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Friday 27 July 2018

John le Carre A Perfect Spy

Each man kills the thing he loves.

When his mother Dorothy disappears from his life and her adored substitute Lippsie kills herself, Magnus Pym blames himself twice over: to lose one parent may be someone else’s fault; to lose two re-directs the finger of blame back to oneself.

In Bern, Magnus Pym betrays his father-substitute Axel and back in England betrays his actual father, twice over: once when he hides the fact that he is studying Modern Languages, not Law, at Oxford and a second time during the Gulworth North by-election when he passes incriminating evidence to his father’s nemesis, Peggy Wentworth. His father only confronts him with the former betrayal, but the text is heavy with the suspicion that he has guessed the second.

In my edition, the bravura narrative of the Gulworth North  by-election takes up pages 396 to 439. It is being written by Magnus, holed up at what will be the end of his life, writing his autobiography addressed to his son. At the end of the Gulworth narrative, le Carré writes, “It was dawn. Unshaven, Pym sat at his desk, not wanting the daylight. Chin in hand he stared at the last page he had written. Change nothing. Don’t look back, don’t look back. You do it once, then die” (page 440).

It seems to me entirely plausible at this moment to imagine not Pym at his desk, but le Carré. He has just written forty pages of remarkable Dickensian comedy. He has also offered an extraordinary portrait of his father, both the real one and the fictionalised Rick Pym. And through the character of Peggy Wentworth, haunting his father and telling her tale to Magnus, who is also le Carré, he has an epiphany about his father’s character which leads him straight to betrayal.

The novel runs to 680 pages, cutting constantly between past and present, and cinematically between scenes occurring at the same time in different places as the net closes on the fugitive Magnus Pym. The author remains in full control throughout: a clue handed to Jack Brotherhood at page 166 is not turned to account until page 367, just the kind of thing one would expect an accomplished writer of spy fiction to deliver.

But it’s not really a work of spy fiction. It’s about love and loss and betrayal, ambition and defeat. It’s about growing up – a Bildungsroman in the tradition of Goethe, evoked more than once but most explicitly at page 292:

            “…he imagined himself as the young Werther, planning his wardrobe before committing suicide. And when he considered all his failures and hopes together, he was able to compare his Werdegang with Wilhelm Meister’s years of apprenticeship, and planned then a great autobiographical novel that would show the world what a noble sensitive fellow he was compared with Rick.”

A Perfect Spy is a great autobiographical novel, the prose driven (and thus driving the reader) by extraordinary intensity of emotion (none of the main characters are less than intense) which often enough finds expression in remarkable turns of stylistic inventiveness. So the young Magnus discusses radical politics with his father’s loyal lieutenants, the gay couple of Ollie and Mr Cudlove, and it is

            “…heartily agreed over stolen canapés and cocoa that all men are brothers but nothing against your dad. And though political doctrines are at root as meaningless to me today as they were to Pym then, I remember the simple humanity of our discussions as we promised to mend the world’s ills, and the truthful good-heartedness with which, as we went off to bed, we wished each other peace in the spirit of Joe Stalin who, let’s face it, Titch, and nothing against your dad, ever, won the war for all these capitalist bastards." (page 192)

Here the intimacy of discussions over cocoa is doubled by the style in which the formality of Magnus turns into the informality of Ollie and Mr Cudlove and the different voices harmonise to sing that all men shall be as brothers.

When it was published in 1986 and John le Carre was fifty-five, the same age as Magnus Pym, Philip Roth described it as “The best English novel since the war”. I am not widely read enough to know if that claim stands up if repeated in 2018. I can only say that there are not many 680 page novels which have held my attention like this one, which I have now read three times.

In the essay “Never Mind. E Weber Love You Always” included in my book Prose Improvements (2017), I discuss the themes of unconditional love and salvation as they figure in A Perfect Spy.

Saturday 21 July 2018

Summer Reading Picks: Changing The Question

It’s the time of year when celebrities of one kind or another are asked to tell us their Summer Reading plans, providing them – if they choose - with opportunities to show themselves in a good light and do favours for their friends. The latter is not always acknowledged – though in today’s Financial Times, I notice Philippe Sands prefacing a book choice with a “My friend …” thus avoiding any risk of a later appearance in Private Eye’s end of year log-rolling awards, for which there are no shortage of candidates among those who review and recommend books.

I had the thought that the Summer Reading formula could be varied a bit. Instead of asking about actual reading plans, I imagined this question:

If you could only take on holiday this year a book which you read sometime last year (2017), what would it be?

The question is a challenge for me because I don’t go on holidays and don’t often read a book a second time unless in connection with something I am writing. But I looked at the books I reviewed here in 2017 and decided that if I had no choice this summer but to re-read, I would pick:

Madeleine Thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing, reviewed here on 12 April 2017, which has an extraordinary layered complexity which deserves a second reading.

And then, since that book would take up a lot of my imaginary holiday, I would settle for a short novel which I have already read twice and would have no trouble reading again:

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday, reviewed here on 8 June 2017

But having re-written the summer reading picks question, it's now back to Freud.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Review: Shaun Greenhalgh, A Forger's Tale

This is a very interesting book, and not just as a work about the craft knowledge of a very successful forger.

First, it is interesting as narrative because the text is written by an unreliable narrator, rather like Clive Driscoll’s In Pursuit of the Truth (reviewed here on 13 September 2015). I say this not because  of the self-justificatory theme which runs through the book, but because some of the stories told provoke (in me) the reaction This is a wind up, a reaction consistent with the author’s own claim that there is personal satisfaction to be got from deceiving a self-satisfied art world. 

That connects to a second level of interest which attaches to the fact that the author is someone who could have become a successful member of the middle-class but rejects that as an aspiration and destination (perhaps only after the death of a much-loved, more highly educated girlfriend) staying close to his roots both literally – he lives with his mum and dad - and metaphorically. Like Clive Driscoll, the prose style is intended to remind you constantly of this rejection. It sits uneasily with the fact that the author was clearly a youthful prodigy with an extraordinary memory and extraordinary practical abilities, focussed around an interest in serious art which has been life-long. The prodigiousness has something in common with that which one associates with autism or what in the past were called idiots savants. With or without such associations, the extraordinary ability is something to be admired.

Then there is the craft knowledge of a forger, spelled out over many pages and showing an extraordinary breadth and depth. In my own line of business as a stamp dealer, we encounter forgeries but nearly all of them are not only bad but often display childish ignorance – an envelope with an 1890 postmark but the address written in biro, and such like. Greenhalgh is in another league, not really replicated in the stamp world since the 19th century days of Fournier and Spiro.

Finally, there is an interest for the philosophy of art, not only in relation to the standard question about the possibility of the perfect forgery. More importantly, the author rightly emphasises that in the visual arts, artists always work with materials and that those materials are of importance and interest in their own right, as are the craft ways in which they are worked. We tend to look for an artist’s overall vision, but it is always expressed through the very knowledgeable working of very specific materials.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Review: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman

Like Charlie Chaplin, Keiko does not quite get it. In the school playground, some boys are fighting and the girls are screaming for someone to stop them, “so I went to the tool shed, took out a spade, ran over to the unruly boys, and bashed one of them over the head” (page 8). 

Things improve for Keiko when her sister begins to provide her with simple scripts for navigating the difficulties of social life, fake stories which will satisfy the unsettled, but her big breakthrough comes when she takes a part-time job as a convenience store worker. Here there are many ready-made scripts provided by the training manual and by the store’s routines and Keiko settles down (as Miss Furukura) for eighteen seemingly contented years until serial loser and oddball Shiraha appears. They both have the idea that teaming up (in an oddball way) will get the world off their backs – the world which wants to see marriages and breadwinners and babies and divorces. It doesn’t work out.

This is a very readable, often funny, often poignant, short novel written in the first person to be read in a society where (I am told) you’re abnormal if you don’t fit in. I don’t know how good is the translation. The text has the kind of awkwardness you might expect from a narrator who might be diagnosed as suffering from a sort of social autism, but the English can’t quite make up its mind where it sits in terms of both vocabulary and style. 

Nonetheless, Keiko remains endearing and I am sure that if she ever visits England, someone will be sure to give her the script which instructs that Japanese tourists should photograph things, but not look at them.

As well as Chaplin, I also thought of Gregor Samsa. Keiko is another of those characters who is a sort of walking alienation device who by failing its requirements gets us to see how society works. She deserves to be read.

Monday 9 July 2018

Review: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Somewhere in my childhood memories there is a strange book The Story of Mankind written and strangely illustrated by Hendrik van Loon. It didn’t fit with what I understood to be History: the Kings and Queens of England; the wars in which We had beaten Them; and – a bit later - the heroes of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Now that we have Globalisation, the study of World History makes a lot more sense, and probably even to children. Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a splendid, fascinating contribution to world history. I even indulged myself with the thought that it could be the basis of a primary school curriculum, but then I remembered that I live in Ruritania where schools hang out bunting for Harry and Meghan but would never do so for a Climate Change agreement.

All the way through this readable 500 page book, Harari springs surprises, getting us to see things - with which we may be half familiar -  in a new light. His most striking achievement is to incorporate other animals into his narrative, both elaborating on how other animals have shaped Homo Sapiens and how Sapiens has shaped them. He doesn’t say it, but in effect he makes a very strong case for veganism.

He makes a strong case for a lot of things, and one of the interesting features of this book is the way in which he is not afraid to venture challenging opinions even though they are couched in modest prose. Especially in the early chapters, I felt that I was having all kinds of preconceptions challenged, as when he develops a line of argument to suggest that early hunter-gatherers (foragers) were (much) better off than the peasants who toiled in the fields after the first Agricultural Revolution – the one which took place long before Christ. He also made me laugh with some very well aimed Ouch! lines.

A world history has to be extraordinarily selective, but I felt that Russia was unreasonably overlooked in the account of Imperialism. Russia is interesting because over a few hundred years it created an Empire by constantly expanding its land borders. The Romanov dynasty entered the First World War with plans to extend those land borders still farther – into Austrian Galicia and across Turkey to Constantinople. Only in the case of Alaska and California did it create a colonial presence which required that a sea be crossed. It also had its eyes on Hawaii, but  fairly quickly gave up on all of them, despite the availability of some very good explorers, ships, and sailors.

The book is translated from the Hebrew original, partly by Harari himself. I noticed only one occasion when the translation is unsatisfactory: at page 287, we are told that “Darwin almost became an Anglican pastor”. “Clergyman” would be the right word.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Review: Jade Sharma Problems

The top executives of contemporary trans-national conglomerate publishing have the same dream and it’s a wide screen Cola advertisement where all are Represented and all have happy smiles and deodorised armpits. No one is angry, no one smells, and no one says Fuck you.

It’s a dream world in which, ideally, Philip Larkin will not write a poem about Your Mum and Dad but if he does then the line will continue they f*** you up. The Cola advertisement is a happy snap of a Sunday school outing, everyone on their way to Heaven because it’s not strictly true that everyone is Represented.

The bad guys aren’t Represented, all those unpleasant people who get angry, smell, swear and who it was always a mistake to invite along in the first place. They probably drive old Ford cars and they will never get to Heaven. 

This novel is a refreshing read, brought to the public originally by a small American independent publisher and picked up in the UK by another independent. It’s not a conglomerate book.  It’s first person narrator, Maya (a name which means Illusion), is a drug addict who is enthusiastic enough about sex to be classed by Sunday school as a sex addict, and who is foul-mouthed and opinionated. She is angry, she smells, and she says far worse than Fuck you. Her life is a mess and Jade Sharma does not spare us the details, creating a novel in the tradition of those which animate their characters through their pissing, shitting, puking, fucking and jerking off. It’s not a book I would recommend to a polite Book Group.

It held my attention for its 220 pages, even though there is always going to be a hazard in making a novel out of someone who is heading towards dereliction. The writing is smart and funny. I guess it belongs in an American tradition which includes William Burroughs, Hubert Selby and Kathy Acker.