Saturday 10 September 2011

More Le Carré carry-on in the Telegraph

A very interesting article in today's Daily Telegraph by Toby Clements, who seeks the source of the current upsurge in interest in John Le Carré.

Entitled 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A love letter to John Le Carré', Clements aims to establish what it is that makes John Le Carré's stories fresh and accessible to a modern audience, through the new film starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Clements alights on ambiguity as the secret to this sustained time on the literary stage, with no signs yet as the author approaches eighties of slipping off into the wings. The ambiguity is in the characters - Smiley is anything but the obvious spy, for example: cuckolded, respectful to some extent of his opposite number, his morality is not clear cut, nor are his relationships with the people and the operation of the Circus.

The ambiguity is also in Le Carré as an author, and in his writing, where Clements writes that he challenges the reader to treat the prose rather like a case officer: what's important, what's between the lines, what is noteworthy? The author's own background, and the blurring of his career as a spook with his life writing about them, also adds to this feeling of the "morally ambigious" in all his works.

His last comment is noteworthy: "Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean can only be read ironically". Hidebound by history, he suggests, these authors are no longer 'relevant' in a way that Le Carré is, and offer the reader only curiosity. The modern audience cannot effectively tune in, and reads them only to remember nostalgically how things were. His suggestion that modern audiences are drawn to the drab greys and shabbiness of seventies London in the film is telling.

But then, applying this criteria to other historical and spy fiction novelists - Fleming, Ambler, Greene - that gap between the then and the now is always going to be widened year on year as the world moves on. But if the story, the characters and the plots have real value and sustainability, they can survive the march of history. 

And of course, this upsurge in discussion about Le Carré is driven by the inexorable push of the media marketing machine that is Hollywood. Were Tarantino to make good on his promise to film Game, Set and Match; or Ridley Scott, perhaps, to update the Thirty-Nine Steps, then we might see similar media debate about Deighton and Buchan.

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