In this week’s Guardian Review section Henry Eliot reflects on his favourite literary locations, you can read the article here. It’s the hottest literary locations to visit – when lockdown ends.
Lucy Jago has gathered together books about female friendship but the piece isn’t on the website. The only one that I’ve read on her list is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, but she also mentions Sula by Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne and Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe. For some reason this article isn’t appearing on The Guardian website so I can’t link to it. Have you read any of these books?
There was an article in the main newspaper about John le Carre who took out Irish nationality a while before his recent death. It was Brexit which pushed him to take the decision. You can read about it here.
Tom Gauld’s cartoon below gave me a laugh – I so agree!
A Murder of Quality by John le Carre was first published in 1962 and it features George Smiley.
Miss Brimley is an old friend of George Smiley, she’s the editor of a magazine called Christian Voice which has a very small list of subscribers. One of them – Mrs Rode – has sent a letter to Miss Brimley which says she is sure her husband is going to kill her and that she has no one else that she can turn to for help. Miss Brimley passes the letter on to her old friend Smiley, asking him to investigate.
Stella Rode’s husband is a housemaster at a prestigious English public school called Carne, but by the time Smiley gets there the deed has been done. Carne School is the sort of place that Smiley is well used to, presumably having been to such an institution himself. It doesn’t take Smiley long to discover that there’s a lot of nastiness within the school with the schoolmasters and their wives being consumed by petty jealousies and snobbery.
The Rodes seemed to be a mismatched couple and Stella went out of her way to upset her husband, choosing to side with the local townspeople with whom she was very popular, rather than with the snooty schoolmasters and their wives. There are the usual ‘town versus gown’ tensions such as you get in places like St Andrews.
This was a very quick but enjoyable read. Apparently before John le Carre found fame as an author he had been a master at Eton and he was inspired by his experiences there when writing this book. Presumably there weren’t any actual murders at Eton, but I can imagine that there were plenty of character assassinations!
This was one of my 20 Books of Summer reads, the sixteenth. I think I might manage to read all twenty of them.
Call for the Dead by John le Carre was first published in 1961 and it’s the first book in his George Smiley series. I’ve really enjoyed his Smiley books in the past but I really wish I had started to read them in the correct order. I had always been puzzled by Smiley’s strange marriage to the wildly unfaithful Lady Ann, so I was glad to discover from this book some of the history behind the couple.
As soon as I started reading this book I realised that it had been made into a film and I had seen it fairly recently, it didn’t go into the details of the marriage though so I did learn more from the book.
George Smiley had been given the job of questioning one of the British Intelligence staff members who has come under some suspicion, he’s supected of spying for the East Germans. Smiley takes him to a park to have an informal chat with him but despite the low stress venue and laid-back style, the suspect soon ends up dead, supposedly at this own hands, but Smiley isn’t convinced, it just doesn’t add up to him. His bosses in the ‘Circus’/ British Intelligence seem keen to blame Smiley for the death, but soon Smiley himself is attacked.
This is a suspenseful read, but if you’re a James Mason fan you might want to seek out the film which is called The Deadly Affair.
It’s ages since I’ve written a post about some of the articles in the Guardian Review which have particularly interested me – so here goes.
Patti Smith answered some questions here. I was particularly interested that she mentions Pinocchio as the book that she wished she had written. It has been on my Classics Club list for some time, I feel more inclined to get around to it soon now. I’m slightly perturbed that she had such anxiety while reading Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – and that she actually threw up! She has never finished it. I completely understand her reaction to Villette though as I’ve also been so freaked out by the ending to a book that I had to rewrite it in my head, it was one by Paul Auster if you’re interested. Patti fell in love with books at a young age – I completely agree with what she says about Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.
A friend is reading Elton John’s autobiography Me at the moment and enjoying it, I plan to get around to that one sometime. I’ve never seen him live but Elton was such a feature of my young teenage life and even when I got married we had Jack’s Yellow Brick Road poster hanging on our bedroom wall, and here we are – both over 60 now and still enjoying Elton, in fact everywhere we went on that recent Baltic cruise we were being accompanied by Elton, he’s really popular in ‘the east’ especially Russia. I’ll never forget watching that concert in the USSR on TV when he was the first western pop star to play there. The audience hardly dared move, never mind sing and dance as they would have been doing here.
There’s an interview with Elizabeth Strout. I am possibly the only person to have been unimpressed by her book Olive Kitteridge. I really disliked Olive and the whole thing seemed disjointed to me, but apparently it won a Pulitzer – go figure as some people elsewhere say. Are you a fan?
There’s a new John le Carre book out called Agent Running in the Field, you can read about it here. I have to start reading him again, I have so many to catch up with. It’s a Brexit novel, there’s no getting away from it it seems.
There’s ‘a wheen o’ crime fiction written about here, or maybe it’s just ‘a hantle’, there are five of them.
You can read about Doctor Zhivago and a CIA plot here.
I hope you enjoy some of these links.
Ages ago I decided to take part in The 1965 Club which is being hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, but I got mixed up with the dates and read a book a month too early, so if you are interested you can read my thoughts on what should have been my first read of the week The Looking-Glass War by John le Carre.
Previous books from 1965 that I’ve read are:
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken
The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
Ninth Life by Elizabeth Ferrars
Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart
I’ve just finished reading The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff and I’ll blog about that one tomorrow.
The Looking Glass War by John le Carre was first published in 1965. This is the third le Carre book that I’ve read and it’s the one that I least liked, it seems that I’m not alone in that as le Carre said that “his readers hated me for it”, but he was cheered by the fact that it went down better with American readers. I suspect that this tale is just too near the truth for most Brits to want to accept. The two government military intelligence departments involved are rivals, don’t share information and a lot of mistakes are made.
A Soviet defector claims that the Soviets are positioning missiles at Rostock close to the West German border. That information is treated as suspect and in an attempt to get some clarification an airline pilot is paid to divert his plane over Rostock to get photographs of the area. The intelligence officer sent to pick up the film is killed in a hit and run accident but this is interpreted as being a murder by the Stasi. A lot of the book is about a Polish officer being trained to go into the east to send radio messages back to London. Almost as soon as he gets there things go wrong. It’s not going to end well.
This book was written as a satire but mainly hasn’t been read as such.
It shows that lives were/are cheap but as the reader is involved with the spy and the relationship between him and the man training him then the casual lack of loyalty leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For that reason I found it quite depressing particularly as John le Carre was an MI5 and MI6 agent himself and he said it was an accurate representation of his own experiences. It sounds like ‘botched’ is the operative word.
Not long ago the man at the top of such things nowadays gave a speech at St Andrews University, saying that you didn’t have to be an Oxbridge graduate to be recruited by them. I’d advise anyone to just say NO.
I was pleased when I realised that I could read The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre for The 1977 Club as we have all of his books in the overflow bookcases in the garage. Jack read them at that time. But I have only read A Small Town in Germany by le Carre previously. I was even happier when it dawned on me that this book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, I have a bit of a personal project going on to read as many as those prize winners as I can get a hold of.
I loved this book although for me it was essential that I had the time to read it over quite a short period of time, it’s not a 30 pages at bedtime before you fall asleep sort of book. Also as I was reading it 41 years after it was published it has a distinct feeling of nostalgia and historical fiction now.
It begins with the British secret service (the Circus) being under a cloud as far as the American ‘Cousins’ are concerned as Bill Haydon has not long been unmasked by George Smiley as a spy for Russia, recruited when he was a student at Oxford 30 years previously. Haydon had so much influence he had been able to have good members of staff pensioned off or elbowed out, leaving a very much weakened Circus. George Smiley is in charge of putting together a team to investigate money laundering in Hong Kong which was still a British Crown Colony at that time. He manages to bring back some of those that Haydon had ousted. The investigations lead from Hong Kong to Cambodia and Thailand and drug smuggling comes into it too.
That’s all I’m going to say about the story, it’s quite convoluted as you would expect of a spy story, but I really enjoyed this one and the fact that I haven’t read any of the other Smiley books which were written before this one wasn’t a problem at all, although I had watched them on TV years ago. I must say that I think Alec Guinness was the perfect Smiley.
Some previous 1977 books that I’ve read are:
The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
I,Claudius by Robert Graves
I’m a day late with this post as 1968 Week finished on the fifth of November, but heigh-ho better late than never, I think.
A Small Town in Germany is the first book that I’ve read by John Le Carre and it definitely won’t be the last as it was a great read.
The setting is Bonn in the late 1960s and there are demonstrations in the streets and political strife in general. It’s a time when British politicians were desperate to join the Common Market as the European Union was called back then. General de Gaulle was doing his best to keep the UK out. I remember it well.
Alan Turner has been sent to Bonn from the Foreign Office in London. He has been tasked with looking into the disappearance of Leo Harting who is a minor embassy officer who has been on rolling temporary contracts for the last twenty years. Turner is disliked by everyone because it seems that Harting has been running rings around them all, being all things to all men and women and manipulating his way into having much more access to files than he should have.
Turner discovers that not only is Harting missing but so are dozens and dozens of files, including the all important green file. It seems that Harting must have been working for the Russians for years.
As espionage tales go this is a fairly straightforward one but very well written and enjoyable. It’s somewhat depressing though that almost fifty years on from when this book was published nothing much seems to have changed politically. This passage struck me:
no one thanks you for democracy. Now we’ve come out the other side. Democracy was only possible under a class system, that’s why: it was an indulgence granted by the privileged. We haven’t time for it any more: a flash of light between feudalism and automation and now it’s gone. What’s left? The voters are cut off from the parliament, parliament is cut off from the Government and the Government is cut off from everyone. Government by silence that’s the slogan. Government by alienation.
With politics in Bonn being overtaken by a wealthy right-wing industrialist who is successfully building a new political party this seemed spookily prescient, it’s just a matter of changing the country – or maybe such things are just constantly repeating in history as subsequent generations fail to learn from the past. I’ll definitely be reading more Le Carre books. Can anybody recommend the next one I should read?
There are quite a few interesting bookish articles in this Saturday’s Guardian.
You might be interested in reading le Carre on le Carre from the Weekend section. I think we have all of his books but I have yet to read any of them.
If you’re a fan of Val McDermid you can read an article by her here.
There’s an article on Ann Patchett here.
There’s an article about a biography of Beryl Bainbridge here.
There’s an article on a book about Monet’s waterlily paintings, read it here if you’re interested.
I have a feeling that most bookish people are inclined to be shy, as I am, so if that describes you too you might like to read this article – Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness by Joe Moran.