Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John le Carré

Better late than never: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

leave a comment »

It’s taken me a long time to get around to le Carré. As I noted in my review of the recent movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, my interest in his great subject—the psychology and culture of spycraft—has always been limited at best, so his books can seem forbiddingly hermetic to a reader like me. A writer like Frederick Forsyth, whom I admire enormously, does a nice job of balancing esoteric detail with narrative thrills, while le Carré, although he’s an ingenious plotter, deliberately holds back from the release of action for its own sake. The difference, perhaps, is that Forsyth was a journalist, while le Carré worked in intelligence himself, which accounts for much of the contrast in their work—one is a great explainer and popularizer, so that his books read like a men’s adventure novel and intelligence briefing rolled into one, while the other is all implication. As a result, while I’ve devoured most of Forsyth’s novels, I’ve tried and failed to get into le Carré more than once, and it’s only recently that I decided to remedy this situation once and for all.

Because there’s an important point to be made about le Carré’s reticence, which is that it ultimately feels more convincing, and lives more intriguingly in the imagination, than the paragraph-level thrills of other books. In interviews, le Carré has noted that many of the terms of spycraft that fill his novels were invented by himself, and weren’t actually used within MI6. This hardly matters, because a reader encountering this language for the first time—the lamplighters, the scalphunters, the janitors—has no doubt that this world is authentic. Forsyth, by contrast, stuffs his books with detail, nearly all of it compelling, but always with the sense that much of this information comes secondhand: we applaud the research, but don’t quite believe in the world. With le Carré, we feel as though we’re being ushered into a real place, sometimes tedious, often opaque, with major players glimpsed only in passing. And even if he’s inventing most of it, it’s still utterly persuasive.

This is the great strength of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I finished reading this week. Le Carré is the strongest stylist in suspense fiction, and this book is a master class in the slow accumulation of detail and atmosphere. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what is taking place, either because of the language of spycraft or the density of Britishisms—”a lonely queer in a trilby exercising his Sealyham”—but there’s never any break in the fictional dream. It’s a book that demands sustained engagement, that resolutely refuses to spell out its conclusions, and that always leaves us scrambling to catch up with the unassuming but formidable Smiley. In this respect, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is an inspired adaptation: it visualizes a few moments that the novel leaves offstage, but for the most part, it leave us to swim for ourselves in le Carré’s ocean of names, dates, and faces. (I haven’t seen the classic Alec Guinness version, which I’m saving for when the details of the plot have faded.)

And yet the overall impact is somewhat unsatisfying. Tinker, Tailor is a brilliantly written and constructed novel, but it’s an intellectual experience, not a visceral one. By the end of the book, we’ve come to know Smiley and a handful of others, but the rest are left enigmatic by design, so that the book’s key moment—the revelation of the mole’s identity—feels almost like an afterthought, with no real sense of pain or of betrayal. (The film has many of the same issues, and as I’ve noted before, it gives the game away with some injudicious casting.) This isn’t a flaw, precisely: it’s totally consistent with the book’s tone, which distrusts outbursts of emotion and buries feeling as deep as possible. That air of reserve can be fascinating, but it also leads to what James Wood, for somewhat different reasons, calls le Carré’s “clever coffin”—a narrowness of tone that limits the range of feeling that the work can express, which is often true of even the best suspense fiction. Le Carré’s talent is so great that it inadvertently exposes the limitations of the entire genre, and it’s a problem that we’re all still trying to solve.

Written by nevalalee

September 7, 2012 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

“I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,” Smiley went on, more lightly. “Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things. What do you think of it?”

John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

Tinker, Tailor, and how to spot a murderer

leave a comment »

Any review I write of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will inevitably be brought up against the fact that I don’t know much about John le Carré. For various reasons, I’ve never been able to get into his work, despite trying and failing several times. This may seem like a strange admission from someone who, rather to his own surprise, has found himself making a living as a suspense novelist, but my own interests are considerably removed from le Carré’s: I’m not necessarily fascinated by spycraft or the Cold War for its own sake, so whenever I open one of his meticulously crafted novels, I feel a greater cultural shock upon entering this world than I do with, say, Fredrick Forsyth, who is probably the lesser artist, but who has a greater journalistic interest in keeping the lay reader engaged. All the same, I do intend to take the plunge into le Carré one of these days—there’s just no avoiding him if you have any interest at all in the history of the thriller—but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps fortunately, then, I was able to approach the chilly new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with something close to an open mind. (I also haven’t seen the famous television adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.) And while I’m obviously unable to judge its faithfulness to the source material, it certainly captures my idea of le Carré: tense, reserved, hermetic. As other reviewers have noted, it plunges you at once into a world of names, tradecraft, and technical language, to an extent that, refreshingly, gives the audience almost too much credit. It’s a testament to the quality of the cast, especially Gary Oldman’s restrained but powerful turn as Smiley, and director Tomas Alfredson, who creates a nice, faintly rotting atmosphere, that we’re interested and engaged the entire time, assuming that we can make the leap into the world that the movie has created. The film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to pull us in: it’s a mole hunt, revolving around the search for a traitor at the highest levels of British intelligence, but the stakes are less about the loss of real secrets than a sense of clubby betrayal, which we can only regard from a distance.

This refusal to hold the audience’s hand can be intriguing, but there are also times when it works against the story that the movie is trying to tell. For example, while I love its avoidance of the chronological chryons (“Four years earlier,” “Present day”) that clutter up so many of our suspense films, there’s also a crucial moment when we’re confused about whether or not a certain scene is a flashback, which diffuses the impact of an important surprise. More damagingly, for the mole hunt to have any weight at all, we need to know something about the men under suspicion, but for the most part, we know them only at sight, with their relationships expressed by a veiled exchange of glances, or not at all. As someone who has come down more than once against backstory, I applaud the decision to leave much of this material to implication, but I can’t help feeling that the movie takes it slightly too far, with at least one major character so thinly developed that it’s impossible, and rightly so, to take him as a suspect.

This reluctance to spell things out can be addressed, to a point, by thoughtful casting, and indeed, the actors—Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and a very winning Benedict Cumberbatch—tell us far more about their characters than is conveyed by the script itself. In at least one respect, however, the casting is a bit too clever, leading to the movie’s one real flaw, also shared by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Spoilers for both movies follow, at least by implication.) I’ve long since learned that the easiest way to spot a murderer, or a mole, is to look for a famous actor cast in what seems, at first, to be an insignificant supporting part, or at least a part with nothing obvious to attract a well-known name. Because actors of a certain caliber generally won’t take such small roles, at least not without good reason, the observant viewer suspects that there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s always possible, of course, that a really clever movie will employ a famous face as a deliberate distraction…but in the end, the casting in both Tinker, Tailor and Dragon Tattoo gives away the game. I doubt that Smiley would approve.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

The strange case of Q.R. Markham

with 5 comments

By now, many of you have probably heard of the truly bizarre case of Q.R. Markham, the nom de plume of a Brooklyn novelist whose debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, was recently exposed as an insane patchwork of plagiarized passages from other books. In his author photos, Markham himself looks something like a character out of a Nabokov novel, so it’s perhaps fitting that this scandal differs from other instances of plagiarism both in scope and in kind: dozens of thefts have been identified so far, from such famous novelists as Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, and James Bond author John Gardner, all but guaranteeing that the fraud would quickly be discovered. (One of the lifted passages was allegedly six pages long.) The sheer massiveness of the deception, which also extends to much of the author’s other published work, suggests that unlike most plagiarists—who tend to be motivated by laziness, carelessness, or cynicism—Markham was driven, instead, by a neurotic need to be caught.

Of course, as with James Frey and the Harvard student I still like to think of as Opal Mehta, after the exposure comes the inevitable justification, and Markham doesn’t disappoint. In a fascinating email exchange with author Jeremy Duns, who provided a glowing blurb for the novel in happier times, Markham claims that his actions were motivated by “a need to conceal my own voice with the armor of someone else’s words,” as well as, more prosaically, the pressure of rapidly turning around revisions for his publisher. The latter rationale can be dismissed at once, and novelist Jamie Freveletti has already skewered it quite nicely: every working novelist has to generate rewrites on short notice—I’m doing this for my own novel as we speak—so invoking time constraints as an excuse makes about as much sense as blaming the physical act of typing itself. More interesting, at least to me, is the implication that assembling this novel of shreds and patches ultimately became a kind of game. Markham writes:

I had certain things I wanted to see happen in the initial plot: a double cross, a drive through the South of France, a raid on a snowy satellite base. Eventually I found passages that adhered to these kinds of scenes that only meant changing the plot a little bit here and there. It felt very much like putting an elaborate puzzle together.

Now, on some level, this kind of puzzle construction is what every genre novelist does. The number of tropes at a writer’s disposal is large, but finite, and barring a really exceptional act of invention, which has happened only a handful times in the history of the genre, much of what a suspense novelist does consists of finding fresh, unexpected combinations of existing elements and executing them in a surprising way. If anything, Markham’s example highlights one of the weaknesses of the suspense genre, which is that the underlying components—like the ones he lists above—have become rather tired and predictable. Doesn’t every spy novel contain a double cross, or a raid on some kind of secret base? In his neurotic fear of originality, Markham simply took it to the next logical step, so it’s tempting to read his case as a kind of demented experiment, a sweeping indictment of the artificiality of the spy thriller itself.

But this gives him too much credit. Assassin of Secrets is a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves. Markham’s editors and reviewers have clearly been wondering, as well they should, why they didn’t detect this deception much sooner, and what this says about their knowledge of the genre in which they make their living. And for other novelists, Markham stands as an emblem of what I might call a culture of empty virtuosity, in which a book that mechanically recombines exhausted tropes can be acclaimed as the work of an exciting new voice, when it merely contains, as James Wood once unfairly said of John Le Carré, “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” I love suspense, and much of its pleasure lies, as Markham says, in the construction of elaborate puzzles. But it can also be more. And if nothing else, this Frankenstein monster of a novel should remind us of the fact that we owe it to ourselves to do better.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2011 at 10:23 am

How much should you write every day?

with 5 comments

According to his own autobiography, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a thousand words an hour, between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, and if he finished a novel before the day’s work was done, he took out a fresh piece of paper, wrote Chapter One at the top, and began another. Max Brand, the incredibly prolific author of westerns, wrote fourteen pages at a sitting—and in only two hours per session. More recently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises beginning writers to write at least 2,000 words a day, which is also the recommended pace for participants in National Novel Writing Month. (And judging from King’s legendary productivity, it’s likely that his own pace is much higher).

Of course, not every novelist is a writing machine. Jerzy Kosinski wrote a page and a half per sitting. Nabokov famously wrote his novels one perfect paragraph at a time, on individual index cards. Even the most modest pace will eventually produce an entire book, like water wearing away stone. At one point, when I was struggling to balance my writing life with a full-time job, I reminded myself that a hundred words a day—that is, something substantially shorter than this paragraph—would produce a novel of 100,000 words in just over two and a half years. For all my good intentions, though, I never actually stuck to that schedule, and ultimately decided to quit my job first. Still, the principle seems sound enough.

These days, when I’m working on a first draft, I write a lot. Yesterday, which was my first serious writing day in a long time, I wrote an entire draft of the prologue of my novel, which is about 3,500 words long, over the course of seven hours of work. Now, I’m not saying that all these words were great, or even good. I had the luxury of writing from a detailed outline. And I expect that the prologue will eventually be cut to something like 2,000 words or shorter. But like John le Carré, to compare small things with great, I like to write a chapter every day. And I do believe that there are good reasons to push yourself to write, if not an entire chapter, at least a fully realized unit of your story at each session—whether it’s a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, if you’re a writer like Nabokov.

In something so long and complicated as a novel, it’s crucial that its units hang together fairly organically, and writing the first draft of each unit in one session strikes me as the best possible way to do this. In my own novels, the length of each chapter is largely determined by how much I can write in one day, which also happens to approximate, conveniently enough, the amount of information that a reader can process before pausing for a break. (Poe says something similar about the ideal length of a short story.) And there’s something gratifying about crossing an entire chapter off my outline when a day’s work is done, even if I know that the real work of revision is only beginning. When I’ve got fifty chapters or more to write, that kind of pace is often all that keeps me going.

So I guess I’d better get started again.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 9:02 am

A writer’s routine: John le Carré

with one comment

Le Carré: Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep…I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer…

Interviewer: With this monkish routine, how many words do you produce each day?

Le Carré: I don’t know. When it’s going well it goes terribly fast. It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day, which for me is about twenty-two pages. When it’s going badly, it isn’t really going badly; it’s just the beginning. The first page and the first chapter are a matter of endless fiddling, cutting out all the good bits, putting in a whole lot of verbiage. Actually, it’s my only way of thinking. Without a pen in my hand I can’t think. And by the way, not every aspect of the monk is observed.

The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2011 at 8:24 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

%d bloggers like this: