Sunday, September 25, 2016

The splendid piece on John le Carré is part of an embarrassment of riches in the new NYRB


The new NYRB has a terrific review-essay by Neal Ascherson on John le Carré, described by his new biographer, Adam Sisman, as "one of the most important English writers of the post-war period." To me this kind of understates le Carré's importance as a writer, but hey, that's me.

by Ken

The new (October 13) issue of The New York Review of Books was in the mailbox yesterday, and such free time as I've had since then has been heavily absorbed by an issue overflowing with "must read"s. There are half a dozen or more pieces that we should probably talk about, and may yet, but for now let me rattle off some of the high points on the contents page --

In the leadoff position:
an eye-opening piece by Freeman Dyson (but then, doesn't Freeman Dyson usually open eyes?) on the theoretical, cultural, and economic differences -- and their practical consequences -- in the divide on space exploration, which has existed as long as there's been space exploration, between "Big Space" (as practiced by NASA, running a program that is legitimately "too big to fail") and "Little Space" ("The Green Universe: A Vision," reviewing books by Julian Guthrie, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix, and Jon Willis)
On the political front:
Michael Tomasky with some striking thoughts on the question increasingly in a lot of our heads now, "Can the Unthinkable Happen?"
Nicholas Lemann on what appears to be some sort of right-to-leftward movement in U.S. politics for the first time since well before the left-ro-right shift that set in in the mid-'60s and changed the political landscape (reviewing books by Daniel Oppenheimer, Steve Fraser, and Thomas Frank in "Can We Have a 'Party of the People'?," free to subscribers only)
Geoffrey Wheatcraft on "Tony Blair's Eternal Shame: The Report" (reviewing the Chilcot Report itself and books by Peter Oborne and Tom Bower, free to subscribers only)
On the scientific front, in addition to Freeman Dyson's space odyssey:
Laurence C. Smith on "Greenhouse Warming: Prepare for the Worst" (reviewing Tim Flannery's Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, free to subscribers only)
On the pop-cultural front:
novelist-translator-essayist Tim Parks on "The Pleasures of Reading Stephen King" (free to subscribers only)
Nathaniel Rich on "The George Plimpton Story" (free to subscribers only), reviewing the serial-form reissue, with added commentaries, of Plimpton's books of what he dubbed, probably intentionally misleadingly, "participatory journalism"
And on and on and on . . .

. . . including Orlando Figes on 2015 Nobel Literature Prize-winner Svetlana Alexeivich's Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Nicolas Pelham's "In Saudi Arabia: Can It Really Change?," David Miliband on "The Best Ways to Deal with the Refugee Crisis," Rana Foroohar on "How the Financing of Colleges May Lead to Disaster!," and pieces on art, architecture, and poetry, and actual poetry.


Neal Ascherson's "Which le Carré Do You Want?" (free to subscribers only), reviewing Adam Sisman's exhaustive biograhy of John le Carré, written with four years' worth of cooperation from the subject, and the subject's own new memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life
-- drawing by David Levine
Clearly, given the amount of cooperation le Carré had given Adam Sisman over the years the biographer was working on his biography, the subject was aware that the book was in the works. At some point during that time, the biographee decided to produce a memoir of his own -- not "as some sort of angry riposte," Ascherson assures us ("[Sisman's] book seems very fair and often close to affectionate"), but more likely for "professional" reasons, as "the pang of a writer who lends out his or her best anecdotes to be written up by somebody else."

Ascherson likes both books, but thinks the autobiographer has been shrewder than the biographer in one key area: keeping their shared subject's father, Ronnie Cornwell ("an exuberant con man whose excesses and betrayals shaped the characters and lives of his children"; in his son David's writing, he's most conspicuously present in A Perfect Spy) mostly confined to one section of the book. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Sisman that he needed to be kept under tight control:
Ronnie, although he died in 1975, keeps stealing the scene in this biography that is supposed to be about his son. Readers and critics have long ago grasped the idea that the le Carré novels—and not just the early “spy” fiction—can be understood as a mordant allegory of British decline; or, more accurately, of the British elite’s persistent refusal to recognize that decline. Sisman handles that element deftly. But the fact is that Ronnie’s real life is an even more lurid allegory of the same thing.
Ascherson recounts getting to know David Cornwell in 1963 when Ascherson was a Bonn-based journalist and Cornwell a functionary in the British embassy in Bonn (cover, of course, for his activities as a secret intelligence officer). The journalist, knowing nothing about his new friend's "real trade," or about his gathering-toward-explosion personal woes, found him "restless, irreverent, and very funny."

During Cornwell's time with MI6 he had published his second novel, Call for the Dead, which is loaded with spies, including one George Smiley (who had in fact appeared in the earlier book, A Murder of Quality), and which MI6 had cleared for publication -- as it did, perhaps surprisingly, with his next book, the game-changing Spy Who Came in from the Cold (whose central character is strangely referred to here as "Alan" rather than Alec Leamas). Ascherson has vivid memories of its publication.
One autumn day in 1963, David and I sat on a bench outside Hamburg’s main station, waiting for the Sunday papers to arrive from London with reviews of books we had written. The ecstatic reception of The Spy changed his life forever. Its triumph in Britain and America made him instantly wealthy; his pseudonym was penetrated within a few months; his days were overrun by importunate agents, publishers, film directors, and tax accountants. He described the impact as “like being in a car crash.”
Ascherson adds parenthetically: "Ronnie, delighted, was to be found in Berlin posing as David’s agent and selling imaginary movie rights to film studios."

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At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Le Carre is the best of the best! Thanks, Ken!


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