This has been a grim week, which means I have been reading a lot of John Le Carré. Fires on the mountain, sirens all the time, startling corruption scandal, consuming sense that we as a society are failing the vulnerable in ways that no one will ever be able to fix, headache going all around the front of my face: John Le Carré time. I don’t know whether it’s a bad or shameful or self-evident or cool-seeming or neutral admission, to say that he is my go-to man when I am feeling bad about this world, because people don’t talk about John Le Carré enough, in my opinion. There is a big John Le Carré -shaped hole in the discourse, and while I am doing my best to fill it, I am just one simple woman. Why the silence? At the very least, it should be widely accepted that he is a good writer to read when the times are confusingly bad. You don’t want anything too uplifting – nothing that will lead to unfortunate comparisons with reality. Nothing too taxing, for obvious reasons. Nothing with too forceful or pious a message other than “war basically bad, human nature basically okay albeit under siege,” because there are plenty of strong and pious messages going around at the moment already. Nothing too twee or with any kind of “bad-ass” heroine, because grow up. Just a nice, quiet, despairing spy novel written by a man whose current opinion on Russia I would very much like to know.
As a person who lives in a state of more or less permanent bewilderment, reading John Le Carré is like returning to my home planet. I can never follow the plot, and all I can discern is the vague shape of good but flawed people being betrayed in obscure but final ways, and the men are always falling in love for absolutely no reason while looking dishevelled and feeling guilty, and the women are always fucking some poor chap over one way or another even though they do not intend to, someone off to one side is always smouldering with a sense of historical injustice, an overgrown schoolboy called Bevins is letting down his superiors, the class system is warping every interaction, trains are sobbing in the distance, the snow is dirty, the breakdown of trust is total, and the outcome is faintly unsatisfactory. I love it. I cannot get enough. I’ve read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy six or seven times and I am none the wiser as to even the rudimentary elements of the narrative. I watched the movie with my friend Simon in a cinema in Bangalore on New Year’s Day, and when it was finished and we were all shuffling out, these two nice old Hindu ladies tapped us both on the shoulders and said “do you understand what happened” and Simon and I both said “not at all” and then we all had a great cross-cultural laugh and left the cinema feeling grateful for John Le Carré for showing us that we are more alike than we are different. We are all flummoxed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, no matter who we are or where we live.
All I can really tell you is that a haggard schoolmaster is heavily involved, and that an alcoholic woman in some kind of room keeps crying about how much she loves “her boys.” She means all the spies, who she loves even though they have banished her to some kind of room. She loves them way too much; like many of John Le Carré’s women, she has a creepy energy that I can only describe as “sex-mother.” I don’t know how to explain it, other than that many of the women in his books seem unable to decide whether they want to sleep with every man they see or be their actual biological mother. I have never once in my life come across a woman who acts like this, and honestly not that much in fiction, either. It’s just in his books. The alcoholic woman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a particularly good example of the type. She is called, like, “Old Pauline” and she is just insanely lascivious, staring all lustily at her visitors from deep within the recesses of her sinister chair, knowing everything there is to know about spycraft, patting her lap and telling frightened acquaintances to give her a kiss. She is of the “old guard”, and John Le Carré typically and misguidedly assumes that you have the faintest notion of what it means to be a member of the “old guard.” You never really get to the bottom of what it is she did to warrant the banishment, or what the point of her was in the first place. I wish I was reading it again right now. I will probably have another go at it this afternoon.
I’ve gone through three of them this week. I just finished The Russia House (excellent opening chapter, lots of good stuff about “cold warriors”, vague to the point of opacity regarding what exactly everyone is so worked up about, something about a series of notebooks, you don’t find out what happens with the notebooks in the end). As ever, I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened, plot-wise, but it truly doesn’t matter because as always, I have learned a lot.
I learned, for instance, that you should never wear a duffel coat in London*, that large tables are inherently absurd, and that all houseplants are irredeemably vulgar and tasteless (a description of a room in one of the thirty or so safehouses that the main character in The Russia House keeps inexplicably being shunted off to: “It was plush and perhaps he thought Clive owned it.** It was certainly Clive’s taste, for Clive was only middle class in the sense that he was unaware there was a better taste.*** It had carved thrones and chintz sofas and electric candles on the wall. The team’s table, which could have sat an entire Armistice ceremony, stood in a raised alcove lined with sprawling rubber plants in Ali Baba jars… The ornate furniture and the coppice of vulgar indoor plants interested him.”)
Did you know this? Is this “a thing”, indoor plants being vulgar, or is it, as I suspect, something dreamed up by John Le Carré in one of his more imperious moments? I am much more bothered by option b). If he is just repeating some weird opinion about houseplants that he read in an old issue of Tatler, that is one thing, but if he himself has a personal aversion to houseplants, that is quite another, because I love houseplants even more than I love John Le Carré, and I would like him to approve of my decisions. Surely not all houseplants. Surely just “sprawling rubber plants” that are beyond the pale. Many years of reading John Le Carré have rendered me all too comfortable with uncertainty and confusion, but I would really like to get to the bottom of the houseplant thing. No one I have asked has any idea what me or John Le Carré is on about, which I suppose is par for the course.
*No reason given, you just mustn’t.
**Unclear who Clive is.
*** No idea what this means, but sounds bad.