John le Carré (1931-2020)

John le Carré was the greatest spy novelist of my generation and may have been the greatest ever. He passed away yesterday and here are three obits if you would like to catch up on the details: this from The Guardian and this from the BBC. This is the one from The Oz. As it happens, I have just finished reading (and given the nature of memory re-reading) some of his greats and am now in the middle of The Russia House and The Honourable Schoolboy, the one in my hands at any moment depending on the place I happen to be at the time.

Spy novels are to boys what romantic novels are to girls. Every literate person reads both, but after you have read all of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, what comes next? And spy stories set in actual historical settings has been my literature of choice for a long time. And with Le Carré, it is the same as Jane Austen, a fantastically deep writing style, unbelievably descriptive abilities with believable characters each with a personality of their own, even the most minor. And whether it is the middle of the Cold War or the middle of Perestroika, the politics of the moment are just the background to the tale. It may no longer be that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, just as it may never have been true that “the Cold War was over long before it was officially declared dead”. But the stories just carry you along by their own momentum. And the writing is unparalleled. This is from the page I am reading right now (The Russia House p 82):

He had made a base camp at his own end of the room on a stiff school chair as far away from us as he could get. He perched on it sideways to us, stooped over his whisky glass, which he held in both hands, peering into it like a great thinker or at least a lonely one. He spoke not to us but to himself, emphatically and scathingly, not stirring except to take a sip from his glass or duck his head in affirmation of some private and usually abstracted point of narrative. He spoke in the mixture of pedantry and disbelief that people used to reconstruct an episode such as a death or a traffic accident. So I was here and you were there and the other other chap came from over there.

So my first theme here is that if you have not read his novels, you perhaps should. But my second theme, which really comes out of the Russia House, an novel set at the end of the Cold War, is that we may find we in the West are heading into a world of samizdat and a world of dissidents. That we live in a world of madness should not be in doubt, but if you do have some residual reservations about where we are heading, read this by Nick Cater today: Worried about teen gender ‘craze’? You haven’t got a prayer. Here are the central points if you cannot open it up yourself:

The Premier who thought it was OK to handcuff a pregnant woman in her pyjamas for something she posted on Facebook has launched a fresh assault on freedoms hitherto thought sacrosanct.

Legislation before the Victorian parliament will make the act of prayer a criminal offence in some circumstances. Yet in an era when it is cool to self-identify as anything but a Christian, hardly anyone is making a fuss.

The pretext for the bill is transphobia, a contagion for which the Andrews government believes the church is a super spreader. It will be illegal to counsel a person to change or suppress their chosen gender identity. Prohibited actions include “carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice”….

The legislation cruised through the Victorian Legislative Assembly on Thursday afternoon with barely a murmur. The opposition demand for a period of consultation went the way of all Liberal Party amendments and the bill was on its way to the upper house by 10 past five.

Outside parliament, the response has been equally feeble, save for the interventions of the Australian Christian Lobby, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterians. Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop, Peter Comensoli, wrote: “No government has an interest in what a person prays for, who they pray to, who they pray with, or what conversations happen between members of a family.”

He is so 2019. And here’s the conclusion which may soon make articles like Nick’s illegal to say in public (or private).

We should be encouraging minors to seek a second, third or fourth opinion from doctors, priests, pastors and other professionals before embarking on a path that could alter their bodies irreversibly with a limited chance of improving their mental health.

Yet the Victorian law will make it illegal to do anything other than pat them on the head. The issue here is not the maturity of minors, but the intellectual immaturity of adults who exploit teenage anxiety for ideological ends.

What do you mean it can’t happen here. It already has.

MORE ON LE CARRÉ: This is a bit more on Le Carré and Jews: ‘A spiritual kinship’: When John Le Carre poured out his soul on Jews and Israel. Here is some, but as the cliché goes, read the whole thing.


This interview with John le Carre, conducted by Douglas Davis for the Jewish World Review, first appeared on January 1, 1998 under the headline “Not quite conventional”. It is republished here by kind permission of the author.
Some excerpts.

Not so surprising, perhaps, the most revealing clue to Le Carre’s own somewhat uncertain identity comes in his suggestion about the identity of his celebrated fictional character: “It is a sheer fluke,” says Le Carre, “that Smiley himself is not a Jew.” And then: “Perhaps he is.” …

At age 16, Le Carre finally escaped from the bizarre underworld of his father and the gloomy boarding schools to become what he describes as “a refugee” — again, the outsider — at Bern University in Switzerland and then Oxford, emerging with a degree in German literature.

But it was a visit to the “unbeautified camps” of Belsen and Dachau soon after the war that had a searing impact on the impressionable young novelist-in-the-making and proved to be a defining life experience: “To this day,” he says, “there is no museum and no film, however fine, not even a book, that can compare with the living impact of those places on me.”

One year later, he was back, this time as a young conscript — an intelligence officer — to trawl the “refugee cages” and question those who had been washed up from eastern and central Europe.

“Every day brought its tales of human tragedy,” he says. “Every day brought its reminders that whatever minor inconveniences I had suffered in my own life, they were a joke when set beside the real thing.

“And every day brought its Jews. Broken families with broken suitcases. These people are my business, I thought. There is something between their eyes and mine.” …

The persistence of Jews who insisted on inhabiting his work led inevitably to a fascination with Israel, but it was not until the early 1980s that Le Carre summoned up the courage to tackle a subject that “had long been in my sights, even if it had always scared the wits out of me: the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The result was The Little Drummer Girl.

“I knew nothing of the Middle East, but then I have always seen my novels as opportunities for self-education,” he says. “Investing my ignorance in my central character — a leftist English actress — and making a virtue of her naivety, I set off on a journey of self-enlightenment, living my character, leaning with each breeze — now toward Israel, now away from it — in a series of schizophrenic visits to Amman, Damascus, Beirut, South Lebanon and later Tunis. Then back to Israel, across the Allenby Bridge or by way of Cyprus.”

Israel, he says, “rocked me to my boots. I had arrived expecting whatever European sentimentalists expect — a re-creation of the better quarters of Hampstead [in London]. Or old Danzig, or Vienna or Berlin. The strains of Mendelssohn issuing from open windows of a summer’s evening. Happy kids in seamen’s hats clattering to school with violin cases in their hands…”

Instead, what he found was “the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now Oriental, now Western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.”

“No nation on earth,” he says passionately, ” was more deserving of peace — or more condemned to fight for it.”

1 thought on “John le Carré (1931-2020)

  1. Pingback: John le Carré (1931-2020) - The Rabbit Hole

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