Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Le Carre: a romance of words

[Enter Post Title Here] I am not going to discuss a specific book in this post. Instead, I want to talk about one of my favorite authors, John Le Carre. His work is my personal gold standard for stories about espionage and such, and I read a lot of those. I discovered Le Carre’s work in college. I happened to read “A Small Town in Germany”, and I was hooked, for life. I’ve read most, if not all, of his books, and while I prefer his Cold War stories, and will read and reread anything that features George Smiley, I love them all. I find his work deeply satisfying on a number of levels. They are, I suspect, far more realistic about the methods and mindsets of most secret agencies. They don’t depend on either gadgetry or violence; rather, they are stories about people who may or may not be professional spies. There is action, of course, but it is supported by the thoughtful preparation of minutiae and exploration of motivation. When the action scenes do come, they are at the pinnacle of an extremely carefully constructed pyramid, and more effective because of that. By the time the guns come out, we care about the people involved on both sides of the fight, and we understand both the necessity and the tragedy of what happens. For Le Carre, as for George Smiley, violence is the last and least preferable resort. The agents and support staff aren’t super heroes, nor are they ultra beautiful people. They are as flawed and complicated as I, the reader, am; they have warts, they might be dumpy or ungainly, some of them drink far too much, some have obstreperous children that keep threatening to disrupt important meetings, but all of them know what they must do, and do it well. There are, of course, plenty of office politics, and they are, in many ways the same that we, the readers deal with. They are petty and venal, and sometimes they result in unfairness and injustice; but in the end, it is the service that survives. I find Le Carre’s work satisfying intellectually. The gentleman can write! His prose is, in its quiet way, exquisite, and he has drawn word pictures that have stayed in my memory for years. Sometimes I’ll forget exactly in which book a scene occurred, but I acutely remember, for example, George Smiley coming home from one of his rambles and looking up at his bedroom window, only to see his wife Anne, stretching as luxuriously as a well satisfied cat, with her head turned to speak to someone. Each word of that description was calculated to pierce the heart of the reader, so that it was hard not to cry out, with George Smiley “Oh, Anne!” There are many, many such moments in this canon, but talking much about them, out of context, would spoil the joy of discovery when reading the books. I once had the pleasure of listening to an interview with John Le Carre on public radio, and, as part of that interview, he read a bit from his latest book. He reads almost as well as he writes, and, perhaps oddly, the cadence of his words, his tone, his emphases, were exactly the same as I “heard” them in my mind, and had done for 40 years. His writing flows like a quiet, deep river. The rocks, shoals and whirlpools are there, but they always come as a surprise. Suddenly, we are caught up in an implacable current, and we rush from point to point with the characters. Character development is, of course, one of the foundations of good literature, and again, Le Carre excels. His characters are a mix of traits, noble and petty, confident and tortured, each with his or her own demons, and, at least usually, each with redeeming qualities that make them too human to hate entirely. Each of them, in various ways, hold up mirrors in which we can see part of ourselves, and so, we are almost forced, if we want to be honest, to relate to them; and yes, that includes the villains, including Carla and Anne. They interact with us and with the other characters as they must, given who they are, and we end up knowing very well who they are. Like most genre fiction, there are patterns we expect. In some ways, these books can be classified as formulaic …the service must catch a spy, and prevent plots from coming to fruition; yet, within those perimeters, each story is unique, and each book leaves the reader slightly changed, and wanting more by this author. bb

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