LE CARRÉ DIEM: Pro Patria Mori

29 December, 2020 at 9:44 pm (dear diary, le carré diem)

A couple weeks ago, it was announced that David Cornwell, who had written under the pseudonym John le Carré for decades, had died. I may have found out, most banally, on Facebook, where I have subscribed to his fan page. I had enjoyed the announcements that spun out of there, most recently about the paperback edition of Agent Running In The Field — a book which I had purchased eagerly in hardback the week of its release, spurred on, no doubt by earlier announcements issuing from that same source.

The title and credit card for The Looking Glass War by John le Carré

It stung to hear of his passing, for entirely selfish reasons. There is literally no one on the planet who will live forever, but certain people take on the character of eternity regardless, particularly if they pre-date one and continue to flourish during one’s significant life changes. I mentioned in my Le Carré film adaptation recap series that I came to him on two fronts. The first was during a Michelle Pfeiffer-soaked adolescence ignited by her whisky-husk voice in the vinyl Catwoman outfit, but confirmed by her appearance in The Russia House, where her glamour was downplayed by the costumers and elevated by the text.

But the other source was the BBC television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, which I did not truly deconstruct on the (still partially unfinished) series. Upon rewatching the film for the blog entry, I found myself incapable of disentangling my feelings about the film from comparisons to the miniseries. Much in the way that I don’t feel myself wholly capable of judging the Knightley/Macfadyen Pride & Prejudice, because I’m not watching it as a movie so much as I’m watching it as a condensed version of the Ehle/Firth miniseries, I can’t get Alec Guinness out of my head while watching Gary Oldman. And more than just the performance, I’m judging Alfredson on his choices in interpreting the script versus the more luxurious prior effort. It’s not really fair.

It’s additionally unfair because my attachment to Guinness’ George Smiley is significantly sentimental. I was introduced to the series by my great aunt, who knew I liked Star Wars, and pushed me toward other, earlier Guinness appearances. When I started tracking down the back catalogue of Peter Sellers films at my astonishingly well-appointed local video store, she tipped me toward The Ladykillers and then to his memoirs, specifically My Name Escapes Me. She used to send me clippings from magazines, often without explanation, occasionally with the briefest of contexts written in the margins in her odd handwriting. They were most of the mail I received in college, and I usually didn’t respond, bemused but unable to figure out what to say in response to an eclectic morgue file of things that made someone else think of me. She died my senior year, and Guinness died two years later. In addition to associating her with him, they looked alike in their final years, a fact that I feel certain would have flattered neither party.

Alec Guinness as George SmileyBut it’s an association I can’t shake. My great aunt and her first husband lived in both the UK and China, where he was stationed as — I believe — a journalist, which was, I’m sure, a work-a-day enough existence, but which romantically calls forth images of Graham Greene, who is also associated with Guinness. It’s all quite a mélange of half-accuracies and impressions. But the fact that Le Carré survived the people who iconically portrayed the characters he created, as well as a person I, for one, associated with them, made him strangely immortal in my head.

It shouldn’t have. He was well into his “third act”, if the first was (always discounting childhood) intelligence agent, and the second was espionage author. But the fact that he had nimbly constructed a third act in a world that supposedly doesn’t even have second ones, and continued to write, was miraculous. He had been able to reinvent himself out of the cul-de-sac of being perceived as a “Cold War” author — a thing we’re seemingly so removed from that one of the BBC articles about his career had to stop in the middle to define what that even was, just in case readers were confused — and write novels about arms dealers, privatized military, post-9/11 intelligence failures, and Brexit had made him winningly flexible and current, and belied the actual advancement of time.

At work, I always manage a holiday book swap, where we try to dismantle the loathsome tradition of the Yankee Swap “white elephant” by having everyone exchange a book that they genuinely love and hope that others would enjoy. This is inspired both by reclaiming Yankee Swaps to not be predicated on anyone leaving unhappy, and also by the fabled Icelandic “Book Flood” tradition of having a new book to read on Christmas Eve. My book this year, was A Delicate Truth, which I found as angry and action-packed as any Ross Thomas novel, almost uncharacteristic for Le Carré. Perhaps the person who went home with my copy will be inspired to look at Oldman’s Tinker, Tailor on Netflix or Flossie Rose in Little Drummer Girl on Apple TV, or even to pick up Smiley’s People or one of the other records of the human cost of government. After the announcement of his death, I wanted someone else to miss him the way that I do, and to feel the hurt of a lack of any more novels to come. A strange holiday wish, but there you are.

Related Links:
Le Carré, in The New Yorker in 2008, writes a personal history about the intelligence services.
Also in the The New Yorker, Anthony Lane claims that “John le Carré Missed Nothing
While in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes about Le Carré’s film adaptions.
In 2017, Vulture writes about the enduring history of George Smiley.
The New York Times review of A Delicate Truth includes a link to a 2013 Harper’s article by Le Carré about righteous anger.
And, following his death, this archival video interview with a young Le Carré — coincidentally re-published right before his passing — was fairly widely circulated by his fans.

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