Saturday, October 06, 2012

Book Review pt. 1: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre

An obvious fact: Great literature connects the particular with the universal, the banal with the sublime, the mortal with the transcendent. The alchemy of fiction bridges little, familiar things with big, awesome things.

Without thematic transcendence, Moby Dick would just be an extremely long story about a crazy guy trying kill a whale.
And without the particulars of Ahab, Starbuck, Ishmael, the Pequod, etc. it would have just been a tortuous, poetical, inscrutable essay on Fate and Mortality and, uh, stuff: half Schopenhauer, half Walt Whitman: the most turgid BS conceivable. Or take Demons (aka The Possessed): like a grown-up version of Ayn Rand, Dostoevsky's characters explicitly discuss the very themes (i.e. Atheism, Justice, Faith, etc.) for which they themselves are metaphors. Lose the themes, and the story becomes an espionage soap opera; lose the plot and characters, and the story become a long, pompous essay.

Or consider Camus' The Plague: it's all very well for him to write in his essay The Rebel that "When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself..." But this cannot convey the moral authority with which Dr. Rieux, physician to the plague-ridden town of Oran, states:

There's no question of heroism in all of this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is--common decency...[I]n my case I know that it consists in doing my job.

For a Europe still in shock at the atrocities of the second World War (not to mention a present that's got plenty of its own atrocities), the struggles of Dr. Rieux and the townfolk of Oran provide an all-too-apt metaphor for the human situation. And we know--because The Plague and The Rebel are essentially the same book, except that one's fiction and one's an essay--that Camus simply couldn't get at the big issues of Meaning and Death and Solidarity in the same way without the slippery, associative logic of fiction.

This is how fiction tricks us: by connecting the particular to the universal (in the same way that, say, a photograph can connect a small object in the foreground to a large landscape in the background), meaning is created.

So it is with le Carre's spy stories. Sure, his plots are wound as tight as Swiss watches. Sure, questions introduced in the first chapters get pulled higher and higher, dangling over the reader's head, tantalizing. And, yes, sure: any spy story with nighttime pistols, tragic loves, and Shakespearean power struggles is surely somewhat escapist. Pudgy, old, meditative George Smiley may not be the anti-James-Bond so much as the believable James Bond, in the same way that 'realistic' films like Black Hawk Down and Gettysburg seduce the audience into the fantasy of Glorious War more effectively than GI Joe or Red Dawn precisely because of their putative accuracy. As the audacity of a protagonist's adventures decreases, their plausibility increases.


Still, I tell you this: le Carre is a writer for the ages. Le Carre is our Joseph Conrad.

(Check back Monday for pt. 2 of this review.)

No comments: