Monday, April 12, 2010

The phases of John le Carré

It has been a strange last month or so in reading. I have found myself reading authors I last read many long years ago. It isn't a conscious decision, to give my youth a second coming or some such. The stars have just aligned that way.

In most of these re-reads, my adolescent impressions have continued to hold up. Ayn Rand is a good example. Objectivism never grabbed my intellectual lapel all those years past. I wondered now whether it was my own immaturity, my mental callowness that left me cold to the grand lady's powerfully eloquent philosophy. Now, I argued with myself, I have seen more of the world. My opinions have evolved. Maybe Howard Roark will speak to me now in ways he didn't to the younger me. Turns out, not so much. I found Rand just as unsympathetic as I found before. Turns out, I am still a softie.

There has been one remarkable exception to this series of reinforcements of previously held beliefs - John le Carré.

Now, I have always liked le Carré, in a distant sort of way. But for many years past, I have found him, at different points, too slow, too pedantic, too 'genre' and ultimately, not worth the effort. To be clear, I have always felt he is an author I am supposed to like. So I have been secretly ashamed of how few of his books I have really read and liked.

Which brings me to the last few months. They have been strange, these last few months in reading. They have been deja vu, over and over. John le Carré has made it all worth it.

It started with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - as delightful a book title as you are ever going to see in fiction. I heard the book on audio CD, narrated by the remarkable Frank Muller. Maybe that is what did it. I fell in love. John le Carré, I realized finally, is a genius.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was published in the year of my birth. So it is by no means topical. Given le Carré's spy themes, this does matter, as the political canvas on which he paints his story has altered so dramatically in the meanwhile. The greatness of the writing is in how engrossed I was in the book in spite of the technicolor context. John le Carré, I realized, isn't a great spy writer. He is a great writer, who happens to write spy novels.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was published a decade earlier than Tinker, Tailor. Here, the cold was context is even more important. Now this is the sort of novel that can adequately make a writer's reputation forever. The great Graham Greene, not a man given to loose exchange of compliments, called it the best spy novel he had ever read. Millions across the world concurred. The book was part of Time magazine's All Time 100 novels, and routinely surfaces in other publications at the top of 'best spy novels of all time' categories. Let's just say that The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is John le Carré's most celebrated book. I read this book again over the last few weeks, and finally, finally I felt like I understood why the book is so celebrated. There is something deep, human and universal about the appeal of the book. Some enduring humanity that haunts you much after you put the book down.

I am, I am ashamed to admit, a James Bond fan. I like the character, such as it is. I like the films. They are my perfect example of a light escape from reality, courtesy Hollywood.

Alec Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is the anti-James Bond. As unlike the flashy, wise-cracking, womanizing, gadget-loving MI-5 spy as you can imagine. He is burnt out, at the end of his career, a failure. He is a spy because that is what he know how to do, not because he sees any redeeming value in the Western way of life. He is, we realize slowly, a troubled, deeply moral man. As I said, the anti-James Bond. And here is the thing - By the time you put down The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you go from grinning at Roger Moore deadpanning "Miss. Anders ... I didn't recognize you with your clothes on", to saying things like "I am, I am ashamed to admit, a James Bond fan."

John le Carré is a writer who brings out the humanity in his spies, and by extension, in his readers. I understand his latest book Our Kind of Traitor is being published later this year. Count me in line.

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