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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Travelling in shadow with John Le Carre

A friend of mine’s father considers that there is no finer novel nor more complete intellectual exercise than the wonderful Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Although I don’t think I would go quite as far as that, I am very, very fond of it and very much in love with its hero, George Smiley. It came as a surprise therefore to recently discover that there is Smiley beyond the famous trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Two rather splendid novellas, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality kept me company on a recent trip to Italy.

In Call for the Dead, Smiley finds himself investigating the death of a civil servant who has only just been subjected (and passed) a security check by Smiley himself. He has apparently killed himself, but Smiley smells a rat and chases down the truth from leafy suburbia to dingy London pubs and Thames side garages. He is nearly killed twice but manages to survive with his wits, his outstanding spy-craft and the help of Mendal and Guillam (trusty side-kicks who will be familiar to Tinker, Tailor fans). I read the book in a hill-top town called Ravello on the Amalfi coast on a day when the whole place was blanketed in cloud and I think that rather helped me to get in the mood. I could just about see the page although neither I nor anyone else could see normal things like buildings and pavements.

The day after (and with a little more sunshine), I dived straight into A Murder of Quality. This is a strange novella for Smiley to have become embroiled in as it is really a straight forward murder mystery, with elements of spy wallpaper. It is not about espionage. Rather it is about the brutal murder of a non-conformist teacher’s wife in a public school. It deals, as Le Carre is wont to deal (and indeed, there is no reason why he shouldn’t) with the overwhelming significance of class in British society – its power to shape and distort and dehumanise.

These are simple easy books but they show how Le Carre never lets his standards slip. The writing is fluid and excellent, always saying just the right amount and never too much. His books are always about something and he never falls into the trap of thinking that because he has a genre that means that there is no need for substance or thought.

Smiley is a character who has repaid strenuous effort and thought on his creator’s part. He is a complex and flawed wonder. One can’t help but slightly take the impression that Smiley is an idealised version of Le Carre himself. He is divided between the intellectually curious academic and the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted memoriser of dangers, the wounded cuckold with much to prove and the Smiley who actually wants to win and to be the best. His social position is deliberately ambiguous, as Le Carre puts it in Call for the Dead “Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express”. His cleverness and reserved nature and loyalty to those who deserve it make him lovable, but equally he is a most flawed hero. Both Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality testify to this. I will not say how as I don’t want to spoil the books for readers of this blog – but he emerges at the end of both of them a little more shadowy than before.

Readers of this blog may recall that I have had a foray down the path of espionage before, and very much enjoyed it, here.

As usual there are other excellent opinions around. In particular from Double O Section and From Smiler with Love. I have included a picture of Le Carre and of Ravello, but for the purposes of this blog, you will have to imagine it dripping in cloud.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy (belated) birthday, Charles Dickens, you put this blogger to shame


I realise that I must be possessed of the procrastination gene. The reason for this is that during the international Charles Dickens is 200-fest which took place in February, I was actually reading (courtesy of a kind gift bearer) Claire Tomalin’s door stop biography Charles Dickens – a life. Yes, reader, I was so near to actually blogging on a topical subject that others were thinking of *at the same time*. However, the glare of the popular was all too much, and somehow it is now, in late March that I am finally cogitating over what I really thought of it.

When it comes to Charles Dickens, it is fair to say that I have history. That history is that I love his work, for all of its sentimentality, I absolutely love it. Also, I have always got the impression that, for all of the laudable charity work and modernity of the man, he was in many respects cruel and difficult. Tomalin’s book has not disabused me of either of these views, and so it has not revolutionised what I think about Dickens. As usual she is a cracking biographer, who sets the scene before her reader and does not make too many judgements.

There were probably 2 major revelations, 1 of which puts me to shame and the other of which is just a point of interest, for your delectation.

First, Tomalin really brings out and hammers home how astonishingly prolific Dickens was. Not for him, putting off a measly blog entry for 2 months. He could write 2 classics at once and it is not as though there were major sacrifices of quality or depth. No, he was just a remarkably fast and industrious worker. I am shamed, but also inspired.

Secondly, so much ink has been spilt on Dickens’ relationship with women, whether they be wives or daughters or mistresses or whores. What Tomalin does, which for me was new, was to look at his relationships with men.  One gets the impression that although he liked a good time, and his male friends had to be able to drink and carouse with the best of them – he did not like to be outshone. I found myself thinking that this attitude was somehow pre-figured by his troubled relationship with his charming, hopeless, feckless father. Dickens’ best friend, John Forster, was in some respects the most significant personal relationship of his life. It was certainly the longest lived and the least chequered. It suggests a trust and candour on Dickens’ part that I did not find so much evidence of in his other relationships.

Tomalin’s account of the breakdown of Dickens’ marriage is engaging. I have used the word “breakdown” but that is somehow wrong. The reality, for those who have not read about it, is that Dickens was married young to an apparently sweet although not enormously interesting young woman. After 22 years of married life, and upteen children, Dickens simply left her and lived in barely concealed sin with a young actress called Nellie Ternan. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: the story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens, next stop in the biography train, methinks.