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.