Archive for the ‘Man Booker Prize’ Category

The Man Booker Prize judges never cease to amaze me. In this case, I’m going back to 2010, when the prize was awarded to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and the book I’m reviewing only made the long list.  Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it seems to me of far greater literary merit than the winner; you can see what I thought of that here. It was also far more popular, going straight to number one on various booksellers’ lists. I know this isn’t a criterion that is taken into account, but there does seem to be a bit of a disjunction here.

The story is set in Nagasaki, and begins in 1799. It centres on a group of people who live on Dejima, a trading concession of the Dutch East India Company. Dejima is an artificial island linked by a land bridge to Nagasaki. Few people aside from Japanese officials such as interpreters and inspectors are allowed to cross over to Dejima or back from it; Japan is the Closed Empire and foreigners are strictly controlled. But the story starts in Nagasaki, where Orito Aibagawa, a skilled young mid-wife, uses Western medical knowledge to save the life of a mother who is having a difficult delivery, and her baby. It then follows the fortunes of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has come to Dejima to make enough money to marry his sweetheart back in Holland. Paradoxically, his main task is to document the corruption of other employees of the Company, which hardly makes him popular. The first of the five parts of this book tells of his small victories and larger defeats and betrayals, of his growing friendship with the Interpreter Ogawa – and of his love for Miss Aibagawa.  The second part follows Orito, who is sold into the shrine of a goddess by her step-mother, and Ogawa, who also loves her. The third tells of a British frigate which comes to Dejima seeking plunder and alliance with the Japanese. The fourth and fifth much shorter sections resolve most the elements of the story.

Perhaps the Man Booker judges didn’t like the structure of the book. If so, I can’t agree with them. Each of the first three sections has a different focus, but the links are carefully constructed, and the story doesn’t feel fragmented. There are links revealed through the material and characters, and in the changes of perspective within each section, so, for example, in the third section, we get the view of both Jacob and the captain of the frigate. In Cloud Atlas, the only other of Mitchell’s books I’ve read – and see my review here – the narrative line is much more fractured, and felt somewhat artificial. This doesn’t. You can read what Mitchell says about the structure here, and you can follow up his reference to Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan here.

Also in that review, I questioned whether the multiple writing styles he uses in Cloud Atlas aren’t a bit too clever by half. Here, there is only one narrative style for all the sections – the intelligent third person observer. I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter whether this time it is Mitchell’s ‘authentic’ voice; indeed, there is no such thing. There is only the voice the novelist chooses to use at any given time, and the only judgement that matters is about the quality of that voice. And Mitchell’s quality is superb. Each character speaks just as that character should, and this requires a high degree of versatility, particularly as the characters are of a variety of ethnic origins and social classes. In addition, Mitchell has wonderful powers of observation and description. The prose poem near the end of the third section detailing the life of a Nagasaki street is one of the loveliest I’ve read.

I said above that the research behind this book is meticulous, but how would I know? Certainly the general outlines are accurate; you can read about the situation of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company, much of the detail about the exclusion of foreigners and Japanese attitudes to hierarchy and tradition on Google if you want. Even the incident of the British frigate has a basis in fact. But a better assessment may be that the historical content seems real. The physical setting and the views and attitudes of the characters all fit seamlessly into the historical context Mitchell has created. The time and place are intrinsically interesting, and perfect for amplifying his theme of the ‘foreignness’ of the eternal outsider, for Jacob, Orito and Ogawa are all in their way outsiders.

Reading the first section, I was absorbed by the detail, but a bit confused by the unfamiliar Dutch and Japanese names. I wondered where it was all going. Reading the second, I decided that the book requires patience. And I think it deserves it. That I can’t read about Nagasaki without thinking about its modern history just adds another layer to my response.  It’s rare for me to like a book so much.

I wasn’t surprised to find that Mitchell lived for some years in Japan, and that his wife is Japanese. You can read more about the author here.


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I’ve been writing this blog for quite a while now, but I still sometimes find it difficult to say why I like a book, or why I don’t. I can see that this book is one many people will like, and indeed it was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. But instead of being moved, or touched by it as I know other readers are, it rather irritates me. The challenge is to find out whether this says something about the book, or about me – or some combination of both.

Harold Fry has recently retired from his job as a salesman for a brewery. He is shy and retiring to the point of self-effacement. He feels he is a failure. He and his wife Maureen scarcely speak to each other, and neither seems to have anyone or anything meaningful in their lives. One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former work colleague, telling him she is dying of cancer. Harold writes to say he is sorry, and goes out to post the letter. But instead of doing so, he decides to walk to see her, just as he is, even though he lives on the south coast of England, and she is in a hospice in Scotland. The story then follows his journey, the people he meets and the memories he has of his life. ‘In walking, he unleashed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy of its own.’ The narrative is shared with Maureen, as she struggles to come to terms with his abrupt departure and to decide what she really feels for him.

On one level the story deals with the reality of blisters, weather, washing and sleeping arrangements. I didn’t find these details particularly convincing; no one could walk with their feet and legs in the condition that Harold’s are soon in. Nor do I find it convincing that his mind could be occupied only by memories; no one’s mind could be as blank as that. But this isn’t primarily about reality – it’s about Harold’s journey of self-discovery. That the difficulties are unrealistic, and yet he keeps going, is the whole point. He needs to achieve something. ‘I have to keep walking’ is his mantra. And the primacy of memory over any other thought is essential to the structure of the story; much of the narrative drive relies on the gradual revelation of events earlier in Harold’s life. But the hints that are given along the way undermine – for me – the power of Harold’s final revelation.

Harold begins his journey in the faith that it will somehow help Queenie, even though a doctor he meets along the way tells him that incurable cancer is – well – incurable. But it seems that the world needs ‘a little less sense and a little more faith’. I guess one of the things people like about the story is Harold’s fidelity to his purpose in the face of various obstacles to it. He is a modern version of John Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), with his own hill of difficulty and slough of despond. Indeed, the book’s epigraph is from Bunyan. But there is nothing overtly religious about this pilgrimage, even if at times it seems almost to take on the air of a search for Buddhist enlightenment. ‘But you have to let go,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know that at the beginning, but I do now. You have to let go of things you think you need, like cash cards and phones and maps and things. ’

All this is perfectly reasonable, so what am I complaining about?  I think it is the way Harold’s self-discovery is expressed. Take this passage where Harold is reflecting, as he often does, on his new understanding of things. ‘He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other, and a life might appear simply ordinary because the person living it had done so for a long time.’ Really? It comes down to whether you think this is meaningful or trite. One reviewer praises Joyce’s ‘unerring ability to convey profound emotions in simple, unaffected language.’ I find the writing too often lacks depth and the story feels contrived. But I can imagine other people, like the reviewer, feeling quite differently.

So is it the book, or me?  Probably both. The book is sometimes sentimental, and I often don’t have the warm emotional response to books that I know other readers have. Best you try it yourself.

This is Rachel Joyce’s first book. You can read more about her here.

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After his book The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, Hollinghurst said that it brought to an end the sequence of books in which he has consciously explored gay identity and its fight for recognition.  The Stranger’s Child (2011) is his first book since then, and yes, he has gone beyond being ‘just’ a gay writer – if in fact that was what he ever was.

The story is told in five parts. Each is a fragment, complete in itself but part of a larger story, different aspects of which are revealed in each section. Some of what has gone on in between is alluded to, but some is withheld, and of interest to those in subsequent sections, and of course to the reader. The connections are rich and subtle, and I won’t go into them here, because the interest of them is part of the book’s appeal. Suffice to say it begins in 1913. Cecil Valance is spending a weekend with his Cambridge friend, George Sawle, at George’s comfortable middle class house, ‘Two Acres’, in an outer London suburb – then more of a village. Valance, a poet and something of a celebrity at Cambridge, is heir to a baronetcy and a landed estate, Corley Court. It is clear to the reader from the start that Cecil and George are lovers, but not of course to George’s family. The second part is set in 1926; it deals with another weekend, this time a house party at Corley Court arranged so that a biographer can interview people who knew Cecil, who died in the First World War. The third section is set in 1967; Corely Court is now a school, and two more young men, one of them a teacher there, are falling in love. The main action again involves a party with the Sawle family and others, or their heirs, from the earlier sections.  In the fourth section, set in 1979, another biographer is researching a life of Cecil Valance, and there is a brief coda set at a funeral in 2008.

Hollinghurst says that ‘From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position. To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position.’ And certainly several of the major male characters here are gay as a matter of course. In a major departure, however, there is also an important female character, Daphne, who is not gay, and Hollinghurst seems to me to do an excellent job of understanding and presenting her feelings. Of course he has never wanted to be known as primarily a gay writer: ‘I only chafe at the ‘gay writer’ tag if it’s thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I’m writing,’ he says. ‘I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well – history, class, culture.’ Here, I think he has succeeded brilliantly. The subtle class differences, for example, between Cecil, and George and his family at Two Acres, are cleverly evoked. They help create an almost unbearable narrative tension that originates in the hidden homosexuality of the two young men but goes well beyond it.

But history, in the form of biography – or rather the unreliability of biography – is surely the major theme of the book. Some facts are unknown and unknowable. Others manage just to elude the biographers’ eager (greedy?) hands. Some things that seem like facts are not. Some characters might wish to be truthful, but find it impossible to be so. Daphne, for example, acknowledges: ‘What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt about what she thought then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say.’ Memory is completely fallible. Daphne again: ‘He [the biographer] was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.’ Some of the characters prefer concealment. And how far does the biographer simply assert things without a solid basis of evidence? How far do other people believe them? The reader ends up knowing a bit more than the characters about what happened, but we are still left with a satisfyingly realistic measure of doubt.

In a review in The Guardian, one critic states that Hollinghurst ‘has a strong, perhaps unassailable claim to be the best English novelist working today’, though he thinks this is not his best work. I understand why he makes this claim. Hollinghurst writes beautifully, and the nuanced and clever plot is a delight. The critic goes on to say: ‘It almost seems as if Hollinghurst is refuting the most commonly made criticisms of his work: that he’s not very interested in women; that there’s too much sex; that his writing is too lush; that his characters are not likeable. These objections, incidentally, seem to me largely philistine or dishonest … And, flawlessly executed though this book is, it has rather less bite than its predecessors.’ I agree that none of the characters is particularly likeable. By showing them from a number of perspectives, Hollinghurst shows them as fully fallible – a realistic, though somewhat depressing perspective. But for the rest, I guess I’m either philistine or dishonest.

The book made only the long list for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, but I liked it better than the book that won – Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending; see my review of it here. There’s almost nothing about Hollinghurst on the internet. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t have a web page.

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True to form, I’m reading the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner nearly a year late; the short-list for 2012 was announced on 11 September. Also pretty much true to form – see some of my other reviews of Man Booker winners – I wouldn’t have voted for it. I haven’t yet read anything by any other of the 2011 short-listed candidates, so it may have been the best of the bunch. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

This short novel is described as a meditation on memory, ageing and regret. Tony Webster is middle aged, middle class, retired from his job as an arts administrator, divorced, but on friendly terms with his ex-wife and daughter. He tells his story in two parts. In the first, he reflects on his youth, his last year at school, his time at university, and the period just after. He knows he may not be remembering things as they really happened. These are ‘approximate memories which time has deformed into certainties,’ he says. ‘If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left.’ What he recalls in particular is Adrian, a friend from school, and Veronica, his first girlfriend. After they break up, Veronica goes out with Adrian. In the second part, he tells how he has now been left a small bequest and another document in the will of Veronica’s mother, whom he met only once. This prompts him to try and find out why she left anything at all to him. What is the relationship between what he remembers, and what he now finds documentation of?

Questions about an understanding of the past – ie history – are central to the novel. Early in the story a history class debates the nature of historical responsibility – an important issue in the book. But what is history? Tony’s history teacher asks this question of his students. Tony suggests it’s the lies of the victors, which in a sense sums up the first part of his account, he being the ‘victor’ in the sense that it is his version we are reading – though equally it could be ‘the self-delusions of the defeated’. His friend Colin suggests it is cyclical, events essentially repeating themselves. And yes, there are at least two crucial elements that seem to be repeated in this story. Then Adrian quotes a (fictional) French thinker, saying history is ‘that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ Yes, of course we were pretentious,’ Tony admits. But pretentious or not, everything else revolves around such imperfections of memory and inadequacies of documentation. The unreliable narrator is a fairly common literary trope – I’ve even reviewed a couple of examples (Balthasar’s Odyssey, by Amin Maalouf and the classic Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). But in this case, unreliability is woven into the structure of the story. Fiction is necessarily contrived, but I can’t help feeling that here it is contrived to make a historiographical point, rather than a good story. I’m not sure what the point is, though.

It seems that the title of this book is the same as that of a book of essays by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1965. This can hardly be a coincidence, so in order better to understand Barnes’s book, I had a look at some of the essays. Kermode says he is trying ‘to make sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.’ Barnes seems to be saying that the sense we often make of our lives is illusory, because based on unreliable memories. As Adrian says, ‘we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’. Not a lot of help. How can we know ourselves, if the narratives we construct about our past lack all objectivity?

Barnes’s book, and its award of the Man Booker Prize, were mostly greeted with critical acclaim. He has been praised for the ‘intricate’ structure of the novel, for the ‘precision’ as well as ‘the nuances of language’. But I couldn’t help agreeing with one critic who said it ‘occasionally feels more like a series of wise, underline-worthy insights than a novel’.

You can read more about Julian Barnes on his informative website here.

PS. Veronica has a ‘comfort book’ – I Capture the Castle – which happens to be one of my favourite comfort books, though most people don’t seem to have heard of it. It’s by Dodie Smith. Not sure what this says about either of us, but I’ll write about it one day.

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On one level this is a compelling book. But on another level, I’m just not sure whether David Mitchell isn’t being too clever by half.

The novel is made up of six separate stories. There are some links, which I’ll talk about later. There are eleven sections, with six consecutive stories, the first five of which come to an abrupt finish, one even ending mid-sentence. The sixth story is complete, and is then followed in reverse order by a further instalment of each the other five, more or less resolving them. Mitchell uses a musical example to describe this structure. One character is writing ‘‘a sextet for overlapping soloists’, piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.’ ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ he asks. And that’s a very good question.  The name given to this piece of music is ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’.

The first of the six stories takes the form of diary entries by a young, God-fearing American sailing between Sydney and California around 1850. His ship puts in for repairs to the Chatham Islands, where he learns of the fate of the Moriori people who have, with the assistance of white ‘entrepreneurs’, been enslaved by the more war-like Maoris. The style writing in this section, and the views expressed by the characters are brilliantly authentic, reminding me of the writing of Joseph Conrad, though I gather that Herman Melville’s Typee and Moby Dick may also have been a models. The second story is about the sextet composer, and is set in 1931. It takes the form of letters he sends from Belgium, where he has fled from his creditors, to a lover in England. The style is quite different, but again I am reminded of the writing of that period: Evelyn Waugh, perhaps. The third story is an American style thriller set in 1975, about a young reporter who is chasing the story of a cover-up of faulty design of a nuclear plant – The China Syndrome, anyone? The fourth is a sort of Kingsley Amis style farce about an elderly publisher who finds himself imprisoned in an old folks’ home; it’s set at the time of writing. The fifth story is a piece of speculative fiction about a future where society is run by a corporation, with genetically engineered ‘fabricants’ doing all the labour; one of these recounts her story to an archivist.  I use the term ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ in Margaret Atwood’s sense that the drivers which could produce such a future outcome for society are already in place. (Similarities between this section of Cloud Atlas (2004) and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) must surely be coincidence.) The sixth section is set even further into a dystopian future, after ‘the Fall’, and is an account of a visit of one of the few ‘Prescients’ left in the world to a Pacific island (Hawaii) inhabited by people living in conditions equivalent to the early mediaeval. So much of ‘civilisation’ has been lost that language itself is but a shattered remnant.  I read these stories with a mixture of pleasure, amusement, interest, and horror. But also with an increasing sense of frustration. Is this anything more than mimicry? If it is convincing does this matter? Do the six pieces somehow make up a whole?

There are a number of superficial links. Luisa Rey, the reporter, reads the letters of Robert Frobisher, the composer. Omni, the fabricant, sees a film made of the story of the publisher, Timothy Cavendish, who in turn will publish the adventure of the reporter, now presented as a book, rather than as ‘reality’. Omni is considered a goddess in the final story. And so on. Some of the characters have a similar birth mark, and at times feel a strange sense of familiarity: Luisa, for example, stands ‘entranced, as if living in a stream of time’ when she hears the Cloud Atlas Sextet. And Omni, in the act of falling, has an earlier memory of falling, which is an experience of Luisa. But none of these links lead anywhere in narrative terms that I can see.

The search for unifying themes is perhaps more productive. Characters in the first – and therefore the last – story propose that progress and civilisation are the destiny of the white man, despite the terrible cost of colonialism on display. All of the other stories in their own way dispute the idea of progress, either personal or material, with accounts of exploitation and betrayal. They seem rather to endorse another view from the first story: that ‘The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat’. This nihilistic position is somewhat modified in the sixth and central story, where the Prescient character suggests that the difference between being civilised and uncivilised is that civilised people can see beyond their immediate desires. All people have both civilised and uncivilised impulses, but there is hope that the civilising ones may win out. There isn’t, however, much evidence for that in these stories.

Despite the cleverness of all this – or perhaps because of it – I can’t help feeling there is a whiff of the Creative Writing class about the book: Postmodernism 101. Produce a piece of writing that illustrates the principle of fractured narrative. Write a thriller that makes use of all the conventions of the genre. In a series of short pieces, show mastery of six different writing styles. ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ I think for once I agree with the judges of the 2004 Man Booker Prize. They short-listed Cloud Atlas, but the prize went to the conventionally structured The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I’m glad I read it, though.

You can read about the book here. A film based on it is due for release later this year. It sounds more optimistic than I thought the book was; maybe I’ve overstated the darkness.

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This book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is described on the cover as ‘Witty, original, inventive … utterly compelling’. I didn’t find it so. I didn’t much like it. Why do I feel so differently from experienced critics and readers like the Man Booker judges?

The story is narrated by Veronica, one of a large, dysfunctional Irish family, (‘why are we all so fucked’), and deals with how she reacts to the suicide of her younger brother, Liam. The book is about feelings, emotions, memories and relationships. The narrative wanders from past to present and from real to imagined, the boundaries of the latter not always being clear. The ‘gathering’ of the family for Liam’s funeral could be considered the climax of the book, though Enright undermines any sense of this by describing much earlier in the story some of what happens after the family meets for the funeral. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown long ago’, she says, and for much of the book she is casting about for someone to blame for what took place. But she is not even certain that the incident she considers vital really did happen. And of course she blames herself: she is ‘looking for the point where she betrayed her own brother’.

This is no doubt a very credible evocation of how someone who is unhappy, unbalanced even, and dissatisfied with their life might feel, and Enright deserves credit for a sensitive portrayal of this state. She is in general in control of her material, and the changes between past and present – or imagined past and dream-like present – are handled well. By the end, it is possible to see shape in what seems initially a shapeless account.  And though there are things I don’t like about her writing style, it can be arresting, as for example in the following passage. ‘There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight – which was thought a little enthusiastic – and then there were the pathetic ones, like me, who had parents who were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.’ That last word explodes like a little bomb.

Now for what I don’t like. Enright’s writing is often described as lyrical, which I take to mean that she sometimes writes metaphorically, as in: ‘The air between them was too thin for love. The only thing that can be thrown across the air of Dublin town is a kind of jeering.’ Whether or not you like this kind of writing is probably a matter of taste – and I don’t. The Man Booker judges apparently do.

I’ve acknowledged that the story has a structure which contains its disparate nature, but I don’t feel the resolution, such as it is, really resolves anything. This is partly an issue for me of organisation, and partly of moral content. I’m left at the end with a sense of anti climax.

Then there is the question of whether Veronica is a character the reader can engage with. You don’t have to like a character, but where a book is so dominated by one narrator, you do have to be intrigued, even fascinated by her. And I’m not. I found myself thinking ‘get over it’, as she drove – well over 0.05 – around Dublin in the middle of the night, no doubt echoing her inner journey of discovery. Her insight that she is somehow living her life ‘in inverted commas’ only made me shrug. Her weighty pronouncement on her grandmother that ‘For a woman like Ada, every choice is an error, as soon as it is made’ seemed merely pretentious. It’s true she is self aware and mocking at times, but even that doesn’t endear her to me. Exploring the love/hate relationship she has with her siblings – Liam included – should be stimulating.  I find it merely unrealistic. But I know that lots of other people would disagree with me, and even label me un-empathetic.

An author can reasonably expect a literate and empathetic reader, and readers can expect that good literature will engage them. And here we have the old problem: if it doesn’t happen, is it anyone’s fault? Is one side or the other deficient? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?

You can read more about Anne Enright here. And some more favourable reviews are listed here.

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If seeing the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has got you interested in George Smiley, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a sequel – both as a book and mini series (starring Alec Guinness) – called Smiley’s People. This is just a gentle reminder for those who already know it.

TTSS was published in 1974; Smiley’s People came out in 1979. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) which is also a Smiley story, came between them, and deals with the pursuit of another Soviet mole, this time in China. But while Smiley as Head of the Circus instigates the case, the main player is Jerry Westerby (who has a small part in TTSS); it is only incidental to Smiley’s battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. Smiley’s People resumes that struggle.

The book starts, as does TTSS, not with Smiley, but with the introduction of two of the minor characters, Ostrakova, a Russian émigré in Paris, and Villem, an English long distance lorry driver of Estonian extraction. But it is not long before Smiley is again called from retirement to tidy up after the murder of his former agents. This is Vladimir, once a general in the Russian army, now living in London and still in touch with the dwindling émigré groups who once provided important information to British Intelligence. The Circus in now prohibited from dealing with such groups; they just want Smiley to demonstrate that Vladimir no longer had links with the intelligence community. But Smiley soon has other ideas, and his quest to find out what information Vladimir possessed and why he was murdered leads him inexorably in pursuit of Karla. 

Le Carré is a master story teller. Smiley starts with a small piece of evidence, which leads to an encounter with someone who provides more evidence, which leads to a further encounter, and so on. About three quarters of the book is taken up with this quest. In the final section, Smiley acts on the evidence he has amassed. This is not the stuff of the ‘action thriller’; there is no ‘bang bang kiss kiss’, as Ian Fleming put it. There is menace and violence, and Smiley increasingly feels he is working against time. But he is essentially solving a puzzle, not, for most of the book, directly confronting an enemy. It is a very clever story in that little happens by way of coincidence; Smiley’s steps are all soundly based. Perhaps he has an ability not shared by others to see significance and draw conclusions, but even his guesswork is informed by knowledge and experience. ‘Instinct – or better a submerged perception yet to rise to the surface – signalled to him urgently that something about these cigarettes was wrong.’ Or on another occasion:‘Some questions are hazard, some are instinct, some – like this one – are based on a premature understanding that is more than instinct, but less than knowledge.’ Le Carré is too clever a writer to rely on chance to resolve his plots .

The quality of his writing also shows in the development of his characters. Some, such as Oliver Lacon and Connie Sachs have already been introduced in TTSS; others, like Ostrakova and Villem, are new. But old or new, all are fully drawn. Le Carré does not mind spending time filling in the details of their lives, even though these might not be directly relevant to the story. Connie Sachs, now old and ill, is looked after by her much younger lover, Hilary, a former cipher clerk in the Circus. Hilary had a violent breakdown (smashing furniture and writing graffiti) which Smiley witnessed when he was in charge. There is no need for this information in terms of the plot, but it heightens the sense of both Smiley and Connie as outsiders, even rebels against the intelligence establishment. Lacon is as he ever was: ‘sophistry was Lacon’s element. He was born to it, he breathed it, he could fly and swim in it, nobody in Whitehall was better at it.’ It’s wonderful writing.

As I noted in an earlier post, Le Carré was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. It is books like Smiley’s People that earned him this nomination; in writing about espionage, he explores the human condition. 

You can read more about Le Carré here.

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