Saturday, April 01, 2017

 

no fooling

Welp.  What a time (I think I've said it before but it bears repeating).  No jokes on April Fool's Day because I haven't got much of a sense of humor at the moment.  I wanted to write here in March but have been too busy eating my heart out with anxiety about the state of our country and have gotten distracted from wonderful much-missed plain old daily life by, oh, let's see, Intelligence Committee hearings on C-SPAN, apocalyptic news feeds, and various conspiracy theorists galore, on social media, in the news, and in print.  Which I do not feel embarrassed about in the least, since we do actually appear to be involved in an honest-to-god conspiracy, of truly epic proportions.  Fascinating and terrifying.  The real news wasn't apparently enough for me, either, since I turned last month to my own bookshelves here at home and re-read John le Carré's splendid Cold War fictional trilogy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (Knopf 1974-1979), and a book of interviews with him to boot, Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (University of Mississippi Press 2004).  Then, this afternoon, I stopped by a local bookshop and promptly pounced on one of the first books to catch my eye:  The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, a memoir by John le Carré (Viking 2016).

Nonfiction from this author is scarce - cannot wait to read it, may have to start tonight!  I mean, the very first chapter is entitled Don't be beastly to your Secret Service!!  Perhaps we should we send copies to the White House?  Yes?  But wait, does anyone currently there read books??  (Rhetorical question.  Cruel, too.  Sorry... not how I like to be, but...)  I also bought Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Spiegel & Grau 2016), which I cannot wait to read as well, because The Daily Show is one thing that is helping salvage my shipwrecked sanity right now, but I will save discussion of that for another day to focus instead on SPIES and RUSSIA.

First, the Smiley trilogy - the height of the Cold War, writ large by an author who denied for the longest time that he had ever been anything other than a boring, run-of-the-mill foreign service lackey.  Average guy.  Not actually a spy, nothing to see here.  Until he said oh well, yes, actually he was a spy.  For a while.  Not too long.  Oh, okay, years.  But when he made enough money from writing novels he quit that game for good.  I am happy to report that the series has aged well.  I loved these books when I first read them circa 1990, and before that, when I was even younger, I remember being frightened by the quiet horror of the British television series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.  I think the first book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, remains the best of the three.  Even when you know whodunnit, the gradual building of suspense and downbeat denouement is still masterful.  The whole storyline is a thing of beauty - characters and their motivations drawn so well.  The second book is more of a James-Bond-y type story, with exotic locations, various dishy and/or sketchy women, and a truly cinematic ending.  The third book is almost overkill, and its ending comes too soon, I think.  It felt too easy, or rushed, or something, even though the plot itself is as neat as a pin.  But I must make allowances for the fact that I may simply have wanted the series to continue instead of stop.  What all the books hinge on is moral culpability.  And the balance of power between adversaries (both the U.K. and Russia and individual spy versus spy).  And honor.  And how those things are almost - *almost* - beside the point in a field of endeavor such as spying.  It's a mighty fine line, apparently.  To wit, John le Carré says, in one of the interviews from the Conversations book I mentioned, in response to the question about whether or not being an intelligence officer gives you a sense of superiority:

"At a time when I was one, it did.  It is the feeling of being the only person with a pistol in his pocket - although I did not actually carry one.  It is the feeling of belonging to an elite that does questionable things so that the average person can sleep in peace.  An heroic self-image.... you are doing the questionable things also because the criminal side of your nature is called upon.  It is an enormous pleasure to organize a burglary with the support of your government.  A double pleasure."  (p.112)

He goes on to say, regarding the fictional hero he disliked very much indeed:

"...I have never seen James Bond as a spy.  Rather, I consider him to be a child of the western economic miracle, with a license for extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  (p.116)

Again, fascinating and terrifying.  Those quotes sum up, neatly, why I am not in a joking mood right now.  Particularly regarding "...extreme misbehavior in the interest of capital."  BOOM.  Insert political rant here?  I think I will let it go, instead.  There are enough of those within easy reach of anyone, across any platform at any given time, and the world doesn't need one more.  Suffice it to say, indictments cannot come soon enough, in my opinion, for anyone who will merit such things, in this allegedly treasonous administration.  If many (persons, indictments), so much the better.  Apologies if that sounds idealistic.  I can't help myself.  I want so much to believe that justice works slowly yet thoroughly, no matter what.  If that makes me a fool, there I am, it's a good day to be one.  I'll end with a quote from John le Carré's father, again from the Conversations book - le Carré tells us that his father said, when standing for Parliament, despite being a conman and shyster of the highest order:

"'Ideals are rather like the stars.  We cannot reach them but we profit by their presence.'" (p.166)

And, idealism intact albeit shaky, I must mention just one more thing:  it was WONDERFUL to browse in a bookstore today.  I recommend doing just that, when overwhelmed or otherwise.

Comments:
Nicely said.

It's been somewhat reassuring to see resistance, institutional as well as individual. But there's a long way to go.

My reading has been more scattershot: Letters From the Editor (Harold Ross's letters), The Long-Winded Lady (New Yorker pieces by Maeve Brennan- boy, could she notice things), and Pattern Recognition (William Gibson post-9/11). I think there's a copy of Tinker, Tailor,... sounds like I should add it to the mix.

Keep the faith.

Dan
 
You too, Dan, thanks for checking in. If you read "Tinker, Tailor..." it works very well as a stand-alone novel, just so you know. But there is of course much more if you end up pursuing the whole trilogy. Worth it for the characterization alone, I think. (The main characters and their motivations.)

I made it about a hundred pages in to "The Pigeon Tunnel" last night, whew, it's great. Suits my state of mind right now, perfectly. Funnier than I thought, in places, and much much darker in others, so it all balances out. I haven't read his last six novels or so, pretty much gave up on him in the mid-1990s when I turned to other interests, so it was something of a shock to rediscover what a great writer he is. More on that later, perhaps.

Read on! It helps. (And, speaking of The New Yorker, hasn't their reporting been tremendous, of late.)
 
Your aside on whether the current occupant of the White House actually reads (anything other than Twitter) reminded me of the photo that came out of a bookshelf there, displaying only his books. Did you see that? Funny and tragic at the same time.
(http://www.someecards.com/news/politics/twitter-empty-bookshelf-trump-white-house/)
 
Yes, saw this, ugh. I can't even. Books = wonderful worlds, forever closed to those who never read.


 
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