Cultural Cohesion, p.28Clive James
Solzhenitsyn finds it no mystery that the Old Bolsheviks condemned themselves. He resolves the apparent conflict between Koestler’s famous thesis in Darkness at Noon (Koestler said they cooperated because the Party required their deaths and they had no spiritual resources for disobeying the Party) and Khrushchev’s much later but equally famous insistence that they were tortured until they gave up (“Beat, beat, beat . . .”). According to Solzhenitsyn, the Old Bolsheviks were devoid of individuality in the first place, and simply had no private convictions to cling to: certainly they weren’t made of the same moral stuff as the engineers they had connived at destroying ten years before, many of whom had preferred to be tortured to death rather than implicate the innocent. In the second place, the Old Bolsheviks had never been as marinated in suffering as they liked to pretend. Koestler was wrong in supposing that torture alone could not have cracked them, and Khrushchev was apparently also wrong in supposing that they needed to be tortured all that hard. Czarist imprisonment was the only kind the Old Bolsheviks had ever known and it was a picnic compared to the kind they themselves had become accustomed to dishing out. Solzhenitsyn sees no tragedy in the Old Bolsheviks. He doesn’t talk of them with the unbridled hatred he reserves for the prosecutors Krylenko and Vyshinsky, but there is still no trace of sympathy in his regard. Here again is an example of his disturbing absolutism. He shows inexhaustible understanding of how ordinary people could be terrified into compliance. But for the ideologues trapped in their own system his standards are unwavering—they ought to have chosen death rather than dishonour themselves and their country further. He pays tribute to the Old Bolsheviks who suicided before they could be arrested (Skrypnik, Tomsky, Gamarnik) and to the half dozen who died (“silently but at least not shamefully”—The Gulag Archipelago I, 10) under interrogation. He condemns the rest for having wanted to live. They should have been beyond that.
Solzhenitsyn takes a lot upon himself when he says that it was shameful for men not to die. Yet one doesn’t feel that his confidence is presumptuous—although if one could, he would be less frightening. I remember that when I first read The First Circle the portrait of Stalin seemed inadequate, a caricature. My dissatisfaction, I have since decided—and Solzhenitsyn’s writings have helped me decide—was a hangover from the romantic conviction that large events have large men at the centre of them. Tolstoy really did sell Napoleon short in War and Peace: Napoleon was a lot more interesting than that. But Stalin in The First Circle must surely be close to the reality. The only thing about Stalin on the grand scale was his pettiness—his mediocrity was infinite. Solzhenitsyn convinces us of the truth of this picture by reporting his own travels through Stalin’s mind: the Archipelago is the expression of Stalin’s personality, endlessly vindictive, murderously boring. Time and again in his major books, Solzhenitsyn makes a sudden investigative jab at Stalin, seemingly still hopeful of finding a flicker of nobility in that homicidal dullard. It never happens. That it could produce Stalin is apparently sufficient reason in itself for condemning the Revolution.
With Solzhenitsyn judgement is not in abeyance. He doesn’t say that all of this happened in aid of some inscrutable purpose. He says it happened to no purpose. There is little solace to be taken and not much uplift to be had in the occasional story of noble defiance. First of all, the defiant usually died in darkness, in the way that Philip II denied Holland its martyrs by drowning them in secret. And when Solzhenitsyn somehow manages to find out who they were, he doesn’t expect their example to light any torches. There are no eternal acts of faith or undying loves. (The typical love in Solzhenitsyn is between the Love Girl and the Innocent, or that unsatisfactory non-affair at the end of Cancer Ward—just a brushing of dazed minds, two strangers sliding past each other. No parts there for Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.) Everything is changed: there is no connection with the way things were.
It should be an elementary point that Solzhenitsyn is a critic of the Soviet Union, not of Russia. Yet even intelligent people seemed to think that there may have been “something in” his expulsion—that he had it coming. (It was edifying to notice how the construction “kicked out” came to be used even by those nominally on his side.) This sentiment has, I think, been intensified by Solzhenitsyn’s argument with Sakharov. It has become increasingly common to hint that Solzhenitsyn has perhaps got above himself, that in telling the world’s largest country what it ought to do next he is suffering from delusions of grandeur. Yet it seems to me perfectly in order for Solzhenitsyn to feel morally superior to the whole of the Soviet political machine. Its human integrity is not just compromised but fantastic, and he has lived the proof. He has good cause to believe himself Russia personified, and I am more surprised by his humility in this role than by his pride. To the suggestion that he is a mediocre artist with great subject matter, the answer should be: to see that such stuff is your subject matter, and then to go on and prove yourself adequate to its treatment—these are in themselves sufficient qualifications for greatness. Solzhenitsyn’s forthcoming books (apparently there are to be at least two more volumes of The Gulag Archipelago) will, I am convinced, eventually put the matter beyond doubt. But for the present we should be careful not to understand the man too quickly. Above all we need to guard against that belittling tone which wants to call him a reactionary because he has lost faith in dreams.
The New Review, October 1974; later included in
At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979
For its time, the embattled tone of the above piece was not completely inappropriate. Though Stalinism had never got much of a grip on the British intelligentsia, there was still a widespread refusal on the Left to believe that Lenin was a prototypical Stalinist in all but name. Later on the refusal modulated to a mere reluctance, but it is not yet a readiness even now; and thirty years ago you could still buy a fight by wondering aloud if the Cheka had really made a contribution to human progress. I can well remember the young Christopher Hitchens defending the Bolshevik takeover’s necessary historical role, while the no longer young Robert Conquest quietly (very quietly: he had a maddening tendency to whisper even then) pointed out that there was nothing historically necessary about a hijack.
In those days I had the luxury of hearing both of them at the same lunch table every week, although they spent more time entertaining the assembled convivio than going for each other’s throats. Once again, London’s sense of community between writers forbade the worst excesses of ideological conviction. But even in the atmosphere of amused tolerance, there was a reputation for frivolity to be earned by anyone daring to suggest that the great social experiments in the East had been lethal from their inception. I’m pleased to say that I earned it. Nowadays, I would like to think, the frivolity looks like simple realism. But here again, London is lucky. In Paris, the battles within the cultivated world left even New York looking like Arcadia. In the works of François Furet and Jean-François Revel, especially of the latter, we can see how hard the few liberal intellectuals had to fight if they were not to be shouted down by the many diehards. The Gulag Archipelago consists almost entirely of verifiable facts. In France it was reviewed by the gauchiste press as if it were a work of fiction, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When Le Livre Noir du Communisme came out in 1997, it received similar treatment. Three decades have made little difference, and bad blood makes it hard for the intellectuals to sit down together. To a lesser but still marked extent, the same applies in New York.
In London, ideology has never mattered that much. It could be said that this is only because ideas have never mattered much at all, but it would not be quite true. The truth, and the saving grace, is that nobody thinks them glamorous. You can’t be a star for what you say, only for the way you say it. Far from being driven apart by differing opinions, Hitchens and Conquest were drawn together by their common love of language. The long consequence of their encounters in those years can be enjoyed in the opening pages of Hitchens’s little
As for Solzhenitsyn’s subsequent reputation, it would be foolish to leave the implication floating that he might have come good on his gigantic novel. He didn’t. It was great only in size. As an essayist and historian, he weakened his own position by assailing the West for its inability to achieve spiritual unity—as if liberty and spiritual unity did not rule each other out. He became, alas, a bit of a crank. But it was edifying to note how many pundits took their opportunity to diminish his importance retroactively, as if he had never done much except emphasize the obvious. It had never been obvious: not to them, at any rate.
GO BACK TO THE COLD!
The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
John le Carré’s new novel is about twice as long as it should be. It falls with a dull thud into the second category of his books—those which are greeted as being something more than merely entertaining. Their increasingly obvious lack of mere entertainment is certainly strong evidence that le Carré is out to produce a more respectable breed of novel than those which fell into the first category, the ones which were merely entertaining. But in fact it was the merely entertaining books that had the more intense life.
The books in the first category—and le Carré might still produce more of them, if he can only bring himself to distrust the kind of praise he has grown used to receiving—were written in the early and middle 1960s. They came out at the disreputably brisk rate of one a year. Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) were all tightly controlled efforts whose style, characterization and atmospherics were subordinate to the plot, which was the true hero. Above all, they were brief: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not even half the length of the ponderous whopper currently under review.
Elephantiasis, of ambition as well as reputation, set in during the late 1960s, when A Small Town in Germany (1968) inaugurated the second category. Not only was it more than merely entertaining, but it was, according to the New Statesman’s reviewer, “at least a masterpiece.” After an unpopular but instantly forgiven attempt at a straight novel (The Naive and Sentimental Lover), the all-conquering onward march of the more than merely entertaining spy story was resumed with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) which was routinely hailed as the best thriller le Carré had written up to that time.
The Honourable Schoolboy brings the second sequence to a heavy apotheosis. A few brave reviewers have expressed doubts about whether some of the elements which supposedly enrich le Carré’s later manner might not really be a kind of impoverishment, but generally the book has been covered with praise—a response not entirely to be despised, since The Honourable Schoolboy is so big that it takes real effort to cover it with anything. At one stage I tried to cover it with a pillow, but there it was, still half visible, insisting, against all the odds posed by its coagulated style, on being read to the last sentence.
The last sentence comes 530 pages after the first, whose tone of myth-making portent is remorselessly adhered to throughout. “Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London’s secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin.” The Dolphin case history, it emerges with stupefying gradualness, is concerned with the Circus (i.e., the British Secret Service) getting back on its feet after the catastrophic effect of its betrayal by Bill Haydon, the Kim Philby figure whose depredations were the subject of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The recovery is masterminded by George Smiley, nondescript hero and cuckold genius. From his desk in London, Smiley sets in motion a tirelessly labyrinthine scheme which results in the capture of the Soviet Union’s top agent in China. Hong Kong is merely the scene of the action. The repercussions are worldwide. Smiley’s success restores the Circus’s fortunes and discomfits the KGB. But could it be that the Cousins (i.e., the CIA) are the real winners after all? It is hard to tell. What is easy to tell is that at the end of the story, a man lies dead. Jerry Westerby, the Honourable Schoolboy of the title, has let his passions rule his sense of duty, and has paid the price. He lies face down and lifeless, like someone who has been reading a very tedious novel.
This novel didn’t have to be tedious. The wily schemes of the Circus have been just as intricate before today. In fact the machinations outlined in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War far outstrip in subtlety anything Smiley gets up to here. Which is part of the trouble. In those books character and incident attended upon narrative, and were all the more vivid for their subservience. In this book, when you strip away the grandiloquence, the plot is shown to be perfunctory. There is not much of a story. Such a lack is one of the defining characteristics of le Carré’s more recent work. It comes all the more unpalatably from a writer who gave us, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a narrative so remarkable for symmetrical economy that it could be turned into an opera.
Like the Oscar Wilde character who doesn’t need the necessary because he has the superfluous, le Carré’s later manner is beyond dealing in essentials. The general effect is of inflation. To start with, the prose style is overblown. Incompatible metaphors fight for living space in the same sentence. “Now at first Smiley tested the water with Sam—and Sam, who liked a poker hand himself, tested the water with Smiley.” Are they playing cards in the bath? Such would-be taciturnity is just garrulousness run short of breath. On the other hand, the would-be eloquence is verbosity run riot. Whole pages are devoted to inventories of what can be found by way of flora and fauna in Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam and other sectors of the mysterious East. There is no possible question that le Carré has been out there and done his fieldwork. Unfortunately he has brought it all home.
But the really strength-sapping feature of the prose style is its legend-building tone. Half the time le Carré sounds like Tolkien. You get visions of Hobbits sitting around the fire telling tales of Middle Earth.
Need Jerry have ever gone to Ricardo in the first place? Would the outcome, for himself, have been different if he had not? Or did Jerry, as Smiley’s defenders to this day insist, by his pass at Ricardo, supply the last crucial heave which shook the tree and caused the coveted fruit to fall?
Forever asking questions where he ought to be answering them, the narrator is presumably bent on seasoning mythomania with Jamesian ambiguity: The Lord of the Rings meets The Golden Bowl. Working on the principle that there can be no legends without lacunae, the otherwise omniscient author, threatened by encroaching comprehensibility, takes refuge in a black cloud of question marks. The ultimate secrets are lost in the mists of time and/or the dusty filing cabinets of the Circus.
Was there really a conspiracy against Smiley, of the scale that Guillam supposed? If so, how was it affected by Westerby’s own maverick intervention? No information is available and even those who trust each other well are not disposed to discuss the question. Certainly there was a secret understanding between Enderby and Martello. . . .
And after a paragraph like that, you get another paragraph like that.
And did Smiley know of the conspiracy, deep down? Was he aware of it, and did he secretly even welcome the solution? Peter Guillam, who has since had two good years in exile in Brixton to consider his opinion, insists that the answer to both questions is a firm yes. . . .
Fatally, the myth-mongering extends to the characterization. The book opens with an interminable scene sta
“Your Graces,” said old Craw, with a sigh. “Pray silence for my son. I fear he would have parley with us. Brother Luke, you have committed several acts of war today and one more will meet with our severe disfavour. Speak clearly and concisely omitting no detail, however slight, and thereafter hold your water, sir.”
Known to be an expert mimic in real life, le Carré for some reason has an anti-talent for comic dialogue. Craw’s putatively mirth-provoking highfalutin is as funny as a copy of The Honourable Schoolboy falling on your foot. Nor does Craw do much to justify the build-up le Carré gives him as a master spy. The best you can say for him is that he is more believable than one of his drinking companions, Superintendent “Rocker” Rockhurst, the legendary Hong Kong policeman. “Rocker” Rockhurst? There used to be a British comic-strip character called Rockfist Rogan. Perhaps that was the derivation. Anyway, it is “Rocker” Rockhurst’s main task to preserve order among the legendary Hong Kong journalists, who are given to drinking legendary amounts, preparatory to engaging in legendary fistfights. Everything that is most wearisome about journalism is solemnly presented as the occupation of heroes. No wonder, then, that espionage is presented as the occupation of gods.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes