Archive for the ‘authors’ Category

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A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.

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The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

12 October 2008

I read this shortly after I finished Call for the Dead, and it’s quite interesting to see how Le Carré’s writing style developed between his first book and this one. There are still one or two more of the ‘early’ Le Carré books that I’d like to read, including A Small Town in Germany and possibly A Murder of Quality — they’ll appear in this blog if I happen to get around to them.

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

During World War II, the British intelligence services were organised into a number of different divisions responsible for different aspects of espionage and analysis. For reasons of security and inter-departmental propriety, the divisions responsible for political intelligence and military intelligence were kept separate, and known only by their generic codenames — the ‘Circus’ dealt with political affairs, the ‘Department’ dealt with military matters. Even though both agencies operated in Nazi-occupied areas, their remits were distinct and their staffs only collaborated when necessity demanded collaboration. After the war, however, the Circus and the Department found themselves competing in bureaucratic turf wars for government funding and support, and the better-organised Circus outflanked the Department and won the lion’s share of both. The Department was left to fend for itself, as its senior staff spent most of the time dreaming of their glory days and its new recruits muddled along as best they could. Yet when a Department courier is found dead on the side of the road near a small airport in Finland, and a less-than-reliable source passes on information about the possible movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to a site in East Germany near the border with the West, the old hands of the Department frantically work to recruit and retrain a formerly active agent to be infiltrated behind the Iron Curtain — a final push against an old enemy.

The Looking Glass War was John Le Carré’s fourth book, published two years after his best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Le Carré himself, in the introduction to later editions, considered that much of the reason for the book’s poor reception had to do with the fact that it was very much the antithesis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Looking Glass War is the story of failure, failed men and failed plans, an intelligence service that cannot remember whether it is fighting the Russians or the Germans and can only scrouge up cast-off agents and hopelessly outdated equipment for a haphazard, suicidal mission. Le Carré, in retrospect, claimed that he had not gone far enough in his critical appraisal of British intelligence in the novel. In his eyes, a proper tale of the British intelligence community of the 1960s could not be written without reference to ‘its internecine feuds and betrayals, its class distinctions and its obsessive vision of the American oaf, trespassing on our precious colonial turf‘ — in short, an unrelentingly bleak vision of Britain after Suez, sleepwalking its way into an uncertain future.

Le Carré claimed that The Looking Glass War was his most realistic spy novel, at least in the sense that it was based on the intelligence community that he knew and in which he briefly served. He finds space to give George Smiley, his best-known character, a minor role as an unwilling liaison between the Circus and the Department, though Smiley plays only a small part in the larger plot. (There may be the faintest hint of foreshadowing of the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that book would not be written for another decade.) The story dwells on the main themes that crop up quite often in Le Carré’s books, including the nature of betrayal and the toll that espionage work takes on the private lives of those who are involved in intelligence circles. As a spy novel, it is indeed unrelentingly bleak, greyer and grittier than even Le Carré tends to be in his writing. Even so, it seems uncomfortably authentic in the morbidness of its plot and characters; it may be an exaggeration of reality, but there are enough echoes of truth in it to allow our imaginations to take care of the rest.

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Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

21 September 2008

I’ve had this book on my Current Reading List for quite a while now, so I’m glad to finally post this review.

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

It is something of a truism to say that the English language is a constantly evolving language, one that flourishes by borrowing words from other languages, mashing two or more words together, or developing entirely new words from fragments of existing ones. This linguistic flexibility is part of what makes the English language so complicated, even for native speakers — particularly when it seems that the same word has any number of distinct meanings, depending on the context. A word like ‘wit’ or ‘wits’, for instance, can mean ‘sanity’ (‘I was nearly scared out of my wits when that car backfired!‘) or ‘intelligence’ (‘do credit me with having some wit here‘) or ‘amusing cleverness’ (‘he’s quite witty once you start talking to him‘) or even ‘a person skilled in humourous repartee’ (‘Oscar Wilde was a notable wit‘). With these subtle shades of meaning, it is not always easy to determine how these meanings developed over time and where and how new definitions slipped into everyday use. C.S. Lewis, who spent many years teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, found that even his more perceptive and intelligent students often grasped the wrong meaning of certain words because the author’s definitions (in the context of the work) were ever-so-slightly different than the meanings that the students expected to find. To address this confusion, Lewis began to delve into linguistic scholarship, attempting to trace the development of particular words with deceptively complicated origins. The result of his labours was Studies in Words, a set of essays about nine different English words (and one turn of phrase) that looks into the history of these words and explores how their meanings and uses have changed over time.

The words that Lewis chose to examine in Studies in Words seem rather ordinary at the outset, but a bit of careful probing reveals intricacies of meaning that are often so minute that native English speakers scarcely think about them in everyday speech and often misunderstand them when attempting to be more formal in speech or writing. A word like ‘simple’ seems a good deal less simple after Lewis has picked it apart from its origins in the term simplex, or something akin to an unfolded sheet of paper. Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’, for instance, are tied up in complicated notions about being privy to information or knowing something within oneself, usually something that is supposed to be kept secret. Through linguistic leaps and bounds from this original meaning, we have created the idea of a ‘guilty conscience’ — not a conscience that is guilty in itself, but a conscience that makes you feel guilty for something you did or did not do. These examples are only two of the words explored in the book; others include ‘free’, ‘sad’, ‘world’, ‘nature’, and even the phrase ‘I dare say’ (which seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary English). Two shorter chapters serve as bookends to the text, an introduction that sets out Lewis’s reasons for looking into this collection of words and a conclusion that examines the role that emotions and mental images often play in changing the nature and use of various words.

Studies in Words is as much a work of literary history as it is an extended study of linguistic development. Lewis supports his analysis with examples that range from ancient Greek and Roman texts and the classic works of Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The essays are not difficult to follow, but they do demand a certain level of attention to detail and a willingness to go back and reread an essay from the beginning if you fear that you are starting to lose the thread of Lewis’s argument. Most anyone with an interest in etymology, the history of language development, or literary history will find much to enjoy in Studies in Words — particularly as a refreshing look at a phenomenon best illustrated by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

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Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

9 September 2008

I went on a bit of an espionage kick a few weeks ago, ploughing through several spy novels that I’d been meaning to read for some time now. Now that I’ve finished the lot, it’s time to start posting the reviews.

Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

When an anonymous typewritten letter accuses Samuel Fennan, a civil servant in the Foreign Office, of being a Communist Party member during his time at Oxford, intelligence officer George Smiley is sent to interview Fennan and review his files for any trace of problems in his professional and personal history. Everything appears to be in order, the interview goes well, and Smiley assures Fennan that there is nothing to worry about. Not two days later, however, Fennan is found dead on the floor of his suburban Surrey home, shot through the head. The immediate impression is that Fennan has taken his own life, since the gun was found beneath his body and he had left behind a suicide note which claimed that he was convinced his career was ruined. Elsa, Fennan’s wife, coldly informs George Smiley that her husband had been in a state of near nervous collapse ever since the interview, and that she had found his body lying on the hall floor when she returned from an evening out. Smiley is prepared to accept this explanation and consider the sad matter closed, but when the Fennans’ telephone rings and he answers it, the telephone exchange operator cheerfully informs him that Fennan had requested a call for 8.30 AM that very day. This peculiar telephone call, and a handful of other inexplicable facts — an cup of cocoa left undrunk, a music case left behind in a local theatre — lead Smiley to investigate Fennan’s death more carefully. As he uncovers more inconsistencies, irregularities, and outright lies, Smiley begins to piece together a story that is as much a part of his own past as it is Fennan’s, and comes face to face with a group of individuals who are more than willing to kill again to protect the secrets they have worked so hard to acquire.

Call for the Dead was John Le Carré’s first foray into the spy fiction that would make his name as an author, and the first book to introduce the weary but determined George Smiley and the ‘Circus’, Le Carré’s name for the British intelligence service. In some ways, it is more of a noir-ish detective story than a spy novel, for the spying is often rather peripheral to the plot and at times it reads more like a classic British police procedural than an example of the espionage-based genre. The George Smiley of Call for the Dead is not quite the same George Smiley who stars in Le Carré’s well-known trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People); this Smiley is very much a prototype, slightly less in control of his emotions and slightly more prone to morose musings over the state of his failed marriage to the beautiful but faithless Lady Ann Sercomb. Le Carré would even retcon Smiley’s past for the later books, changing the date of his initial employment with the Circus to prevent his hero from being too old for the action that those books required. As a first draft, though, it provides a thorough introduction to Smiley’s history, and allows Smiley to be a little more active than we see him in the later books — this Smiley is able to survive a beating and still feel confident in his ability to tackle a man who is armed and unquestionably dangerous.

Although Call for the Dead is Le Carré’s first book, it may not be the best book to read as an introduction to the Le Carré world of espionage fiction. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the classic George Smiley book, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Perfect Spy are two of the most well-written of his classic works. Yet Call for the Dead has a short, tight plot that keeps the suspense quite high throughout, a fairly satisfying mystery to follow, and several interesting characters (including one of the few Le Carré female characters who actually seems capable of thinking about something other than sex). The rain-soaked, fog-shrouded London of the early 1960s makes a perfect setting for the story, lending the right atmosphere of gloom, foreboding, and slow but inevitable decay that so often provides the backdrop for the works of one of the foremost authors of espionage fiction.

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Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

29 August 2008

Posting this a little early, as I’m going out of town for the weekend. I’d intended to put this together with Studies in Words, the other C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading lately, but this review’s long and complicated enough that it really needs to stand on its own.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is a fairly well-known story, one of the many tales involving the troubles of relationships between mortals and the gods. Venus, goddess of love, becomes jealous of the incomparably beautiful Psyche and orders her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with the foulest creature on earth. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche himself, and has the West Wind whisk her away to a castle where he may keep her as his wife. He visits her nightly, but never allows her to see him. When Psyche’s elder sisters come to visit her in her new home, they become consumed with envy at her wealth and attempt to convince her that her husband is really a foul monster. They advise her to take a sharp knife and a lamp to bed with her so that she may look upon his face before she slays him. Half-convinced, Psyche brings the knife and the lamp to bed, but when she sees her sleeping husband for the first time she falls in love with him on sight. But when a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp and lands upon Cupid, he awakens and vanishes, leaving Psyche alone. In her quest to return to her husband, Psyche faces many arduous tasks and challenges put to her by a vindictive Venus, but in the end she is brought up to Olympus, given immortality by the gods, and reunited with Cupid.

The main character in Till We Have Faces is not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. In Lewis’s story, the narrator is Orual, the eldest of the three daughters of the cruel king of the land of Glome. Orual often bears the brunt of her father’s anger for being ugly, because a girl who cannot even be used to broker a marriage alliance with a neighbouring noble family is nothing more than a worthless mouth to feed. Orual’s only real friend at the court is the Fox, a Greek slave who shares with her the basic teachings of his homeland’s philosophers and tries to give her more of an enlightened education than her ‘barbarian’ culture would normally allow. When her father’s newest wife dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the responsibility of raising her half-sister Istra — Psyche, in Greek — and soon grows to love the child more than anything else the world. Yet the small amount of love and happiness that Orual has been able to find in Glome is suddenly taken from her when Psyche is ordered to be sacrified to appease the wrath of the gods. As the story progresses, Orual struggles with her grief, anger, and desperate loneliness in her search for her beloved Psyche, and eventually has the opportunity to bring her grievances directly to the gods themselves as both accuser and accused in the greatest trial she will ever face.

Till We Have Faces reworks the Cupid-and-Psyche myth in a very novel way, adapting the basic framework of the tale to focus on the multifaceted nature of love and its ability to nourish or destroy the heart, mind, and soul. This particular theme is one of C.S. Lewis’s favourites — it appears in several of his other fictional works, most notably in The Great Divorce, and it is one of the primary themes in his nonfiction work The Four Loves. The love theme is only one of many Lewisian tropes that feature prominently in Till We Have Faces, to the point where a reader who is familiar with Lewis’s other fiction and nonfiction writings will have no trouble spotting the themes and ticking them off one by one, as if following a well-worn shopping list. Examples include a variation on his ‘lunatic-liar-lord’ argument, given in both Mere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his interest in the neo-Platonic approach to Christianity, which is a common thread in most (if not all) of his literary, academic, and religious writings. But considering that Lewis worked on this book off and on for nearly all of his adult life, beginning in his undergraduate years at Oxford, it is hardly surprising that it should contain most if not all of the themes and ideas that he incorporated into his other works. (Till We Have Faces was his last complete work of fiction; interestingly enough, it was published in the same year as The Last Battle.) Although the book is not nearly as well known as most of Lewis’s works, Till We Have Faces is quite possibly his most complex and thoughtful piece, an extended meditation on the capacity for love within all of us and how we may use it that love for good or for ill.

One additional point should probably be mentioned in the context of this review. C.S. Lewis has often been accused of misogynist tendencies or outright misogyny in his writings, especially in his fiction, and because Till We Have Faces is very much a story of women in a warlike, masculine world, it is difficult to know how to address these accusations in the context of this book. Those who go into the text hunting for misogyny can find it quite easily — most easily, for instance, in Lewis’s rather unsympathetic depiction of Orual and Psyche’s vain and silly middle sister, Redival. Yet Orual as both a character and a narrator is far from a simple stereotype, primarily in her position a woman who is uniquely aware that she cannot fit into either the men’s or women’s roles dictated by her culture and her place in society. Some reviewers have suggested that Lewis’s wife Joy influenced the final development of the story, and claim that her guidance was instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of her husband’s story and characters. Whatever may have influenced the final product, Till We Have Faces is the book that Lewis considered to be his best, and its blend of philosophy, religion, literary reflection, and storytelling may easily be seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s entire creative output.

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Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.

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Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.