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Monday 3 April 2023

Josephine Tey Miss Pym Disposes


I suppose it was commercial publishers who invented the genre novel as something which could be packaged and sold as Crime, Mystery, Horror, Romance ….. That packaging created a handy distinction between low-brow and high-brow literature. Those who regarded themselves as above Genre novels  could simply walk away from shop shelves labelled with those identifications. Bloomsbury never became a Genre section though it clearly is for many readers.

The novelist Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952)  - also known as the playwright Gordon Daviot (author of Richard of Bordeaux 1932) but rarely as  the Miss Elizabeth Mackintosh of her Times obituary - was shelved as a Crime writer rather as John le Carré was later assigned to Spy fiction. Josephine Tey probably didn’t mind very much since she wrote, she said, for fun.  At page 178 of Miss Pym Disposes, her friend Henrietta puts down Miss Pym - who could well be taken as the alter ego of Josephine Tey - as having “an extraordinarily impulsive and frivolous mind”. (Tey, incidentally, had just pointed out to the reader that Henrietta has missed an allusion to Kipling’s “Make me different from all other animals by five this afternoon”).

I read first The Franchise Affair and now Miss Pym Disposes in both of which the author has lots of fun. She can be eccentric, whimsical, acid, thoughtful…as the mood takes her. And to that degree she doesn’t seem to care very much who is looking over her shoulder. That seems quite admirable.

Most maybe all authors have at least one or two people peering over their shoulders. The obvious one is the combined double-headed figure of publisher and censor who will put a stop to things currently disapproved of so there is no point in writing them down now only to have them taken out later. At page 10 in my copy Miss Pym is rudely awakened by unwanted noises and “said something that was neither civilised nor cultured and sat up”. The trick here is to leave it to the reader’s imagination and let them pick between “What the devil?" and “What the fuck?” Kipling uses the same trick in Kim as I previously discussed elsewhere on this Blog. Leaving it to the reader  avoids the humiliation of the dashes which litter Victorian novels, usually following the letter D, and the childishness of those carefully calculated  modern asterisks designed to allow you to retrieve the word intended. We are all so adept at this now that in context (for example, as spoken by Boris Johnson) we will know exactly what is intended by   ****. But if we don’t already know the words of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse - and American freshmen students often won’t - then the internet versions of the poem available may well leave us puzzled as to what it is that your parents do to you. That is not a good state to be in if you have an essay to write..

But Josephine Tey is not troubled by the more extensive and ever-expanding modern sensitivities which authors now have to pre-empt. Fortunately, she has recently come out of copyright and so the old Copyright holders (The National Trust) can no longer authorise or require bowdlerised versions of her novels. I don’t propose to offer a list of things which some enterprising corporate publishing censor might now use as a crib. It would be a long chore anyway, if nothing more. You have been trigger-warned and that ought to be enough.

But the second person at the shoulder is what for short might be called the author’s super ego: the rather punitive figure on the look-out for guilty secrets, the search for pleasure, shameful revelations and such like. Josephine Tey - who all the sources say was a very private person - may have had a fairly active super ego. I wait to read the biography by Jennifer Morag Henderson [ See now the footnote to this Blog post].  Miss Pym Disposes published in 1946 is set in an all-female establishment where live-in teenage girls learn gymnastics, dancing, outdoor sports, massage therapies and more under the supervision of a staff of live-in unmarried women. The scope for writing a novel in the genre of Lesbian fiction or simply Erotic fiction is enormous and modern super ego sensitivities would oppose not much of a  bar to making use of the opportunity, provided political correctness was maintained.

It’s true that the tragic events which conclude the novel arise from the conjunction of two sets of complex relationships: on one side the misplaced favouritism of the college Principal for an unappealing and dishonest student; on the other the close relationship between the most brilliant student Mary Innes and her beau Pamela Nash, nicknamed Beau Nash. They are planning to celebrate their graduation by going off to Norway together. But what might seethe beneath the surface is left to the reader to infer or imagine. However, on the surface and in very marked contrast, the novel is open about the successful heterosexual relationship which develops between an outsider  Brazilian student, the colourfully dressed Desterro (who the college girls nickname The Nut Tart) and the very decent young mixed-ethnicity (Brazilian- English) man Rick. Desterro has to live with the college girls calling him her gigolo.

The only erotically explicit passage in the novel depicts at some length (pages 216-17) a solo dance which Desterro performs to a public audience which includes Rick. At the end, the audience clap “like children at a Wild West matinée” (217). And, Reader, at page 245 she marries him. The novel ends at page 249. 

One might say that this spoken love story provides a structural counterpart to unspoken repressed desire which runs through the main narrative. But whether that is or isn’t a reasonable way of putting the novel in context, I found the novel absorbing and striking in its language, its metaphors and comparisons. An author who can imagine The Nut Tart as a nickname which girls in a Physical Training establishment could pin on one of their number must have something going for her.


The biography is very thoroughly researched but for my taste  is too prim and too defensive of its subject. It does show that the author was unusually keen to inform herself about the subjects about which she wrote and that clearly contributes to the interest which her prose is able to sustain in the reader. In relation to Miss Pym Disposes the primary research consists in the fact that Josephine Tey graduated from a Physical Training establishment very much like the one she describes in the novel.






Friday 31 March 2023

Martin Wolf The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism


Martin Wolf was born in London in 1946, the first son of war-time Austrian and Dutch Jewish refugees. His is a powerful voice at The Financial Times where he is Chief Economics Commentator and one of the reasons why I pay for an online subscription to the only daily newspaper of which I am a regular reader.

This is the sort of book which invites the appellation “magisterial” - the small print footnotes run to seventy pages - and the opening chapters provide a wide-ranging, detailed but always readable account of the emergence of those hybrid forms of societies and states in which market capitalism is combined with liberal democratic government. The combination is really very recent, not much more than a century on a generous interpretation, and though Wolf reckons it the best form of society which flawed human beings can achieve, it is fragile. Rapacious capitalists don’t like to be constrained by laws and taxation and personality-disordered would-be tyrants don’t like to be constrained by elections and parliaments. But such people do appeal to electorates which sometimes vote for their own disenfranchisement. They did so  in 1930s Germany, repeated the story in 2000s Russia, and capped it in the USA by turning out for Donald Trump - who figures largely in this book, held up as a warning to us all of the imminent peril in which we all now live: the implosion of American democracy. England’s pitiful old people’s vote to leave the European Union was provincial farce compared to these global tragedies.

There are blind spots in the narrative. The blindness of the victorious allies in framing the Treaty of Versailles opened Hitler’s route to power; the Wild East Americans who brought their brand of "freedom n mocracy" to Moscow in the 1990s paved the way for the rise of Putin; the subordination of the Democratic Party to the imperatives of Wall Street provided the plutocrat populist Donald Trump with a vast constituency of disaffected poorer white Americans. The capitalist liberal democracies have things to answer for - and I haven’t even mentioned their colonial adventures, also sidelined here. But, still, I can’t now disagree with Martin Wolf that nothing better than a social democrat version of capitalist liberal democracy is ever likely to be on successful offer. And the offers are often being rejected.

The first half of the book does a very good job and I was engrossed. But after that I was less impressed. What follows is a very extended wish list of things which if done would make our lives materially better and more secure. Now I am the same age as Mr Wolf and I have been reading these wish lists since I was a teenager. Probably he has too. If you took a course in British Politics at university (as I am afraid I did) then you would read books about the “Reform of Parliament” (The title of a once well -known 1964 book by Bernard Crick). Sixty years on, reformers are still whistling in the wind. Voters don’t want reform of Parliament - they turned down the chance of proportional representation when offered  in a referendum. MPs definitely don’t want reform of Parliament either, even left-wing  ones who often turn out to be as hidebound as the worst rural Tory squire. Think Michael Martin, who became a true-blue reactionary Speaker and Dennis Skinner who sat on his safe Bolsover seat for 49 years and to my knowledge achieved nothing. ( He was very upset when an uninitiated new MP once took his reserved clubland seat on the front bench).

Of course, I was pleased when I found things here which are also on my own wish list (see my The Best I Can Do 2016).  But many of them rate no more than a sentence or short paragraph and I can’t see any powerful party or group mobilising around many or most of  them. You might say that it is the achievement (so far) of Sir Keir Starmer to realise that his scope for doing anything of lasting significance if he leads his party to a General Election victory is almost zero. He can aim to be competent, that's all. A dozen years of Conservative incompetence of which Dr Kwarteng’s budget was the crowning glory ensures that there is little room for spending (kiss goodbye once again to hopes of new infrastructure). And if Sir Keir ventures into the culture wars then it will be a vote loser - the right-wing press has secured that already even though the irony is that most Woke policies (such as they are) are fairly reactionary, designed to secure the comfort and lifestyle of very small sections of the population - Martin Wolf briefly picks up on that in a critique of identity politics.  There is very little which is progressive about identity politics; politics is progressive when it advances progressive values like equality of opportunity, not when it advances sectional zero-sum claims to the best that’s on offer. 

People bandy around words like “Representation” without pausing to think what it might mean in many complex contexts; they just think it means they should get the job. (Once you start putting fresh faces on bank notes, you hit problems of representation which are fairly intractable and end up being resolved in favour of the most persistent lobbyists - see my Sample Essays (2020) for a discussion. The problem is perfectly general).

Nonetheless, it’s worth reading through the wish lists just to remind oneself of how daunting is the task anyone of goodwill and some influence would face. Martin Wolf can barely stop himself from saying that in the USA the battle has already been lost; the productive union of market capitalism and liberal democratic politics is already and irretrievably broken. The plutocrats have mastered the art of securing the endorsement of those whose lives are increasingly nasty, brutish and short but which won't get any better under plutocratic (and capricious) rule.

As David Runciman observed in a clear-headed review of Martin Wolf in the London Review of Books, “this book leaves you feeling that what’s needed is a miracle”.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Adolfo Kaminsky by Sarah Kaminsky


On the internet there are numerous photographs which testify to the love Sarah Kaminsky felt for her father, Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in January 2023 aged 97. Her biography was published in France in 2018 and several translations have already been made. Sarah Kaminsky is the youngest of his children, born when Adolfo was in his fifties. Before then there were other children by other partners and then three by his last and longest-term parrtner, Leïla Kaminsky. As I read this book I lost track of how many partners and children there were in total but it’s clear enough that many were neglected. As a young man of nineteen, Adolfo is a handsome fellow in the photograph reproduced in the book; he remains handsome and well-groomed in the internet photographs of old age.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book is a monument to her father. It’s written as if by Adolfo, in the first person, and in the Prologue there is a sketch of what was involved in researching it: note-taking of conversations with her father; interviews with others. I read the book as if listening to a reliable narrator but then had doubts because the narrator built out of the research seems to have such perfect recall; more or less every narrative has a beginning, middle and end. Memory is just not that good. So it may be that the biography is more romanesque than it presents itself as being. It’s certainly a fascinating read and quite, quite different to another book by a forger previously reviewed on this site, Shaun Greenhalgh’s A Forger’s Tale (reviewed 19 July 2018). The aims, motives, satisfactions could not be more different except for the evident pride in technical accomplishment.

Another relevant book for comparison would be with Marie Jalowicz Simon Untergetaucht [Underground in Berlin] based on tape recordings made by her son towards the end of Marie’s life and narrating the life of a young Jewish woman living underground in Berlin during the War.

Adolfo Kaminsky was the child of Russian-Jewish emigrés of the leftist kind who sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in France, were expelled and made their way to Argentina (where Kaminsky was born) and then made their way back.  His parents reckoned they would be safe in rural France even after the Germans arrived in 1940; they weren’t. His mother was probably murdered by the Germans and the rest of the family ended up in Drancy bound for Auschwitz and only got out thanks to an intervention by the Argentinian consul - they still had Argentinian nationality.

Kaminsky began in his teens a thirty year career as a forger of false documents and worked first in the service of the French resistance, particularly those parts finding safe houses or escape routes for Jews. Later, he worked briefly for the immediate post-Liberation French security services and then for a long succession of liberation movements, notably the Algerian FLN, and for those fleeing repressive regimes. He retired from his always-unpaid work as forger in 1971 when he felt that he was about to be caught and go to prison. He produced false documents in prodigious quantities, dozens or more at a time, and not only French ones - forging Swiss passports was very satisfying because they were supposed to be the most highly protected against forgery. But he would only forge for those he believed to be morally and politically worthy of support. He tried to draw a firm line against organisations which used terrorist violence. That complicated his immediate post-war work for Zionist movements working to drive the British out of Palestine. One remarkable story in the book (pages 125-28) sees him agree to make the timer for a Stern gang (Lehi) bomb which will kill the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. He makes the timer but with one special feature; it won't work. 

One must remember that the post-war France in which Kaminsky did most of his work was not a country of liberty, equality or fraternity but a repressive state more like those headed by Franco and Salazar and many of whose citizens were nostalgic for Vichy (and remain so to this day). A great deal of repressive violence was deployed, especially in Paris, where Maurice Papon became Chief of Police in 1958. He was eventually tried and convicted of wartime crimes against humanity - but not until 1998 when he was at the end of a highly successful police and political career spanning fifty years during which time he was directly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, notably in the massacres of demonstrators in 1961 and 1962. To this day, it is unclear how many dead there were. See Papon’s Wkipedia entry.

Writing that about Paris, I remembered an occasion when I was invited to a private party (a small one) where the front door was opened not by the host but by his Security. The host, living in some Parisian banlieue, was from North Africa who even as late as 1971 might well receive unwelcome visitors. I forget the details and it’s pointless to speculate who invited me or why. Paris in 1971 is also the only place where I have ever been stopped and asked to show my papers to a police officer. I was walking back to my room from the cinema, late one evening. I was carrying my Carte de Séjour (it was obligatory to do so) and as he handed it back to me the officer saluted. I guess it helped to be English not North African.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Do Good Books Get Published More by Luck than Judgment?

I read two or three books each week, cover to cover, of which maybe half are recently published and mostly from mainstream, major publishers. That’s partly because I pick up leads to new books from mainstream periodicals - principally The Literary ReviewThe London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. The first two are conservative in their review choices; the TLS has become more adventurous under its current editor and notices a fair number of books from small and foreign language publishers.

For the past ten years I have posted reviews of some of my recently read books on this blog. They do not offer reader recommendations or puffs which a publisher might pick up for a paperback edition; I only review when I have something to say. That does mean that some books which I think are simply terrific don’t get a review. Most recently, that’s true of Edward Wilson-Lee’s A History of Water (William Collins 2022). I don’t have any of his expertise and I can’t see any way in which I could better the craft which turned his research findings into a fascinating tale.

I have read lots of good books and quite a few duds, often from the same publisher, and begin to wonder about explanations, especially for the bad ones. How do they get published? I can only speculate.

There are a very small number of books where at the end (I rarely give up) I just want to ask who the author is sleeping with.

Then there are books which will have gone through the VIP lane to get their contracts because the author is established in one way or another and sells well every time, regardless. The VIP lane is the route where you are simply waved through. I have a candidate for a bad book by a good author which surely got published regardless. And even if I am wrong about that, there are plenty of readers who will have experienced disappointment with the latest from a favourite author. Few enthusiasts for Ian McEwan will be enthusiastic about Amsterdam (Jonathan Cape 1998).

Most publishing is big business publishing. Sometimes readers are clear beneficiaries: rows of black-backed Penguin Classics on my shelves, cheap, carefully edited and reliable are evidence for that. I am very grateful. But sometimes, and perhaps especially for academic or semi-academic books where the print run will be small, a publisher can only afford a limited budget - that means, limited time - to assess a potential title. As a result, publishers are now in the habit of asking authors to fill out questionnaires as long as those required by the United Kingdom’s Home Office and if the authors game the questionnaire successfully then they are well on the way to get their visa. They have done a lot of work which used to be a publisher’s job. And if you are rubbish at filling up forms - and some of the questions are pretty inane - you won't get published however good your book. But if the paperwork is in order, you are well on your way.

Some years ago [5 March 2016] I responded here to Gerald Steinacher’s generally well-received Nazis on the Run (Oxford University Press 2011). The title alone would sell it, but the book is a mess. And, given its subject matter, I wish it hadn’t been. After trying to set out the historical context it is concerned with I ordered my criticisms:

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph.D.

I then set out to show that it failed to present its evidence in a way which was decisive enough to justify the conclusions Steinacher drew or wanted to draw.  To put the book right would have taken a great deal of editorial labour. As it stands, the book should not have been published.

But then there is the opposite problem where a book has been spoilt by intrusive low-grade (and probably low-paid) editing which makes the author look a fool. I was first alerted to this problem when I read Tim Parks Where I'm Reading From reviewed here 22 February 2015 who described the appalling treatment accorded one of his books by an American publisher - I outline the problems he encountered. More recently, I found an example which indicates that Parks' case was not a one-off.

In 2020 Oxford University Press (USA) published a perfectly acceptable academic monograph with an eighteenth century focus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés. French Words That Turned English though clearly Émigrés didn’t because it is being given two accents not one on the cover. Leave that aside (but it has potential….). I published a long review [28 October 2020].

One of the things which troubled me was some dumbing down which could only have been the responsibility of some dumbed-down copy-editor. Thus at page 114 I encountered this:

 The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..

Hang on a moment. This is a specialised monograph which will be read mainly by specialists in eighteenth century French and English literature. Which ones did the copy editor think would not know that M. Rousseau was French-speaking or Genevan or a thinker and writer?

It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. But the copy editor who put their mark on this book disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter and all-round bad boy Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? The answer is this: there is no proper name in the immediate vicinity of the poem to trigger the copy-editor’s little App which is limited to providing patter around proper names. Am I exaggerating? I rest my case with the first use of the App in the book, at page 80:

 playwrights such  as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…

It could have been worse. He could have been English-speaking. But, still, Professor Scholar was ill-served by his publisher. Had Professor Scholar added those glosses himself  in a misguided attempt to make his book more accessible, an alert editor would have taken them out as out of keeping with the academic level of the book..







Tuesday 17 January 2023

Running Scared: Dashes, Asterisks, Scare Quotes, Bunny Ears Quotes, Sensitivity Readers


Editors and publishers may not have lists but they know a word that they don’t want to see in print when they see it. One dodge employed by writers is to place a sanctionable word within what are usually called scare quotes. If challenged, they will say that they are mentioning the word, or quoting it, or using it ironically. This will sometimes save them from exclusion from polite society though at a price (I will come to that). But some words have always been judged too offensive to be safely contained within scare quotes and they just have to go or - at least - seem to go.

Before the First World War, an important role in novels was played by the dash giving us characters who declared Well, I’ll be d------- which satisfied the guardians of morals and left nothing to the imagination. In his Kim, published in 1901, Rudyard Kipling tried to be a bit more inventive and after decades of dashes inventiveness was sorely needed. Addressing the no-nonsense dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore, Kim declares “Mother, I owe my life to thee…..Ten thousands blessings upon thy house …” only to find his words indignantly rejected by the Maharanee because she wishes to be thanked as by a son not a priest. Kipling gives the rejection thus: “The house be unblessed! (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word)”. The beauty of this is that it is far from certain that damned would have been the exact word. The Maharanee is a feisty character and, one suspects, could swear like a trooper and troopers - well, it is impossible to give exactly their words.

Someone who may or may not have been inventive gave us another dodge in the form of asterisks, carefully counted out. Unfortunately, there is such a paucity of very naughty words that asterisks are rarely more difficult to solve than kindergarten crossword puzzles. I am not sure that any literary journal would allow me examples, even one at the outer limits of complexity like m***********. The failure of asterisks to protect children, let alone adults, generated a new dodge, exemplified by The C-word and The N-word cleverly designed as occult symbols about the meaning of which the uninitiated dare not ask.

Fortunately, some words can safely be accommodated by scare quotes but that comes at a price, especially in relation to irony. A writer can, of course, use a word ironically without resorting to scarce quotes but some readers will not get the irony - a hazard known about for centuries. In the past, it was thought that scare quotes would rescue the writer from the risk of not being understood but, of course, they do so only at the risk of irritating IQ positive readers who will feel patronised. Worse, an unexpected invention has permanently damaged the value of scare quotes.

I refer to the visual realisation of scare quotes as air quotes or bunny-ears quotes. These are so obviously heavy-handed that they can only be handled safely by celebrities and Republican Party politicians: Google offers me images of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump. That alone is enough to cast a shadow over regular scare quotes sometimes still used by writers. But I think scare quotes will soon become extinct in serious writing if they are not so already.

Writers are better off taking their chances that an irony will be missed and simply have to give a bit more thought as to how to carry things off. The best approach is to stop thinking about using individual words or short phrases ironically - which is all that Bunny Ears people do. Instead, the writer needs to set up a whole context in which irony can surface and break through into the reader’s understanding. Maybe someone has had that idea before.

Many pressures weigh on what can be expressed and what can’t declare its name. The pressures change through time but always seem to leave us with a morality police of some kind operating over all or part of literary space. In the very recent past, unemployed ex-Sunday school teachers have found new roles as sensitivity readers who are not fooled by scare quotes or contextualisation. Some of them work for literary consultancies - you have been warned. They can point straight at the Word just as once upon a time they pointed at the boy in the front row who had just farted..

Wednesday 30 November 2022

David Graeber and David Wengrow The Dawn of Everything A New History of Humanity



 Ten years ago I reviewed David Graeber’s Debt on this site and declared it my Book of the Year, though that is a fact I had forgotten until I accessed what I had written:

The book now under review, jointly authored with the archaeologist David Wengrow, was completed a few weeks before David Graeber’s sudden-onset illness and unexpected death in 2020. Like the earlier book it is enormously wide-ranging, disruptive of settled notions, and engagingly written. I was impressed and greatly enjoyed it.

 A thumbnail will not do it justice so I will not struggle to find the most apt one. It seeks to re-fashion how we think about both the very distant past with which the archaeologist is concerned and the scattered “left-over” presents which are the concern of cultural anthropologists. Specifically, it tries to escape from the clutch of all those (teleological) approaches which assume that their job must be to explain how we got from there to here. At the same time, it suggests that despite lack of written evidence we should not assume that pre-historic or tribal cultures were incapable of thinking about the arrangements under which they lived and making use of that in configuring and changing them. At a level of  more detail, instead of going in search of “state formation” starting from our current situation in which the world is carved up into nation states we could usefully look at how at different times and places three principles of domination are exercised, either alone or in combination: “call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma” (page 365). This opens up a field normally dominated by thinking about monopoly of force or private property rights and allows us to see past societies and marginal societies in all their difference. The professors will soon tell us if they think this is or isn’t an insightful way of developing a new approach within social and political theory.

I offer only two small comments. The authors make much of the fact that pre-historic and tribal societies quite often live under different forms of government at different times of year. In the hunting season, everyone may submit to a single leader whose word is law; but in the off-season when people settle (back) into village-like life, everyone may prove very reluctant to submit to anyone else and indeed decision-making may be quite differently organised in terms of communal discussion aimed at consensus. The mere fact of this seasonal difference opens space for local reflection on which system is “best”. The authors seem to think that this will come as a surprise to readers. But most of them will have had recent experience of COVID lock-downs, some will have had experience of Martial Law, and in my country many will know about the Emergency Powers which in World War Two underpinned such things as the compulsory night-time blackout. In all these cases, people don’t move around geographically but the rules under which they live have been temporarily, but quite dramatically, changed. Except in the case of Martial Law, compliance may depend a lot on the sense that “We’re all in it together” as Britain’s former Prime Minister Mr Boris Johnson discovered to his cost. He let it be discovered that in his view COVID rules were only for the little people.

As a second comment, the authors frequently use concepts of culture, civilisation, state and society but I miss civil society. Civil society is something which is outside the private sphere of the family unit but also outside the state and its bureaucracy. It is larger than what Habermas and others would call the public sphere construed as a place for public debate and would include things like food banks which are created by the voluntary efforts of (private) citizens. The scale of civil society is variable - totalitarian regimes are deeply suspicious of it as a site of potential opposition and will seek to incorporate most of its elements into bureaucratically controlled state or quasi-state activities. In countries like my own there is also perhaps an interesting question about its boundaries. For example, food supermarkets might be located simply in the domain of capitalist enterprises, driven by the aim of profit maximisation and so on. But for whatever motives they do have aspects which link them to civil society: they give away food which might go to waste; they stock shelves with “Value” and “Essential” products which are cheaper and which increase in importance in periods of inflation and recession; they articulate discontent with government - in my country the Chairman of Tesco, a major supermarket chain, recently let it be known that he despaired of the Conservative (and supposedly business-oriented)  government and was looking forward to a new (Labour) one. I don’t want to be starry-eyed but I do think there is something to look at there a bit more closely. There is of course an enormous amount of guff pushed out about “socially responsible business” but maybe it does a bit more than blur the line between ”the Economy” and “Society”. I'm tempted to say that often enough it is civil society which mitigates the mistakes and oppression of nation state governments.




Tuesday 1 November 2022

A Private Spy The Letters of John le Carré edited by Tim Cornwell


Browsing a provincial auction catalogue, some years ago, I noticed for sale an autograph letter signed David Cornwell on notepaper headed John le Carré. I was reading lots of le Carré at the time and, out of curiosity, bought the letter unseen. Forty quid. He writes to Stacey [there was no envelope so I have no surname] who appears to be laid up in hospital after an accident and asks for reading suggestions. The writer obliges: start with P G Wodehouse (“the funniest man ever”) and for fine writing head to Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. As if that’s not enough to be going on with, the writer then throws in The Three Musketeers and The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s all prefaced by advance notice for his The Mission Song, the galleys of which he is currently correcting. His full address in Cornwall is written in by hand and the letter dated 19:v:06. I was impressed. Stacey appeared to be a complete stranger who had written to a famous and almost certainly very busy author and received back a thoughtful, handwritten two-page reply.

In his Introduction to this very well-crafted collection of his father’s letters, the late Tim Cornwell indicates that his father was an (unusually) good correspondent, often replying to unsolicited mail and promptly (pages xxii-xxiii). He generally wrote by hand and often kept no copy. As a result, the le Carré archive in the Bodleian Library, on which this collection of over 600 pages is fairly dependent, will contain no trace of letters like that to Stacey and the deficit could really only be reduced by buying up such originals as appear on the internet, as they do. Sometimes the content will be of interest - as in the letter I have summarised - but, perhaps as importantly, those letters suggest what one could regard either as noblesse oblige or - and I incline to this - a rather democratic spirit. The latter interpretation is supported by what to me is the heartening fact that David Cornwell never accepted one of those tarnished medals handed out by our Monarch and which Woke novelists now declare after their names to show that they are Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is not as if he was opposed to all recognition:  he accepted, for example, a Goethe Medal in 2011 and a D Litt from Oxford.

In the book under review, le Carré does give reasons for refusing a CBE on the recommendation of Margaret Thatcher but the letter (at pages 238-39) is written to the then Head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Dick Franks, and could be read as at least partly an effort to deflect any accusation of disloyalty to the Establishment. Much later, after le Carré has entertained the Russian Ambassador for a weekend at his home in Cornwall, he follows up with a report on the weekend addressed to Alan Judd, who has already been introduced in the editorial notes as a link-man into MI6/SIS (pages 387-396). Le Carré  expresses himself rather differently when writing to a friend, Sir John Margetson, in 2010: “PS. Did I tell you I passed on a K[knighthood]. All right for public servants, not good for artists, writers & the like”. (He’s right; I was disappointed when Kazuo Ishiguro accepted a K. Some way or other, it’s going to cramp your style).

In my own reading of le Carré’s novels I eventually got round to A Perfect Spy, wonderful on first read, not least because the narrative drive never lost out to a complex structure kept in place from start to finish. I was impressed enough to re-read and began to pick out literary devices which were being used but not pointed to. I found myself drawn to a one-liner attributed to a main character, “Never mind, E Weber love you always” which is repeated three times to great effect. I wrote a few hundred words about this and was quite pleased with the result. It occurred to me that I had John le Carré’s home address sitting in a file: I could send him what I’d written. It would be a bit cheeky: I would be evading the person in charge of the paper shredder in some literary agent’s office, employed to protect authors from crank letter-writers. But I sent it anyway.

To my astonishment, within a few days I had a handwritten reply (10th Feb 2017) in which I am told, rather teasingly, that I have caught something of the real person behind the character of E.Weber, “at her charming best”.

Writers do depend on encouragement, and I was encouraged to expand what I had written into a more sustained reflection on A Perfect Spy for inclusion in a book I was working on. And then I thought I’d go for broke: I wrote again to ask permission to include his letter in the body of my essay and, if he was in principle agreeable, to give me the necessary contact details for his agent etc.  Came the handwritten reply (25th July 2017), “…no need to trouble my agent: please regard this letter as consent enough”. And so the letter appears at pages 98-99 of my completely unsuccessful book, Prose Improvements (2017). I returned again to A Perfect Spy in a 2018 review on this site and, in contrast to my failed book, it’s one of the most popular pages here with over a thousand visitors.

The letters offered in the volume under review are to family, friends, lovers (though sparsely), secret and diplomatic service colleagues, fellow writers, agents, and so on. There are a handful addressed to what one might call members of the public: to Mrs Betty Quail who thinks that George Smiley’s problems would be solved by conversion to Catholicism (p 230); to a ten year old boy who wants to be a spy (p 281) and another to an eleven year old (p 359); to attentive readers in the Netherlands and Germany who have spotted plot impossibilities and inconsistencies (p 336, p 354) - the first one a beauty in which the Emperor is clearly caught with no clothes; le Carré is greatly amused and sends a signed hardback as a prize.

But these letters feel like curiosities alongside the more weighty correspondence, some of it providing useful grist for those who want to study plot and character and device in the novels. This is very obviously so in letters to Alec Guinness where le Carré is  clear and detailed about how he thinks George Smiley should be played (notably pages 211-15).

To my surprise, it was easy to read this book rather than pick up, put down, and basically browse.. A lot must be owing to the skills of the editor, le Carré’s son the late Tim Cornwell, who structures the book around the major novels and provides helpful, unassertive, notes of guidance. If there is a weakness it must (inevitably and invisibly) rest in the fact that the compilation is a family affair, approved by the family Estate, and appearing really very soon after le Carré’s death at the end of 2020.

Like father like son. I was struck by the similarities between father and son. Both display extraordinary energy, are on the move constantly (though le Carré likes to describe himself as a recluse in Cornwall - with a guest wing built to accommodate six …), and are good at making friends and influencing people. The difference, of course, is that Reggie was a career con-man criminal notching up jail sentences in several countries (not many criminals achieve that distinction) and losing his winnings every time, whereas le Carré amasses - and doesn’t lose, though sometimes gives away chunks -  a large fortune built entirely on his genius as a writer and the skill of his agents in selling film and TV rights.

There is hardly a page in the 630 pages of this collection of letters where the author is not busy, whether writing, travelling to dangerous places to do background research for a novel,promoting a new novel, or co-operating with scriptwriters, directors, producers. Both energy and achievement are extraordinary.


I will do my duty and make copies of the letters I mentioned at the beginning and post them to the archivist at the Bodleian.