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The Spy Looking over My Shoulder

Learning from John Le Carré

John le Carré at the “Zeit Forum Kultur” in Hamburg on November 10th 2008. CC 3 Attribution: KrimidoedliKr

I owe David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré, big time. He has led me from the literary wilderness to the promised land of Almost Fit to Print. Without his unbeknownst tutelage, I would never have gotten even this far. This is my humble homage to his humbling genius.

When, nearly three years ago I set out to write a novel about a multi-ethnic leftist international conspiracy from the perps’ point of view, I had urgent motivations but knew nothing about genre. As I spend much more time writing than reading for pleasure, there are a lot of books that might inform mine I’ve managed to miss. Truth be told, my literary tastes gravitate to non-fiction, mostly research material for articles. Over six decades, I doubt I’ve read more than 100 novels that weren’t assigned in some long-ago class. A year could pass before picking up a new one, rarely a thriller. I had but the vaguest idea of how to proceed after conjuring up quirky characters and a wisp of a plot in a land I had never visited. It would have to be a thriller, that much I knew. Having read few but seen a lot of spy movies, I figured I knew enough to do this.

A friend and early reader who observed my struggles to get it down recommended reading John Le Carré and kindly sent me a copy of A Perfect Spy. It was my first Le Carré in over a decade, and I had forgotten how mesmerizing his prose can be. The expressiveness of that semi-autobiographical sweep of human folly utterly engrossed me. It’s one of those books you slow down reading halfway through, not because it’s getting boring but because you don’t want it to end.

So inspired, I resolved to describe places, events, and protagonists’ reactions to them with greater perspicacity and to craft sentences with bon mots and modifiers such as the great artist would dab in from his palette of somber colors, now and then adorning them with ironic detachment. Some of that worked, some didn’t, but A Perfect Spy remained my bible.

The more recent Le Carré novel Absolute Friends takes as similar a perspective to mine on the life and times of urban radicals (his in Berlin are much more raucous than mine in Piraeus) as has any book I’ve come across. This compact passage, in which once and future radical anarchist Ted Mundy experiences the Turkish quarter of Kriesberg for the first time, to me successfully evokes the ethos of an urban space at a particular time:

The Turkish shanty towns of asbestos and corrugated iron, so reminiscent of Mundy’s childhood, sell neither academic books nor squash racquets, but figs, copper saucepans, halva, leather sandals and strings of plastic yellow ducks. The scents of jeera, charcoal and roasting lamb are a welcome-home to Pakistan’s lost son. The fly-bills and graffiti on the walls windows of the communes do not proclaim college productions of the plays of minor Elizabethan dramatists, but pour invective on the Shah, the Pentagon, Henry Kissinger, President Lyndon Johnson and the Napalm Culture of US Imperialist Aggression in Vietnam.

John Le Carré, Absolute Friends, Little Brown, 2003, p. 66.

He likes to reveal settings in bits and pieces as he elaborates unfolding events, rarely starting at the beginning. Along the way, he’ll reuse a phrase or modifier that pastes a previous picture into a later one, connecting dots, sometimes disparately. Nonlinearity abounds in A Perfect Spy, which opens near the end of its timeline with a vivid description of a specific place and a vague one of a man who at this point could be almost anyone:

In the small hours of a blustery October morning in a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted of it’s inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxi-cab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church-square. His destination was a terrace of ill-lit Victorian boarding-houses with names like Bel-a-Vista, The Commodore, and Eureka. In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class, in the same attitude whether static of in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the decks of sinking ships. He had been travelling in one way or another for sixteen hours but he wore no over-coat or hat. He carried a fat black briefcase of the official kind and in the other hand a green Harrods bag. A strong sea wind lashed at his city suit, salt rain stung his eyes, balls of spume skimmed across his path. Pym ignored them. Reaching the porch of a house marked ‘no vacancies’ he pressed the bell and waited, first for the outside light to go on, then for the chains to be unfastened from inside. While he waited a church clock began striking five. As if in answer to its summons Pym turned on his heel and stared back at the square. At the graceless tower of the Baptist church posturing against the racing clouds. At the writhing monkey-puzzle trees, pride of the ornamental gardens. At the empty bandstand. At the bus shelter. At the dark patches of the side streets. At the doorways one by one.

John Le Carré, A Perfect Spy, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 1

Notice the choices of adjectives and verbs: “the graceless tower of the Baptist church posturing against the racing clouds.” Notice the subtle characterization: “In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something.” There is an odd economy in Le Carré’s verbosity, saying much but leaving just as much to be inferred.

By the time we return to this seaside boarding house, Le Carré will have escorted us through the some fifty years separating Magnus Pym’s birth and his present condition. Not in a row, mind you, but in brisk jump cuts that illuminate aspects of cause and effect once your sense of disorientation wears off.

Of course we want to know where he was sixteen hours ago and what’s in his briefcase of the official kind, but we will have to wait. Was he staring at the dark streets and doorways to see if he was being observed? The hint of mystery braided into this opening paragraph makes us want to read on. Something is not quite right in Devon’s salt rain.

The opening of Absolute Friends is also unstuck in time, but presents its protagonist in a brighter light than was shined on Magnus Pym:

On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria. It wasn’t a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn’t an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker’s grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs. Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.
And since it wasn’t his own hat — as he hastened to explain to any luckless stranger, preferably female, who fell victim to his boundless accessibility — neither was it a piece of self-castigation. “It’s a hat of office, madam,” he would insist, garrulously begging her pardon in a set piece he had off perfectly. “A gem of history, briefly entrusted to me by generations of previous incumbents of my post — wandering scholars, poets, dreamers, men of the cloth — and every man jack of us a loyal servant of the late King Ludwig — hah! The hah! perhaps being some kind of involuntary throwback to his military childhood. “Well, what’s the alternative, I mean to say? You can hardly ask a thoroughbred Englishman to tote an umbrella like the Japanese guides, can you? Not here in Bavaria, my goodness, no. Not fifty miles from where our own dear Neville Chamberlain made his pact with the devil. Well, can you, madam?”

He’s a thoroughbred Englishman, we see, who seems relatively cultured and boundlessly accessible. The detail about the hatter may or may not matter, but note the foreshadowing in the first nine words and the back reference to a military childhood that will return to haunt him every so often. Two paragraphs later, more of his character is illuminated: He’s a comedian, a failure at something, all things to all men, “…nice enough chap, wouldn’t necessarily trust him with my daughter. And those vertical wrinkled above his eyebrows like fine slashes of a scalpel, could be anger, could be nightmares: Ted Mundy, tour guide.”

At the starting point we are poised almost half-way along Ted’s lifeline, through which, like Magnus’s, Le Carré skips about at his pleasure and then hearkens back to as we read along. And the two stories resonate in other ways, the loudest being the secretive foreign men of mystery to whom Pym and Mundy become inextricably bound, friendships which bridge and sometimes betray loyalties and ideologies. Both men get recruited into the world’s second oldest profession, each ultimately to exit in roughly similar fashion having done his civic duty.

That said, I don’t think Le Carré’s writing is formulaic, but it does exhibit certain patterns. One that keeps popping up involves trust and identity. Spies and counterspies are never who they say they are except among putative friends, and so even to them agents obliquely say as little as possible. Indeed, a life of deception often leaves them unsure of who they themselves are. The web of mistrust doesn’t extend to everyone of course (spouses tend to be reliable), but it thoroughly shapes the politics of inner spy sanctums, as Pym and Mundy (and cagy old George Smiley too) come to appreciate.

I do not rupture time as much in my novel, and perhaps that makes it less “literary.” My characters’ flashbacks are relatively brief and are narratives rather than once-upon-a-time set pieces, but that doesn’t mean they don’t illuminate character or motivation. Had the evolving plot demanded more backstories of me and I felt capable of spinning them, I might have woven them in. I resisted because my novel was already quite weighty in the present without putting on girth from the past. Instead, I chose to reveal my people’s makeups less elegantly by letting them bounce off one another and now and then by eavesdropping on their private thoughts. Perhaps my next novel will make confetti of time, but not this straightaway journeyman tale.

Living outside the law is what bonds my characters; their mistrust focuses mainly on authorities rather than one another, although there’s some of that. A surfeit of paranoia advises them to take prudent precautions such as code words, encrypted phone apps, and sniffing for audio bugs. And unlike Pym in A Perfect Spy, they have no worthy adversary like Karla to play cat-and-mouse games with, a deliberate decision to make my conspirators’ enemy faceless and nameless.

A screenwriter who read the manuscript thought this a mistake and advised me to inject a dogged Greek police detective to spice up the action. While Greek gendarmes do threaten my folks, I rejected his suggestion after considering all the characterization and digressions adding him would entail. LeCarré’s Karla is only occasionally salient and his few onstage appearances are scattered throughout several novels. No, I concluded, my conspiracy’s one worthy adversary is the man they plan to assassinate in another country and his minions, one sufficiently well characterized by those speaking of him. Let me tell you, you wouldn’t want to get into his head any more than you’d want to get into Donald Trump’s.

I don’t know what my British spirit guide would say about my digressions from his métier, though I suspect he would want to say more about what makes my characters tick and might well inject a turncoat into their midst. That’s decent advice, old chap. I’ll think about it.

There’s more about the substance of my novel over here.

Published inBook Reviewcraft essaynonfictionWriting


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