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Cultural cohesion, p.29
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.29

           Clive James

  Le Carré used to be famous for showing us the bleak, tawdry reality of the spy’s career. He still provides plenty of bleak tawdriness, but romanticism comes shining through. Jerry Westerby, it emerges, has that “watchfulness” which “the instinct” of “the very discerning” perceives as “professional.” You would think that if Westerby really gave off these vibrations it would make him useless as a spy. But le Carré does not seem to notice that he is indulging himself in the same kind of transparently silly detail which Mark Twain found so abundant in Fenimore Cooper.

  It would not matter so much if the myth-mongering were confined to the minor characters. But in this novel George Smiley completes his rise to legendary status. Smiley has been present, on the sidelines or at the centre, but more often at the centre, in most of le Carré’s novels since the very beginning. In Britain he has been called the most representative character in modern fiction. In the sense that he has been inflating almost as fast as the currency, perhaps he is. His latest appearance should make it clear to all but the most dewy-eyed that Smiley is essentially a dream.

  It could be, of course, that he is a useful dream. Awkward, scruffy and impotent on the outside, he is graceful, elegant and powerful within. An impoverished country could be forgiven for thinking that such a man embodies its true condition. But to be a useful dream Smiley needs to be credible. In previous novels le Carré has kept his hero’s legendary omniscience within bounds, but here it springs loose. “Then Smiley disappeared for three days.” Sherlock Holmes, it will be recalled, was always making similarly unexplained disappearances, to the awed consternation of Watson. Smiley’s interest in the minor German poets recalls some of Holmes’s enthusiasms. But at least the interest in the minor German poets was there from the start (vide “A Brief History of George Smiley” in Call for the Dead) and was not tacked on later à la Conan Doyle, who constantly supplied Holmes with hitherto unhinted-at areas of erudition. Conan Doyle wasn’t bothered that the net effect of such lily-gilding was to make his hero more vaporous instead of less. Le Carré, though, ought to be bothered. When Smiley, in his latest incarnation, suddenly turns out, at the opportune moment, to be an expert on Chinese naval engineering, his subordinates might be wide-eyed in worship, but the reader is unable to resist blowing a discreet raspberry.

  It was Smiley, we now learn, who buried Control, his spiritual father. (And Control, we now learn, had two marriages going at once. It is a moot point whether or not learning more about the master plotter of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold leaves us caring less.) We get the sense, and I fear are meant to get the sense, of Camelot, with the king dead but the quest continuing. Unfortunately the pace is more like Bresson than like Malory.

  Smiley’s fitting opponent is Karla, the KGB’s chief of operations. Smiley has Karla’s photograph hanging in his office, just as Montgomery had Rommel’s photograph hanging in his caravan. Karla, who made a fleeting physical appearance in the previous novel, is kept offstage in this one—a sound move, since like Moriarty he is too abstract a figure to survive examination. But the tone of voice in which le Carré talks about the epic mental battle between Smiley and Karla is too sublime to be anything but ridiculous. “For nobody, not even Martello, quite dared to challenge Smiley’s authority.” In just such a way T. E. Lawrence used to write about himself. As he entered the tent, sheiks fell silent, stunned by his charisma.

  There was a day when Smiley generated less of a nimbus. But that was a day when le Carré was more concerned with stripping down the mystique of his subject than with building it up. In his early novels le Carré told the truth about Britain’s declining influence. In the later novels, the influence having declined even further, his impulse has altered. The slide into destitution has become a planned retreat, with Smiley masterfully in charge. On le Carré’s own admission, Smiley has always been the author’s fantasy about himself—a Billy Batson who never has to say “Shazam!” because inside he never stops being Captain Marvel. But lately Smiley has also become the author’s fantasy about his beleaguered homeland.

  The Honourable Schoolboy makes a great show of being realistic about Britain’s plight and the consequently restricted scope of Circus activities. Hong Kong, the one remaining colony, is the only forward base of operations left. There is no money to spend. Nevertheless the Circus can hope to make up in cunning—Smiley’s cunning—for what it lacks in physical resources. A comforting thought, but probably deceptive.

  In the previous novel the Philby affair was portrayed as a battle of wits between the KGB and the Circus. It was the Great Game: Mrs. Philby’s little boy Kim had obvious affinities with Kipling’s child prodigy. But the facts of the matter, as far as we know them, suggest that whatever the degree of Philby’s wit, it was the Secret Service’s witlessness which allowed him to last so long. Similarly, in the latest book, the reader is bound to be wryly amused by the marathon scenes in which the legendary code-breaker Connie (back to bore us again) works wonders of deduction among her dusty filing cabinets. It has only been a few months since it was revealed that the real-life Secret Service, faced with the problem of sorting out two different political figures who happened to share the same name, busily compiled an enormous dossier on the wrong one.

  There is always the possibility that in those of its activities which do not come to light the Secret Service functions with devilish efficiency. But those activities which do come to light seem usually on a par with the CIA’s schemes to assassinate Castro by poisoning his cap or setting fire to his beard. Our Man in Havana was probably the book which came closest to the truth.

  This novel still displays enough of le Carré’s earlier virtues to remind us that he is not summarily to be written off. There is an absorbing meeting in a soundproof room, with Smiley plausibly outwitting the civil servants and politicians. Such internecine warfare, to which most of the energy of any secret organization must necessarily be devoted, is le Carré’s best subject: he is as good at it as Nigel Balchin, whose own early books—especially The Small Back Room and Darkness Falls from the Air—so precisely adumbrated the disillusioned analytical skill of le Carré’s best efforts.

  But lately disillusion has given way to illusion. Outwardly aspiring to the status of literature, le Carré’s novels have inwardly declined to the level of pulp romance. He is praised for sacrificing action to character, but ought to be dispraised, since by concentrating on personalities he succeeds only in overdrawing them, while eroding the context which used to give them their desperate authenticity. Raising le Carré to the plane of literature has helped rob him of his more enviable role as a popular writer who could take you unawares. Already working under an assumed name, le Carré ought to assume another one, sink out of sight and run for the border of his reputation. There might still be time to get away.

  New York Review of Books, 1977; later included in

  From the Land of Shadows, 1982


  The Soviet Union still looked like lasting forever, so there was no reason to believe that George Smiley would not stay in business for as long as his inventor could keep churning out the manuscripts. If he churned them out more slowly, it was only because they were getting bigger. He was probably in the middle of one when the Berlin Wall came down. Since then, many of us have been waiting for the book about how Smiley played a small but crucial role in bringing Moscow Central to its knees. The book has not yet emerged, perhaps because A Perfect Spy—much more concerned with its creator than with his most famous creation—insisted on emerging instead. Nor has there been any sign of Smiley’s realigning himself against the new menace. Le Carré never numbered a knowledge of Arabic among Smiley’s attainments, but surely the omniscient slyboots must have been conversant with that language all along, as with Chinese naval engineering.

  One suspects, however, that Smiley’s real problem has been with Jack Ryan. Under the previous dispensation, the British could punch above their weight in Secret Intelligence because it had more to do wit
h ordinary intelligence than with techno know-how. Tom Clancy can’t write with anything like le Carré’s air of literary distinction, but he knows where the mainframe computers are buried, no smart bomb can outsmart him and he can find his way around a graving dock for nuclear submarines. The last submarine le Carré was on board had coal bunkers. The commercial success of Tom Clancy has the clear merit that nobody of any taste will confuse his fantasies with art. Le Carré’s commercial success partly depended on that very confusion, because readers who credited themselves with a literary bent bought his books along with those who hit the beach with one blockbuster per year. It was a pity, though, that le Carré let the changed world sap his motivation. More concerned with the all-too-real Carlos than with Karla, The Little Drummer Girl proved that le Carré could transfer his tested schemata to the field of freelance terrorism, and he might yet transfer them all the way to September 11. Perhaps he has, and another big Smiley saga is on the way: one in which his mastery of Koranic scholarship will prove instrumental. If Smiley comes back, he will be getting old, but Captain W. E. Johns kept Biggles flying into the jet age, and Biggles was only a man of action. Wise old birds can never be old enough. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobe, you’re my only hope.” Alec Guinness played Smiley on television in exactly the same way that he later played the Jedi knight emeritus for the big screen: with heavy, condescending eyelids as he imparted wisdom to the next generation. The wish is powerfully basic, and we all want it fulfilled: we want to believe that by the time we are ready for the rest home, time will have distilled our accumulated experience into profundity, and the young might even come to visit, just to hear us pronounce.




  Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz

  To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat. On the evidence of Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz deserves her high place in the best-seller lists. This is the second time she has been up there. The first time was for a book called Scruples, which I will probably never get around to reading. But I don’t begrudge the time I have put into reading Princess Daisy. As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as best-sellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public. If cheap dreams get no worse than this, there will not be much for the cultural analyst to complain about. Princess Daisy is a terrible book only in the sense that it is almost totally inept. Frightening it isn’t.

  In fact, it wouldn’t even be particularly boring if only Mrs. Krantz could quell her artistic urge. “Above all,” said Conrad, “to make you see.” Mrs. Krantz strains every nerve to make you see. She pops her valves in the unrelenting effort to bring it all alive. Unfortunately she has the opposite of a pictorial talent. The more detail she piles on, the less clear things become. Take the meeting of Stash and Francesca. Mrs. Krantz defines Prince Alexander Vassilivitch Valensky, alias Stash, as “the great war hero and incomparable polo-player.” Stash is Daisy’s father. Francesca Vernon, the film star, is her mother. Francesca possesses “a combination of tranquillity and pure sensuality in the composition of the essential triangle of eyes and mouth.” Not just essential but well-nigh indispensable, one would have thought. Or perhaps that’s what she means.

  This, however, is to quibble, because before Stash and Francesca can generate Daisy they first have to meet, and theirs is a meeting of transfigurative force, as of Apollo catching up with Daphne. The scene is Deauville, 1952. Francesca the film star, she of the pure sensuality, is a reluctant spectator at a polo game—reluctant, that is, until she claps eyes on Stash. Here is a description of her eyes, together with the remaining component of the essential triangle, namely her mouth. “Her black eyes were long and widely spaced, her mouth, even in repose, was made meaningful by the grace of its shape: the gentle arc of her upper lip dipped in the centre to meet the lovely pillow of her lower lip in a line that had the power of an embrace.”

  And this is Stash, the great war hero and incomparable polo-player: “Valensky had the physical presence of a great athlete who has punished his body without pity throughout his life and the watchful, fighting eyes of a natural predator. His glance was bold and his thick brows were many shades darker than his blonde hair, cropped short and as coarse as the coat of a hastily brushed dog. . . . His nose, broken many times, gave him the air of a roughneck. . . . Not only did Valensky never employ unnecessary force on the bit and reins but he had been born, as some men are, with an instinct for establishing a communication between himself and his pony which made it seem as if the animal was merely an extension of his mind, rather than a beast with a will of its own.”

  Dog-haired, horse-brained and with a bashed conk, Stash is too much for Francesca’s equilibrium. Her hat flies off.

  “Oh no!” she exclaimed in dismay, but as she spoke, Stash Valensky leaned down from his pony and scooped her up in one arm. Holding her easily, across his chest, he urged his mount after the wayward hat. It had come to rest two hundred yards away, and Valensky, leaving Francesca mounted, jumped down from his saddle, picked the hat up by its ribbons and carefully replaced it on her head. The stands rang with laughter and applause.

  Francesca heard nothing of the noise the spectators made. Time, as she knew it, had stopped. By instinct, she remained silent and waiting, passive against Stash’s soaking-wet polo shirt. She could smell his sweat and it confounded her with desire. Her mouth filled with saliva. She wanted to sink her teeth into his tan neck, to bite him until she could taste his blood, to lick up the rivulets of sweat which ran down to his open collar. She wanted him to fall to the ground with her in his arms, just as he was, flushed, steaming, still breathing heavily from the game, and grind himself into her.

  But this is the first of many points at which Mrs. Krantz’s minus capability for evocation leaves you puzzled. How did Stash get the hat back on Francesca’s head? Did he remount, or is he just very tall? If he did remount, couldn’t that have been specified? Mrs. Krantz gives you all the details you don’t need to form a mental picture, while carefully withholding those you do. Half the trick of pictorial writing is to give only the indispensable points and let the reader’s imagination do the rest. Writers who not only give the indispensable points but supply all the concrete details as well can leave you feeling bored with their brilliance—Wyndham Lewis is an outstanding example. But a writer who supplies the concrete details and leaves out the indispensable points can only exhaust you. Mrs. Krantz is right to pride herself on the accuracy of her research into every department of the high life. What she says is rarely inaccurate, as far as I can tell. It is, however, almost invariably irrelevant.

  Anyway, the book starts with a picture of Daisy (“Her dark eyes, not quite black, but the colour of the innermost heart of a giant purple pansy, caught the late afternoon light and held it fast. . . .”) and then goes on to describe the meeting of her parents. It then goes on to tell you a lot about what her parents got up to before they met. Then it goes on to tell you about their parents. The book is continually going backward instead of forward, a canny insurance against the reader’s impulse to skip. At one stage I tried skipping a chapter and missed out on about a century. From the Upper West Side of New York I was suddenly in the Russian Revolution. That’s where Stash gets his fiery temperament from—Russia.

  “At Chez Mahu they found that they were able only to talk of unimportant things. Stash tried to explain polo to Francesca but she scarcely listened, mesmerized as she was with the abrupt movements of his tanned hands on which light blonde hair grew, the hands of a great male animal.” A bison? Typically, Mrs. Krantz has failed to be specific at the exact moment when specificity would be a virtue. Perhaps Stash is like a horse not just in brain but in body. This would account for his tendency to view Francesca as a creature of equine provenance. “Francesca listened to Valensky’s low voice, which had tra
ces of an English accent, a brutal man’s voice which seemed to vibrate with an underlying tenderness, as if he were talking to a newborn foal. . . .”

  There is a lot more about Stash and Francesca before the reader can get to Daisy. Indeed, the writer herself might never have got to Daisy if she (i.e., Mrs. Krantz) had not first wiped out Stash and Francesca. But before they can be killed, Mrs. Krantz must expend about a hundred and fifty pages on various desperate attempts to bring them alive. In World War II the incomparable polo-player becomes the great war hero. Those keen to see Stash crash, however, are doomed to disappointment, since before Stash can win medals in his Hurricane we must hear about his first love affair. Stash is fourteen years old and the Marquise Clair de Champery is a sexpot of a certain age. “She felt the congestion of blood rushing between her primly pressed together thighs, proof positive that she had been right to provoke the boy.” Stash, meanwhile, shows his customary tendency to metamorphose into an indeterminate life-form. “He took her hand and put it on his penis. The hot sticky organ was already beginning to rise and fill. It moved under her touch like an animal.” A field mouse? A boa constrictor?

  Receiving the benefit of Stash’s extensive sexual education, Francesca conceives twins. One of the twins turns out to be Daisy and the other her retarded sister, Danielle. But first Stash has to get to the clinic. “As soon as the doctor telephoned, Stash raced to the clinic at 95 miles an hour.” Miserly as always with the essentials, Mrs. Krantz trusts the reader to supply the information that Stash is attaining this speed by some form of motorized transport.

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