huge volume, the battle with austerity and desperation was a fearsome fight in Britain following the war. Whole blocks, neighborhoods, sections of London and other cities were devastated; and the population that got out from under were basically devastated again. Those who were lucky enough to see VE day were often forced into situations that crushed spirits and weakened the resolve that should have come with Victory. Beyond the destruction was huge national debt to be repaid under the Lend-Lease treaty, the continuation of shortages and rationing, and a nation more geared toward khaki, blackout curtains and munitions than peacetime.
The war still lingered, not only in the bombed places but in people's minds and behavior. Any conversation tended to drift towards the war, like an animal licking a sore place. 1949, Doris Lessing.
No shortage of national resolve though, in the heroic efforts to get the nation back on its feet; the Britons that had refused to grow 'vegetables-only' per wartime edict, defiantly keeping their gardens in flowers secretly-- would make the postwar push. What soon became obvious was that not only was the rebuilding going to require intensive effort, but that what got built was not really going to resemble what came before it. Britain was a tumbling empire coming down off its Victorian and Edwardian highs. Neglected or ignored concessions to modernity had to be faced up to in the postwar era, and new solutions were disconcertingly the only solutions :
The very first thing to win is the Battle of Planning. We shall need to have planning on a national scale, boldly overstepping the traditional boundaries of urban council, rural council, County Council. Boldly overstepping the interests described so often as vested. 1943, Beveridge Report.
In Kynaston's book the planning never ends, even in the rear-view mirror; the Labour government headed by Atlee is at once lionized for symbolizing a new, integrated Britain and then derided for the fact that no symbolism could leverage an entire nation out of the ditch. There is much that is judged to be integral to any new plan-- new philosophies about class and education-- but there was no budging on policy by those interests described by Sir Wm. Beveridge as 'vested'. The more it would change, the more it would stay the same.
Wobbly on its feet the new government proved very susceptible to public opinion, as after all the whole war effort had been shouldered by that public to defend and preserve, but also the public had changed. Immigration, wartime loss, class shifts and a new broader sense of international scale had opened up new avenues for inclusion, society-wide change. From urban design to the new National Health service Britain would embark on a more humanitarian path. The vested interests were best advised to accept and invest rather than drag heels.
It is never so stated in the book, but rides just underneath Kynaston's narrative, that the Fifties were coming, and great seismic rumblings were in their infancy. The second brutal war in just a half century had worn down barriers; the unblinking vigilance of purely Market force was distracted, frayed. The burdens of humanitarianism, worker protections, health, welfare and housing concerns began to push at the door of this rigid capitalist, militarist, banking & manufacturing economy. Beyond the typical needs and requirements, a philosophical change seems to have taken hold.. people had opened their eyes, Britain was not a castle nor its populace grateful serfs; they'd earned a voice in what would take place, and wouldn't be having more of the same dreary war-austerity-war cycles.
Kynaston's book itself does battle with the scale of the proceedings-- how to navigate from the grand historical arc down to the necessary minutiae without losing the thread. Overall he does very well with marshaling the representative data, but he's fairly dull going about it. (In a book about drabness and drear, this has to be a fight waged in every sentence..) As much as it's painful to think so, he could do with a bit more of the dramatic voicings of the Ken Burns documentary school of history; sometimes the lists and factoid blizzards in the 632 pages here are simply overwhelming.
Once in a while, though, a direct-from-the-era excerpt rings hauntingly true. Working on a schools report in 1950, journalist Laurence Thompson is quoted, searching out signs of new life in an otherwise-banal girls gymnastics class, in a Secondary Modern school :
They had the lithe, long-limbed grace which schoolgirls have, and schoolboys have not. They swung from ropes and leapt over horses with a panache and freedom of limb which took my breath away. I found myself thinking, in the gloomy way one does, that in a few years they would be doping themselves with the pictures three times a week in order to endure their stuffy offices and factories; they would be standing packed in buses; suffering the sniggering, furtive unlovely approach to love in a cold climate; growing old under the burden of children, household duties, fear of war...
But a change was at hand, and it was beginning to emerge in the late forties of Kynastons period here; that it would develop for another ten years before exploding into the Swinging London of the 60's wasn't yet apparent. This is a valuable history, (over)packed with game-changers, large and small. I'm signing up for the whole ride. Next up, 'Family Britain, 1951-1957'.
Burgess being crafty and funny.. a direct send-up of the espionage and suspense genre that somehow manages to keep the reader going back and forth betBurgess being crafty and funny.. a direct send-up of the espionage and suspense genre that somehow manages to keep the reader going back and forth between cliffhanging and just laughing. As if Kingsley Amis had written From Russia With Love as a satire inside an adventure. Cue theme ...Lucky Jim--oo7.
[not read recently enough for more thorough review, but still resonates as maybe closer to five stars than not; time for a reread]...more
"...we'll probably go on talking to Lyalin until the end of his life. There are always loose ends, things in the past, old stories
"...we'll probably go on talking to Lyalin until the end of his life. There are always loose ends, things in the past, old stories with a new angle, procedural stuff, structures, order of battle and so on. There was one particular minor mystery, a cryptonym no one could crack because the information was too vague..."
There's no good way to discuss this without reference to at least part of the outcome; even more tricky is that what's going on doesn't really work very smoothly. We have a first-person narrative via a female narrator who is later revealed to be her opposite number, a secret and concealed male meta-narrator. I suppose the ill-at-ease nature of the main story might be called 'intentional' in that light-- neither the meta-Narrator nor the actual Author are females, so telling a woman's tale, in her voice, might have distancing elements. Well, yeah.
More than once now I've found McEwan kind of a disappointment, giving us a book that could have been something beautifully designed and engrossing but resulting in just being engrossing, as the design unravels and trips itself up on it's own clever intentions.
It's An Ouroboros. The thing from mythology, a serpent that eats its own tail. As we get to the final chapter's revelations, we realize that the whole thing's been a fraudulent, perhaps shambolic story made up in reverse by the people represented therein.
Shorter version of our subject here, a shaggy-dog story wherein the dog is pretty much out-storied by the details of the shagging, but with a real jolt in the end. Er, make that a jolt in the finale.
1. Get The Guests. Let's start with the small quibbles. For some reason McEwan thinks it may be entertaining to have some real-name literary personae-- actual contemporaries of his-- populating the publishing scene of the day. Maybe it's fun for the participants to decipher the clues with each other, but I have to think for the broad swath of general readership... it is not. It does provide a kind of push-pull that provides some separation, or distance, from the central thread of the story.
While we're on names, they're pretty overdone, intentionally, of course. Our heroine is given the fateful notification of her secret career by Harry Tapp. Peter Nutting seems to be in charge. Shirley Shilling is a working stiff who turns against her and Max Greatorex at first runs her casework portfolio, while becoming a vengeful Ex along the way. There are more of those; who does this anymore ?
McEwan writes beautifully when his design permits. This passage grounds us perfectly in the era, without any reference to contemporary events:
...it was supposed to be a convertible but the concertina metal bits that supported the canvas top were too rusted to fold back. This old MGA had a map light on a chrome stem, and quivering dials. It smelled of engine oil and friction heat, the way a 1940s Spitfire might. You felt the warm tin floor vibrate beneath your feet... I shoved my bag into the tiny space behind me, and felt the seat's cracked leather snag faintly against the silk of my blouse...
And yet, with this kind of deft atmospheric spin at his service, nearly all period references are dropped, about halfway through the novel, as we move on to the drama aspects in depth. A waste of a compelling palette there, it seems to me, and consistency suffers if ignoring the period in favor of the theatrics.
2. Hump The Hostess. It must be said that nearly every age-appropriate male who enters the scene has his way with our dithering narrator-heroine. Each and every instance is wildly different, so this may be chalked up to exposition. Okay, maybe. Lucky for all of us she's a speed-reading lit-aficionado who happens to have graduated in math at Cambridge.
Once we move into dramaville, some of this topsy-turvy characterization is left to drift away; there are abrupt shifts with unexpected inclusions that take us away from the central protagonist. We have several 'short stories' described to us in nearly full detail, we have a finale that is voiced not by our heroine but by the male meta-Narrator, and within that we have an excursion that discusses some exploits of Brit Counterintelligence during the war. In case we were in the mood for that, just when he was finally about to explain the game. When we get back to our multi-threaded heroine, in the end of the book, she's barely a shadow, and perhaps not even that.
Okay, fine, we get the idea; the Secret Service as an exchangeably similar pursuit to Interpersonal Relations, the false motives, traps, revelations, alibis, poses, disguises. But since this has been covered pretty successfully from Conrad to Greene to Maugham to Le Carré and beyond, this might best be balanced, subliminal, maybe something of an undertow. McEwan lights up the flashing metaphor sign to be sure everyone is aware.
3. Humiliate The Host. Once we get within the fences of that Finale, we are at leisure to contemplate that meta-Narrator, and his adjacent if complex interchangeability with the real author. Not sure this is as brilliant as when Joyce did it, when Nabokov did it or-- whether Literature as we know it is a one-trick pony, and thus ever the game. The hero-c'est-moi reveal is maybe a little threadbare by now.
For a long list of reasons, Sweet Tooth is sadly not the book it could be. Somehow elevating the story's concerns to a game of counterespionage and name-the-famous-author undercuts its value. Uppermost on that list is that it goes beyond the call of duty to distance, parse, encode, frame, re-frame and twist a narrative that was probably better off without all that, on its own native powers of persuasion.
In some ways this is the opposite of the Banville / Black conundrum. John Banville is a great writer who veers dubiously off track when he tries his hand at mysteries, as pseudonymic Benjamin Black. McEwan is a much-better-than-average mystery writer, who only earns the 'dubious' asterisk when he literaturizes an otherwise lovely tale and setting. ...more
A little over-achieving in the early chapters, where Deighton launches every disconcerting jump-cut, jarring montage or snap-zoom that he can; a symptA little over-achieving in the early chapters, where Deighton launches every disconcerting jump-cut, jarring montage or snap-zoom that he can; a symptom of the times, probably, and certainly influenced by the Pop Media of the day.
Once the flashy business is over and we're into the actual storyline, the novel improves considerably. Here we're back on familiar ground and the better-known Deighton environs that were notable in The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin. The great strengths of this kind of espionage novel are the practicalities and detailing. How to tap a phone, spot a dead drop, all the tradecraft basics, of course, but also the clanky day-to-day grit of postwar Europe in the late fifties-- the small airports, the tube, trains, cabs in cluttered cities not designed around the automobile.
The truth is that there isn't much here beyond the usual scenario to get excited about; the reason for this genre of spy novel certainly is no longer the pacing, hush-hush gadgetry or casual sex that were once the main draw; they have long been surpassed in ever-more-senseless & accelerated form.
For myself the attraction here is that very grounded, gritty, and cuppa-tea-love? mode of coldwar mise en scène, a style that really originated in the John Buchan novels of the early part of the century.
There's a wealth of mid-century analog here, presented as high-tech:
Deep down in the lower basement of the Central Register building the air is warmed and filtered. Two armed police-men in their wooden office photgraphed me with a Polaroid camera and filed the photo. The big gray metal cabinets hum with the vibration of the air-conditioning fans, and on the far side of the wooden swing doors is yet another security check waiting. Perhaps this is the most secret place in the world. I asked for Mr. Cassel and it took a little time to find him. He greeted me, signed for me, and took me into the inner sanctum. On both sides of us the cabinets rose ten feet high, and every few paces we dodged around stepladders on wheels, or around the serious-faced W.R.A.C. officers who service the records... We came to a low room that looked like a typing pool. In front of each clerk was an electric typewriter, a phone with a large number painted where the dial should be, and a machine like a typewriter carriage. Each document received from cmmmercial espionage or governmental departments is retyped by the men in this room... Kevin Cassel's office was a glass-walled eyrie reached by a step wooden staircase. From it we could see perhaps two acres of files. Here and there were brick columns on which hung red buckets and soda-lime fire extinguishers.
A lost underground world of secrecy. Fortunately this story also takes place on distant location, the coast of Portugal, where the narrative stalks the kind of territory Ian Fleming loved so much. And there is no scarcity of improbable developments here, though as with either Buchan or Fleming, it doesn't really matter much.
We don't purchase the ticket for this ride to complain about plausibility. It's the carnival of primitive postwar paranoia, with diabolical patterns hidden in plain sight; the bigger picture is painted in the tone and in the mood, with their reflections in the gray & minimalist art direction.
As with the previous masters, Fleming, Buchan, Eric Ambler & Graham Greene as well-- there is always a place in the proceedings for perplexing uncertainty:
I dozed until-- plonk, plonk --the undercarriage came down and cabin lighting was turned fully bright to open sleep-moted eyes. As the plane rumbled to a halt, anxious holiday-makers clasped last year's straw hats and groped toward the exit door. "Goodnightsirandthankyou .. goodnightsirandthankyou ... goodnightsirandthankyou..." The stewardess bestowed a low communion upon departing passengers. The plump man edged his way along the plane toward me. "Number twenty-four," he said. "What?" I said nervously. "You are number twenty-four," he said loudly. "I never forget a face." "Who are you?" I asked. His face bent into a rueful smile. "You know who I am," he shouted. "You are the man in apartment number twenty-four and I am Charlie the milkman." "Oh yes," I said weakly. It was the milkman with the deaf horse. "Have a good holiday, Charlie. I'll settle up when you get back..."
As the most visibly catastrophic wreckage of the Cold War, the gray horror of life in the German Democratic Republic-- East Germany--- was carefully cAs the most visibly catastrophic wreckage of the Cold War, the gray horror of life in the German Democratic Republic-- East Germany--- was carefully choreographed by the security apparatus, the Stasi. The basics of state control were expanded to previously unimaginable heights with the Stasi's network of informants and secret police.
Anna Funder's participatory journalism brings the ghosts of this bizarre surveillance state out to tell their own story in the vivid Stasiland, which manages to be intriguing while astringent, morbidly fascinating. There are the grisly details like the Smell Jars and Radiation Tagging (too reminiscent of recent story of Mr Litvinenko), the nightmare of the Wall and the upside-down logic of the Security State. But the unforgettable moments are down to Human Nature in its very worst guises, always able to invent something a little worse or more manipulative for the right perk, price, or contraband slab of meat.
Like some "Crucible" of backbiting and vicious rumor gone viral, the intricate methodology of the Stasi to 'turn' the citizenry to inform against itself was unrivalled, it seems. In a poisoned atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, even innocent defensive postures were reconfigured to appear sinister, worthy of a "report" to the guardians, rewarded and duly noted in the files.
Ms Funder's somber account keeps true to the timbral properties-- the murk, must, and banality of the regime. The GDR period's emotional tenor of stifled hysteria, the tactile sense of the presence of cornered animals in every corner, is rendered by the prose style very directly. But as with any once-elaborate system in steep and irreversible decline, there's an odd beauty alongside the rot... There is a kind of enigmatic Home-For-The-Holidays feel here, but only if the holiday in question is another workday, and the home is Orwell's 1984.