Monday, June 12, 2017

From Tall Sails to Spy Tales

Sacchi Green

When it comes to reading fiction, I’ve been an anglophile pretty much all my life. My mother read The Secret Garden and other British classics to me, and once I could read books by myself I devoured stories about English children, especially historical ones, then moved on to Sherlock Homes and Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and my mother’s favorite cozy mystery writer, Patricia Wentworth. Later—well, let’s not bother about Fanny Hill or The Pearl, but Lady Chatterley’s Lover is beautifully written. In any case, my recent reading (or listening, to be precise—I’ve been on the road a good deal lately, which means books on CDs) has been particularly anglo-centric.

 Considering the current state of the world, I might be better off switching my literary allegiance to France or Canada or even Germany rather than the UK or The USA (I do have fond memories of Anne of Green Gables in Canada and still reread some of Colette in translation from time to time,) but I also lean toward historical fiction, especially when I’d just as soon forget the world’s current state.

In any case, my recent reading has been entirely British, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin  series of adventures in the British Navy of the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, and John Le Carré’s Cold War memoir The Pigeon Tunnel.

I’ve read the O’Brian books several times before. They’re a kind of comfort reading for me in that the world and characters are presented in such vivid detail that it feels like I’m right there with them, but without their risk of seasickness or drowning or cannonballs. Every now and then I marvel that this is also the world and time of Jane Austen, with a few glimpses of the society she knew and wrote about, but in general a very different, wider portrayal of that world. A more masculine viewpoint, too, but no less nuanced and complex than Austen’s, though a fair bit less literary. A movie made a few years ago, Master and Commander, combining the title of the first book in the series with events from two of the others, does get some of the general flavor and spirit of the whole, even though the characters aren’t treated in as much depth. All in all both books and movie are good distractions from our all-too-real contemporary world.  

The Pigeon Tunnel deals with a more recent period, post-WWII up to fairly recently, and doesn’t feel all that much in the past to someone my age, but most of it is by now history-book material. Le Carré (who now freely admits to his real name of David Cornwell) is best known for his novels about the British Intelligence service, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with a long list of other successful novels. He did serve for a fairly brief time and in a fairly minor way (at least as he tells it) as a spy of sorts, enough, apparently, to make his novels feel authentic, and enough to make some of his old associates very angry indeed when at times his books make the Service look bad, although they don’t seem to think he gets things wrong, exactly. He doesn’t seem to have been accused of revealing sensitive Service codes, etc, either, unlike writers such as Graham Greene whose Our Man in Havana and others did bring forth threats of prosecution for treason. Le Carré says of his own The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that a senior Intelligence officer described it as “the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked.”

Le Carré’s life as a novelist has been much longer and more successful than his days as a spy, and he reflects on the question of whether Intelligence services might well be grateful when their “literary defectors” like himself and Graham Greene take to novel writing instead of spying. Writing fiction causes less harm than other trouble they might have caused, he says, and remarks (tongue in cheek—or maybe not) that the spy services might wish that Edward Snowden had “done the novel instead.”

I haven’t finished the book yet. I find the snippets of stories mildly interesting, but what has really impressed me most is what he says about writing and memory, a subject that we’ve talked about here, and one that’s been debated a great deal when memoirs are discussed.
In his introduction he says, “These are true stories told from memory—to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life? To the lawyer, truth is facts unadorned. Whether such facts are ever findable is another matter. To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts but in nuance.” Later he adds,
“Was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we’re being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self-serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap. Or it does for me, after a lifetime of blending experience with imagination.”

He does say often enough that a particular detail may not have been exactly as he remembers, so he doesn’t claim that everything is the exact truth. He’s been a journalist as well as a novelist, interviewing world leaders, following a photojournalist into battle in Vietnam, but not, he says, keeping diaries or making many on-the-spot notes, so at times he relies on the articles he wrote at the time to refresh his memory. He also reveals a fact that many of us know as writers, which is that when he has jotted down notes while “under fire,” so to speak, he’s done it not as himself, but as the characters he hoped to write fiction about. Who among us hasn’t thought “what a great scene this could make,” while something intense is happening to or close to us?

 While the O’Brian books are entertaining distractions from the present, LeCarré’s memoir is all too close to reality. He says that the title of this book, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” comes from something he saw as a boy when his father took him along on one of his frequent trips to a casino in Europe. Next to the casino was a sporting club, where pigeons were raised on the roof, trapped, released into underground tunnels that opened out on the seashore, and shot at by sportsmen. Those who survived did what pigeons do—they flew back to the rooftop where they’d been raised, were trapped again, then sent back to the tunnels. Who better than a Cold War spy turned novelist to recognize history, doomed to repeat itself?

Maybe I should re-read something like Anne of Green Gables next, for distraction.


  1. Le Carre does not, in my opinion, get the respect he deserves as a writer. His prose is thoughtful, evocative and precise, his characters more nuanced than real people.

    My understanding is that he is as often twisting the truth about his own life as his characters do. Have you read The Perfect Spy? A chilling portrait of a chameleon who, according to a recent article I read, has a life and history heavily influenced by the author's own.

    Also of note is The Little Drummer Girl. This one's about the Middle East, terrorism, Israel versus the Arabs. It was written in the 1980s. The scary thing is that it feels contemporary.

  2. I hadn't heard the comment that Edward Snowden should have written a novel instead! Great quote. Spy novels written by spies raise questions we've sometimes wrestled with here: how to make a narrative sound authentic without violating confidences or exposing secrets (esp state secrets!). I should look up John Le Carre -I haven't read anything of his , but my thesis advisor of the 1980s recommended him. (Thesis advisor was from the Isle of Man, so he is debatably British, with Ph.D in lit.)

  3. Patrick o'B remains on my top five list of favourite authors of all time. I think my two favourites are HMS Surprise and Far aside of the World for sheer energy!!

  4. I forgot to say, for light-hearted distraction try Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, or revisit it ;)

    1. Oh yes! And then there's the Connie Willis time-travel reimagining of Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Considerably lighter than most of her books about a secret time-travel agency tweaking history.

    2. Cool! I'll look out for that!! (Amd i CAN confirm that the Waterloo-Kingston service remains just as unreliable, 110 years on....

    3. Good to see you posting here, Sam!

  5. One of the best spy novels I've read is Mailer's 'Harlot's Ghost'. A big undertaking at 1300 pages, (and 8 lbs) it actually threw my back out.