Archive for April, 2019

Wandering: Rome, Venice, and Middle Earth

April 3, 2019
  • The wonderful Joseph Epstein, who is making more hay of his Roman reading project than I am, writes charmingly of the life of Julius Caesar, whom he, rather cheekily, calls Big Julie.
  • Speaking of Rome, William Edmund Fahey writes a thoughtful meditation on the city by way of an introduction to Hawthorne’s final, Roman novel The Marble Faun. By such means does the reading list increment.
  • It might seem incredible, but not everybody likes visiting Rome, or indeed the other great Italian cities. Some people even complain.
  • Although even I might complain, at least once, if I went to Venice and found it flooded. Having unburdened myself, I hope I would find a way to enjoy the watery wonderland.
  • Bradley Birzer reviews, appreciatively, The Fall of Gondolin, the most recent volume in which Christopher Tolkien, in a continuing labour of “love and piety”, has brought his father’s unfinished writing to print. I hadn’t thought to read it, but I’m re-considering.
  • At the New Yorker, Bob Moser writes a scathing exposé of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” that has excelled at finding “hate groups” where the rest of us saw only their political opponents.
  • Finally, Terry Teachout writes, also appreciatively, about the music of Chopin.

For an envoi, here is the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes, played by the — in Chopin — unsurpassable Artur Rubinstein:

le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

April 2, 2019

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)
349 p.

It has been a long time since I read a spy novel. This one, I know, has a good reputation. A few years ago I saw the film adaptation, which I admired, but could afterwards not have explained to you exactly what happened. I then watched the BBC mini-series, which is well-regarded, and, though I did a little better at unravelling the convolutions of the plot, it remained, in the end, something of a tangle.

I’ve done not much better with the book, I’m afraid. No doubt the difficulties are intrinsic to the story le Carré wants to tell, which lurks in dark corners and feeds on duplicity and subterfuge. The effect is like a hall of mirrors, where everything can be seen from more than one angle, and one is not sure where the truth lies.

The premise is well-known and won’t spoil anything: George Smiley, recently retired from MI6, is called back in to investigate rumours that the Soviets have a high-placed mole inside the UK’s security establishment. Smiley must track down the leads and ferret out the mole, a very delicate business.

When I think of the spy novel genre, I tend to think of action-packed books, like a James Bond tale. Le Carré’s novel is a different thing: although there are scenes of furious action, and a few of spy-craft, they are exceptional; the book is, instead, mostly dialogue, through which we come to know characters.

Le Carré lets us hear and see what Smiley hears and sees, but doesn’t give us much insight into what he is thinking. When Smiley does, therefore, finally arrive at a conclusion and make his move against the mole, I failed to understand his reasoning. The book gives every indication of having been carefully constructed, but I would be interested to know if that impression holds up under analysis.

Le Carré is quite a good stylist. His prose has a sleek, no-nonsense quality about it, with a liberal salting of weary laconism. It’s the sort of prose one wants to hear from the mouths of people wearing trenchcoats and hats on a rainy night.

There is a series of books with George Smiley as the principal character, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first entry in the so-called Karla Trilogy (named for the mole’s Soviet spy-master). I enjoyed this book enough that I think I’ll read the others too.