I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.
Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.
In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him. Apparently he won by a country mile. In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.
I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.
William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.
I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:
Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ
If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it. A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.
And this is the other thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy. If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.
After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.
Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?
Here’s the link to the William Boyd article: