The Reading Room

Au Revoir, John Le Carré

The death of John Le Carré….

The death of John Le Le Carré at the age of eighty nine will come as little surprise to most, least of all myself who lost a round of drinks in Italy betting on him being ninety one three years ago, He lived a full and varied life, achieved more as an author than most could possibly dream of including seeing his novels turned into successful movies and television adaptations. He was one of the few authors most people, regardless of reading knowledge, had heard of and his death has made national news headlines.

His output was considerable, and, for the most part, quite brilliant. He was the doyen of the spy fiction genre who initially used his own knowledge of the British Secret Service and subsequently his contacts through his fame, to give his readers a sense of spy craft and political manoeuvrings quite unlike any other.  There are other authors of the genre who have produced books of genius but none with his consistency throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. His creation of Smiley captured the imagination as the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond; the most understated and unremarkable hero of them all. Le Carré’s Smiley was the master of the slow burn; intelligent, unassuming and dour, he was all the more remarkable for it and his sparring with his arch rival, Karla made Le Carré’s trilogy a masterpiece.  In his magnum opus, A Perfect Spy, we see the author reach his zenith with a novel which transcended genre and found its place firmly amongst the great British novels of the 20th century.  If there is one of his novels which encapsulates all that was Le Carré then most surely it is this book. But it was a book which marked a turning point for this particular reader, it became, for me, a slow descent from immortality to, by the time of his final novel, something quite ordinary.

In later years he became increasingly vocal in his political and social views, he, like anyone else, had that right, but his craft suffered because of it. It became ever more apparent that any new novel was formed around his latest bête noir and by the time of the publication of Agent Running in the Field, this sense of outrage had clouded his ability to write a book worthy of the Le Carré pseudonym. Both the author and his publishers held the misguided belief that his readers craved a novel centred around the two global subjects they were all heartily sick of; Brexit and Trump. His attempts ‘to heal and make sense of’ played loudest in its own echo chamber. and in truth, it was little more than a poorly written rant by an author far removed from the realities of modern-day Britain and America. It was like watching a dearly loved ageing rock star playing one final reunion concert and fluffing his greatest guitar solo unaware there are scores of school kids playing it note perfect on YouTube. Yes, he wrote it but his ability to replay it had long since passed.

Le Carré has accompanied me on many travels, he was a prerequisite of long-haul flights to Asia, his 1977 novel, The Honourable Schoolboy is unquestionably my most-read holiday novel. When he was good, he was brilliant. Few could craft a novel like Le Carré at his best. He leaves behind a considerable volume of work and fiction is the better for him. I shall remember him for  his golden period, we all should and forgive him his later misfires. He was the master of his field.

Categories: The Reading Room

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