Sunday, October 16, 2011

John Le Carre, By Way of Tallahassee

Sara, a former 9th grade crush (my first serious crush at that), my most trusted friend, and well on her way to becoming a great human rights lawyer as a student at Florida State University College of Law in Tallahassee, sent me an e-mail last Wednesday, wondering if I'd read any of John Le Carre's novels. She heard of him through the film adaptations of his books, and 40 pages into The Honorable Schoolboy (her first Le Carre novel), she's a huge fan, describing each sentence as "taut and vivid," and the characters being lifelike.

I replied, telling her that during the years I had been a patron of the Valencia library when it was part of the County of Los Angeles library system, I picked up the first and second novels of the George Smiley series, A Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, in one book, but had only read the beginning of A Call for the Dead before other books got in the way, as they always did, since I always reached the 50-item limit of my library card, always all books.

When Sara recommends books, I look into them right away, because she has the same mindset as I do about books. She loves them just as fiercely. So I told her I'd read A Call for the Dead soon, ordering it from, as well as The Russia House, of which I had seen the first few minutes of the Sean Connery/Michelle Pfeiffer movie adaptation via Netflix, and had been interested in it then.

A Call for the Dead arrived yesterday, shortened to Call for the Dead, as this 2002 trade paperback printing indicates. I liked it right away because there was an introduction by Le Carre and there seems to be Le Carre introductions for each of the Smiley novels in these Pocket Books printings.

I told Sara by e-mail after I had come home from Walmart Supercenter today, where I finished reading Call for the Dead, that I'm at a great advantage right now because I don't have a local library, not until we move. Therefore, I've fashioned my own library of sorts, made up of books I really, really want to read, but not encumbered by any limit on a library card. I take time for every book, unless it gives me reason to give it up. Plus, there being no due date, there isn't that minor pressure either. So I was able to take the time for Le Carre, and I can truly say that Call for the Dead is some of the best writing I've ever read. Le Carre is so descriptive by being so minimal with his words. He chooses each one carefully. He doesn't seem like the kind of writer who would agonize over each word choice, but he's clearly taken time to figure out what he wants in each sentence, each paragraph. Sara's right about the vividness of his sentences, which extends into clearly-drawn characters. His descriptions are never overdone, including of physical appearances, which only serves to bring you deeper into this moral-gray spy world. This is my kind of spy novel, which I never really got from Ian Fleming. The movie James Bond is my Star Wars, but upon reaching Doctor No in my attempt to re-read the novels, it was disappointing, not containing any of the low-key excitement found in From Russia with Love. But Le Carre, that's where my spy love lives.

In the first chapter of Call for the Dead, there is this sentence:

"That night he stayed in London at somewhere rather good and took himself to the theatre."

Le Carre not only gets deep into the British Secret Service, but also in his sentences. You can't merely read that sentence and move on. You have to think about it for a moment. To me, "rather good" indicates that either he's stayed in London before and accomodations have never been reliable, or wherever he has stayed elsewhere has not been all that good. "Took himself to the theatre" is Le Carre's interesting way of saying that Smiley went alone, since theatergoing is usually in pairs or as a group. Only he went. He was his own date, but not much.

This next passage is from chapter 6, 'Tea and Sympathy':

"It was still raining as he arrived. Mendel was in his garden wearing the most extraordinary hat Smiley had ever seen. It had begun life as an Anzac hat but its enormous brim hung low all the way round, so that he resembled nothing so much as a very tall mushroom. He was brooding over a tree stump, a wicked looking pick-axe poised obediently in his sinewy right hand."

"Obediently" is what I love here, since the pick-axe was obviously aimed at the stump, sharply aimed.

This is the second-to-final paragraph in Call for the Dead. Maston is (or was) Smiley's boss, and Smiley is on a flight to Zurich:

"Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro. Maston was a million miles off, locked away with his arid paper and his shiny politicians."

Descriptive in such a short set of words, well-chosen ones at that. That's one of Le Carre's greatest talents.

Sara's recommendation led to Call for the Dead (I preferred to start at the beginning of the series), which led to me ordering A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the next books in the Smiley series. I intend to read all of Le Carre's novels, the non-Smiley ones not in any order. But so far, this is my favorite paragraph in a Le Carre novel, particularly because of the subtle humor at the end. This is the start of chapter 3, 'Elsa Fennan':

"Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a relentless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and cajoled into being in every front garden, half obscure the poky "Character dwellings" which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarfs indefatigably poised over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint their dwarfs, suspecting this to be a suburban vice, nor, for the same reason, do they varnish the owls; but wait patiently for the years to endow these treasures with an appearances of weathered antiquity, until one day even the beams on the garage may bost of beetle and woodworm."

There are books I blast through as a speed-reader, sometimes done in a day and on to the next. Some, like American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by Joan Biskupic, which I finished last night, I still speed-read through, but I slow down because the information is important to me. With Call for the Dead, I kept in mind at the beginning what Sara had said about the sentences of a Le Carre novel, and then after the first page, I was out on my own. She was right, and I slowed down to take in each sentence, to turn each wonderful phrase over in my mind, to admire the mystery in it. In his introduction from March 1992, Le Carre writes:

"When I had written the book, I feared that my troubles had just begun. I had talked to nobody about the proprieties of writing a spy story while I was still inside the spy business, and nowadays, I am told, new entrants have to sign away their literary lives before they are allowed to join. Certainly I knew enough about the subterranean connections of my service not to attempt to publish without official consent. So I sent the book to the Legal Adviser, Bernard Hill, who had always seemed to me to be the dullest old stick in the whole outfit, and he returned it a couple of days later with a note saying how much he had enjoyed it. He asked for one change and I made it. Not for security reasons: he thought it might be libellous. He also asked me to use a pseudonym. He thought it wiser and, sucking on his pipe, he wished me luck.

When Victor Gollanez accepted the book, I asked Victor what sort of pseudonym I should choose. He recommended two Anglo-Saxon monosyllables---something like Chuck Smith or Hank Brown. I chose le Carre. God alone knows why, or where I had it from, but I didn't like Victor's advice. When people press me, I say I saw the name on a shop front from the top of a London bus. I didn't. I just don't know. But never trust a novelist when he tells you the truth."

David Cornwell is his real name. Smart move, because Le Carre adds more mystery to what's in store, the dank spy world most of us can only know through books.

Moral of all this enthusiasm? Always trust book recommendations from your closest friends.