26 Fruits

The truth

John le Carré has been much with me in recent weeks. He’s been talking to me in quiet, measured tones, telling me stories. I’ve been reading his book The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life and I’ve been reading it slowly because I’m a slow reader and because I’m savouring the quality of the writing.

For me le Carré is the finest English writer still alive but he gets overlooked because he is so closely associated with a genre ‘the spy thriller’. It’s a genre he more or less invented and, since the Berlin wall came down, it has seemed a little outdated. But he has continued writing about the world after the Cold War and, if you watched the TV drama The Night Manager, you’ll know his stories are alive in the contemporary world.

The Pigeon Tunnel has sent me back to the le Carré novels that I have read, as well as directing me to the ones that have so far escaped my attention. This morning I opened up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and started rereading:

The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all. He came in mid-term without an interview, late May it was though no one would have thought it from the weather, employed through one of the shiftier agencies specialising in supply teachers for prep schools, to hold down old Dover’s teaching till someone suitable could be found.

There you are instantly enfolded in le Carré’s tone. The sentences aren’t simple, they are often the opposite of what you imagine ‘thriller writing’ might be, but they draw you in and carry you along, and there is always a clarity about them, even if it’s clarity with a knowing smile and a raised eyebrow directed towards the reader. Of course, you imagine George Smiley speaking, played by Alec Guinness.

In the Guardian last week John le Carré wrote about his love for the German language. It reminded me that, when doing some work for Swiss Films in Zurich last year, I had cast myself as a character in a story called Herr Keindeutsch. Now I wished even more that I could speak German. Here’s an extract from le Carré’s article on the value of learning another language:

“In the extraordinary period we are living through – may it be short-lived – it’s impossible not to marvel at every contradictory or unintelligible utterance issuing from across the Atlantic. And in marvelling, we come face-to-face with the uses and abuses of language itself.

Clear language – lucid, rational language – to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language there is no standard of truth.”

I turn on the TV to watch the news and I see Trump with Putin. There is a different narrative these days in the relationship between east and west, and I certainly have no nostalgia for Cold War times. But, as le Carré makes clear (that word), our use of language has to be cherished. We have to approach it with respect and love so that we can tell stories in the best way, a way that is founded on a desire to express truth. (By the way, notice the first two words of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy shown above.)

But this is never easy. When writing we inevitably draw on our memory to reconstruct or create the truth. And there in The Pigeon Tunnel – among the stories of the German spymaster with a Nazi past, of finding the real-life Jerry Westerby after creating him as a fictional character, of dancing with Yasser Arafat, extraordinary stories told with a wry simplicity – I come across this resonant sentence that strikes me as the truth: “Pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap.”

With that in mind I return to writing the penultimate chapter of my next novel. Now what do I remember and how can I best express the truth?

2 Responses

  1. John Simmons says:

    Andy Milligan writes
    Thanks for this John. A great piece. Like you, I think Le Carre is a masterful writer and one of the best perhaps the best living British writer. His spy stories and his more recent post Cold War fiction combine superb plotting, wonderful writing, and above all a fundamental concern with how humans treat each other.

  2. John Simmons says:

    Andy Hayes writes
    Couldn’t agree more, John, he’s a wonderful writer. I always ignored his work in the past, but the Karla trilogy changed all that. I think The Honourable Schoolboy is even better than Tinker and Smiley’s People. I chanced upon Radio 4’s adaptation of A Perfect Spy last night. It’s a three-parter so you’ll be able to catch up on the first episode on iPlayer. And a new Smiley novel is on its way in the Autumn….

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