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
Spoilers ahead. Before we get to everything else, and to some extent in spite of it, this was actually good. A complex set of plot and time lines inteSpoilers ahead. Before we get to everything else, and to some extent in spite of it, this was actually good. A complex set of plot and time lines intersecting all over the map, held up in the air in bright relief, for the surprisingly extensive length of the book.
With that done, the Quibbles. Steinhauer is surfing current events and the shifting sands of the Arab Spring in his framework for the plot of The Cairo Affair. Great. And what exactly is going on ? Well it's a rogue Cia analyst, with known ties to an unstable region, who goes operational (..do analysts ever go operational in the field ? I don't think they do..) on an independent mission ... and the Agency has given him unofficial permission.
That's the setup that begins the book and is necessary to establish our general theater of operations, as well as supplying the MacGuffin, in this case a list of rebel agents in Libya. Well-travelled ? Shopworn ? Extremely.
Fortunately the author runs the carousel of characters and locales well enough to obscure the thousand-times-familiar nature of the setup. Unfortunately, mid-book we have the central character transitioning from innocent to guilty, having deceived the reader and having been hidden by the author until then. And then is a little late in the game.
Having a look at the scoreboard: Plot is well constructed, ambitious, and coordinates impressive quantities of story data-points. Plus. Atmosphere is uneven and goes from not dialed-in successfully to missing in action for long stretches. Sorry, but if you have Budapest and Cairo as your main locales, more could be done to make them effective players in the story. Minus. Character is the big letdown here. It is neither solid enough, or random enough, to ring true enough for what's required.
All the white anglo agents are cyphers, and so are most of the arabs. The lead Sophie has no center (and does that weird 180 in the middle going), her darkside, Zora, is all bravura and externals, never a complete entity. The closest we get to a fully sketched character is Egyptian secret service man Omar Halawi, but entering only at mid-book, he signs in as too little, too late. In the land of cardboard characters, the three dimensional man ... stands out, like a mistake.
I suppose the verdict here is that this could have been a lot more than a thriller that qualifies as a beach read, but that it underachieved in a few too many crucial areas. Le Carré it is not.
Steinhauer has all the raw materials to go for the title, hopefully that will happen next time out.
*** meta-quibble: I do wish current thrillerish espionage efforts could abstain more from obvious bits of "screenplay bait" -- scenes, characterization, turns of plot-- that are transparently geared to sell the book to the movie studios. It gets tedious after a while, honestly. ...more
It's a fake Rolex watch on a street-hawker's tabletop where they spell Rolex wrong. Phases of the moon ? You bet, right here on the Rollecks, young siIt's a fake Rolex watch on a street-hawker's tabletop where they spell Rolex wrong. Phases of the moon ? You bet, right here on the Rollecks, young sir.
It's Bond's illegitimate mini-me, or a teen-aged Johnny Quest, it's commercial-trend-mining at its most blatant, and, I suspect, pretty cliffhangerishly awful.
But come on -- Whirling dervishes, a comely, simpatico Turkish girl, devious agents, exotica, mystery and the Balkans in dangerous, imagined-coldwar guise. I read this when I was 11. And then reread it, four more times. This may be my Rosebud.*
(I'm actively tracking down a copy; for some reason the finer vintage booksellers aren't much on color-pvc-jacketed tween kitsch from the sixties. Wonder why that is.)
*Then again, more appropriately, this may actually be my Monkees. I had already begun reading my father's Ian Fleming collection years before this came out, and for some reason this 'teen agent' business just hit home for an eleven-year-old in ways that Bond's cold appraising stare couldn't comprehend. Fully fake though it may be.
So a lot like the (very same) recordlover who put his Hard Day's Night to the side when the Last Train To Clarksville steamed through--- this was my beautiful, counterfeit, tweenage daydream. And a phony, guilty pleasure if ever there was one. I remember large type, broad margins, and not a heavy page-count; and unlike those racy-cover Flemings, I didn't need to read it in the garage. ...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
This is a good solid account of a very intriguing history. Actual story of intel operations in wartorn Europe ... deception, deals, camouflage, disinfThis is a good solid account of a very intriguing history. Actual story of intel operations in wartorn Europe ... deception, deals, camouflage, disinformation, scams, trickery ... spymasters and double agents galore. And with the protagonist a convicted felon, every trick has a few extra layers.
The tiniest details tell a lot : when they wanted to convince the other side that a certain secret chunk of war technology was available, deadly and miniaturized for easy concealment, the British Secret Service set about passing a story and a photo through the lines, via a double agent. He carried a special photo of the gizmo shown next to a wooden inch-ruler, to show scale. The other side wouldn't have known that the gizmo was real but the ruler was carefully constructed to be way over-scale, thus telling a slightly shady story of the miniaturization and the resulting deadliness....
MacIntyre has assembled a full slate of character & plot here, and does a lot better than 'Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche' which had some dull expanses along the way.
This is a great snowed-in winter weekend read, no fluff & no filler. Kind of like if the History Channel weren't quite so sleep-inducing.