MORE TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

Waste Lands are selling like hot cakes. There has been a BBC 4 documentary on T.S. Eliot and things that appear on TV have an immediate effect on our customers’ buying habits. I recognize it in myself. Having been tormented by having to study Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, for A Level – I mean for heaven’s sake what on earth is a 17 year old supposed to do with a nun being crucified on an anthill?  – I have spent years thinking that the only Eliot I’ll ever read for the rest of my life is his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ‘There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 when the night mail’s  ready to depart …’  being the  verse I recite when suffering from insomnia but having seen A.N. Wilson’s passionate and strange  documentary on Eliot I feel I have some context within which to read his more difficult stuff and so it appears do all our customers. On the other hand, it might have something to do with austerity, Brexit and Trump.

There is something called BSSL not under any circumstances to be confused with BDSM. BSSL is Bookseller’s Sod’s Law and it means that the book that a person comes in and asks for on one day and that you do not have appears immediately they have gone. As if a genie has pulled it out of a hat and laid it down nice and neatly in your eye line with a note stating, ‘Ha, ha lost sale.’ So obviously half way through my next day at the shop I find a book of Emerson’s essays. There it is in a box in the back. Ooof. I try and comfort myself with the thought it wasn’t there last week but the truth is it probably was and I didn’t look hard enough.

I contemplate the fiction shelves. Obviously this is influenced by the fact I write it. I have an ambiguous relationship, shall we say, with the bestsellers. I try not to feel bitter and twisted. Wouldn’t it be nice I sometimes think to have written a book that had sold so much that it came into charity shops frequently? As I place, for example A Perfect Spy on the shelf I imagine what it must be like to be John le Carré and open your royalty statements, as opposed to being me and opening mine.

Onward and upward. It is interesting noting trends and things, these being different in a second-hand bookshop to new bookshops. For example there was  a book  titled Golden Hill by Francis Spufford which was Waterstone’s Fiction Book of the Month last October. I was hand sold it by a very enthusiastic Waterstone’s bookseller. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that part of the reason I bought it was because I thought the name of the character played by the gruff-voiced child in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was Francis Spufford III and I love that film. It is my go-to film when I am feeling depressed. Perfect for when I have just received a royalty statement. It’s the camp silliness combined with the extraordinary Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell that always cheers me up. But in fact the name of the character the child played isn’t that, I discovered, it’s Henry Spofford III. So there we are.

I read the first paragraph of Golden Hill and then thought Oh, Henry/Francis you strange gruff-voiced child what are you doing to me? Just forget it. And obviously a great many other people did exactly the same (well, not the gruff-voiced child bit) because we had loads of it come in quickly and in very good condition. That’s quite unusual because it was recent. This made me curious and I picked the book up and tried again and did manage to finish it but it was a pastiche of an 18th century novel and hard work to get into. In my opinion Golden Hill is not the kind of book you would contemplate reading again or recommend to friends so it’s easy to give to a charity shop. Incidentally it won a huge number of prizes so other people obviously felt very differently to me. I’ve noticed that now, a year after being long listed for The Booker, A Little Life is just starting to come in. The great bestseller (in the world of newly published books) of this year has been Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. We do not have that because everyone is reading it or has just read it and that probably won’t be in for a while but then, my oh my, it will come in and in and in…

I spy a novel with the beguiling title of Putney Bridge. Well, maybe beguiling is the wrong word but I was standing on that bridge just an hour ago waiting for my bus. This is close-ish to the shop and to where I live so I put it out on the table even though I think they could have tried harder with the title. I mean Putney Bridge?????? It’s not exactly The Elegance of the Hedgehog is it? Truth be told I’m not a fan of cutesy titles and every time I come across The Elegance of the Hedgehog I think I am never going to read you ever but then I’m not a fan of utterly prosaic ones like Putney Bridge either. I like to think the author has suffered a bit to come up with the title (because I do)  and didn’t just glance out of the tube window and sigh, ‘Oh, Putney Bridge, yeah, fine,’ before going back to their Sudoku. Then I remember didn’t Seamus Heaney title a poem The District Line? or was that Circle and District? or even District and Circle? If he can do it then why not?

Back home I have a bit of a rifle through The Waste Land and realize that this is obviously the go to poem for book titles: The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing), The Violet Hour (Kate Roiphe and a great many others), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh), Sweet Thames Run Softly (Robert Gibbings). Better than Putney Bridge. To be frank I find it a bit baffling but having struggled through it (rats, fog, bad sex, oh God, bad teeth) I come to the notes. I have to say I do love notes on poetry. I remember reading or trying to read Tom Paulin’s poem, The Invasion Handbook, and coming to the end of that and thinking, ‘Tom couldn’t you have thrown this poor reader a bit of a bone?’. But actually if I cast my mind back to the glory days of Late Night Review, Paulin was always uncompromisingly stroppy; never a bone thrower and it was one of the things that made him so watchable. I read the notes and come across this, ‘Anyone who is acquainted with these works (The Golden Bough) will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.’ And for some reason somewhat obscure to me start howling with laughter. I think it’s the use of the word immediately. And then it dawns on me. Maybe our customers are all writers looking for titles or maybe they have just received a royalty statement and like me are in desperate need of being cheered up. Unfortunately I don’t think the vegetation ceremonies of The Golden Bough/Waste Land are going to do it, do you?

On the other hand Marilyn just might. Here she is in all her fabulous glory … Someone went a bit overboard with the Grecian 2000 I can’t help thinking and I wonder if those dancers got bonuses for being hit so frequently on the head by her fan.

Incidentally, when I reach the back of this copy of The Waste Land a card falls out. It says:

Dear Maurice – Eureka! Elusive Eliot has come to hand! Pleasant reading Maurice. Love Felicity

Eureka! I tell you Felicity, Eliot is not elusive in our shop at the moment. I wonder what Maurice made of the fog, the rats, the bad sex and bad teeth.

Shantih shantih shantih*, as Eliot would undoubtedly have said.

Leave me comments, lots and lots of them.

*The last words of The Waste Land which mean The Peace which passeth understanding.

JOHN LE CARRÉ – still an angry young man

Off last night to see an evening with John le Carré who has a new book out, A Legacy of Spies, which signals the return of George Smiley, the spymaster who has appeared in many of his novels. Part of the purpose of the evening was to raise funds for Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), a medical charity which works in war zones, and an organization that le Carré is devoted to. A short film told us that MSF had treated 504,500 men women and children in the crisis in Yemen.

le carre

The evening involved several short films in which actors, directors, and screenwriters who have worked on adaptations of le Carré’s books talked about their experiences. The people included Michael Jayston, (Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on TV), Simon Russell Beale who played Smiley in the Radio 4 adaptations of le Carré’s books and Tim Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who had played characters in TV adaptation of The Night Manager.

Of Smiley, Simon R-B, who has played him most, albeit on radio, described his intense melancholia. Hiddleston commented on Smiley’s quiet heroism. When asked what he might ask Smiley if he came face to face with him Simon R-B said he’d run away from him. He wouldn’t ask him anything because he was so intimidatingly clever.

First le Carré gave an hour long lecture then after an interval he was interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news and there was a Q&A.

LE CARRÉ ON SMILEY AND A LEGACY OF SPIES

The origins of Smiley was a character called John Bingham who le Carré worked with in section F4 of MI5. This was before he went and worked for MI6, convivially known by MI5 as ‘those shits across the park.’ Bingham had run double agents during the Second World War and posed as a German officer. He was also a thriller writer. From Bingham came some aspects of the physical Smiley – the nakedness of his face when he took off his glasses and the habit he had of polishing his glasses with the end of his tie. Bingham was an aristocrat, an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and le Carré said that he couldn’t make Smiley an aristocrat, that wouldn’t have done at all, so he made his wife Lady Anne one instead. He said that Bingham was a proxy father figure and mentor to the younger spies in his section.

He went on to discuss the various actors who had played Smiley on film and TV: Rupert Davies, James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. Mason actually played a character called Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (based on the book Call for the Dead) because the Americans did not like the name Smiley. He said that the filming of the character involved a certain personal loss for him of the Smiley of his imagination because the character was made physical but that of course the upside was that his work reached a much wider audience.

One of the things he loved about Guinness’s performance was that the enigma of Smiley was kept in tact for le Carré as well. He told a very funny story about doing a cover shoot for a Sunday magazine cover with Denholm Elliott on the set of A Murder of Quality, which they they were filming in a school. They were standing opposite each other with their noses only a few inches apart while they were being photographed. Elliott repeated range of obscene barrack room jokes throughout the shoot which le Carré ignored. Later Elliott asked him what he was doing on the set and le Carré said, ‘Well, I’m the writer.’ ‘The writer?’ ‘Yes, the writer of the book’, and Elliott said ‘Oh, I thought you were the headmaster.’

At one point they considered Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army for the part of Smiley and he did a screen test. Le Carré said Lowe did it beautifully but the trouble was that because of the associations they all had with Captain Mainwaring they could not stop laughing when they saw it. He said that Gary Oldman (in the film of TTSS) brought a heterosexual passion to the part. He compared him to Guinness describing the scene where Guinness embraces Lady Anne and saying he could not watch it without shuddering and thinking, ‘Oh, don’t do that Alec.’

At the end he read out an imaginary letter from a Daily Telegraph reader complaining that he couldn’t bring Smiley back because if one stayed true to the books Smiley would be 104 (or thereabouts). He countered this by saying that it was poetic license. Smiley was alive in his imagination and he was alive so why not? Of course his millions of fans will feel exactly the same.

A Legacy of Spies by [Carré, John le]

Q&A WITH JON SNOW

Jon Snow began by asking him about his father. Le Carré had discovered that his father, who was a con-man and a crook, had a Stasi (East German secret service) file and it appeared to indicate that he was an illegal arms dealer. He said that the Stasi had gone to the trouble of sending spies to his father’s office in Jermyn Street and marking where the safe was and also where the telex machine was.

Q. Would you recommend the secret service as a career?

He said if you were good at maths they’d send you to Cheltenham. If you were a seducer, befriender and liar you’d be good for MI6, although in the present climate you should think about the second half of your career/life because you might not have one.

Q. Do you think the US has lost its senses?

He said that what was happening in America was ‘truly, seriously bad’, that the stages Trump was going through – the fake news, and the assaults on the justice system were the same as those during the rise of fascism in the thirties in Japan, Spain and Germany. That kind of behaviour was infectious and toxic and he cited the use of the expression ‘fake news’ by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in dismissing the reporting on the assaults on the Rohingya muslims who are fleeing into Bangladesh.

Q. Which of your own characters do you most relate to?

He said that was Peter Guillam who works for Smiley and reappears in A Legacy of Spies. JS said I thought so.

Q. Was Graham Greene an influence?

Yes, his early works were. He had read them in his adolescence and that Greene gave a very generous quote for his book The Spy who came in from the Cold. However he said that the big difference between Greene and himself was that Greene had God in his books and there was no God in his own books. He also said that Greene had a dotty political streak and flirted with communism but he said he was hypnotic to meet. Maurice Oldfield head of MI6  said that Greene was a bad spy because he embellished his reports.

Q. On his writing methods.

He talked about the importance of making notes as soon as possible, even when he was drunk. As an example he said on your first day in Moscow what you notice is the smell of Russian petrol by the second day you’ve got used to it and you  won’t register it anymore. He writes long hand. He said this produces a lot of paper and that when the Bodleian Library  (to whom he was giving his paper) came and saw how many there were they had a fit. He starts with very little plot but always has the final frame in his mind and an idea of what he wants the audience to feel at that point. His wife reads what he writes and he is influenced by her response especially if there is a deafening silence. He talked about a mutual understanding between them about his work. He writes every day.

He was asked by Jon Snow about his relationship to MSF and le Carré said that he had been struck by their courage and devotion and Jon Snow said that they were the most trustworthy organization for journalists reporting from war zones.

There was a very poignant moment when le Carré asked Snow how he endured the human suffering he comes across in his reporting. He himself had been very effected by the research he does for his books, especially by seeing the effect of Big Pharma in Kenya and Sudan, the basis of his book The Constant Gardener.

I came away from the event thinking that le Carré is a man who cares passionately about the world. Olivia Colman described him as being, ‘Everything you would hope he would be.’ A beautiful description that rang absolutely true. Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for the film of TTSS said le Carré was ‘still an angry young man … like Orwell always in opposition’. Angry certainly but also erudite, charming, witty and with a passionate sense of injustice. He’s certainly not going gentle into that good night. What more could you ask for from a novelist? We are lucky to have him.

I’m off to buy A Legacy of Spies. There are signed first editions in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road but they’ll probably be gone by the time I get there.*

If you want to take a look at the work that MSF do and donate here’s the link:

http://www.msf.org.uk/lecarre

  • They were!

 

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

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Biography by Adam Sisman

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré. It’s excellent, highly readable and formidably long. It also has as subtle a piece of writing in the foreword as you could wish for about the difficulties of writing the  biography of someone who is still alive. He states there that he intends to update the book when le Carré has died so it’ll be interesting to see what gets added. Incidentally le Carré is due to publish The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life in September 2016 and presumably he must have held some things back from his biographer to put in his autobiography.

I particularly enjoyed reading about The Spy Who came in from the Cold one of my all time favourites, especially when feeling a bit disillusioned with life. So here are a few facts:

  • it was originally going to be titled The Carcass of the Lion but Victor Gollancz, the publisher, decided SWCIFTC would be better; it comes from a piece of dialogue in the beginning of the book between ‘C’ and Leamas depicted in the clip below
  • Gollancz had the idea of publishing the book under the name of Alec Leamas the name of the main character in the book who dies at the end. Le Carré sent a telegram stating RELUCTANT PUBLISH AUTOBIOGRAPHY DEAD SPY
  • the initial advance offered was £150, later increased to £175; the advance he got for his next book The Looking-Glass War was £145,000
  • the original suggestion for the actor to play Leamas in the film was Burt Lancaster; Richard Burton was eventually cast
  • the character of Leamas was based on a Peter Finch-like man le Carré  sat next to in a London airport bar who slammed down a handful of change from many different countries and ordered a large Scotch. He looked much travelled, exhausted and down on his luck. Le Carré and the barman sorted through the change to find the correct sum in the correct currency
  • the disillusionment in the novel comes partly from le Carré’s disillusionment with his own marriage. In fact he cut large parts of the original draft which were concerned with Leamas’s failed marriage
  • Le Carré was working for MI6 at the time in Germany but the book was OK’d by them partly because the FO knew that the book was not based on le Carré’s actual experience. Maybe they also didn’t believe that the public would think they behaved in such a cynical manner. Of course the opposite happened. Everyone thought this is exactly what had happened to the writer and how the secret services did behave. The book was lauded as being a believable spy thriller in comparison to the James Bond books
  • Le Carré was to describe the success of the book as like ‘being in a car crash’
  • He had written two books before – one (A Murder of Quality) featured the character Mundt who figures so prominently in SWCIFTC
  • There were problems with the casting of Claire Bloom as Leamas’s girlfriend because she and Burton had history. They had become lovers 15 years earlier acting opposite each other in The Lady’s not for Burning. A decade later their affair resumed during filming of Look Back in Anger. Burton was now married to Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor did not approve and turned up in Dublin where some of the film was shot with an entourage of 17 to keep an eye on them.
  • Other scenes depicting the area around the Berlin wall were filmed in London docklands, at that time an industrial wasteland
  • The name of the character Bloom played  had to be changed from Liz Gold (in the book) to Nan Perry in the film to spare Elizabeth Taylor’s sensibilities!

If you haven’t seen the film or read the book I highly recommend both of them, perfect for the end of January, especially if you’re feeling a little cynical about life. Richard Burton is at his best in the film. Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner are pretty good as well.

Here’s the clip of dialogue from which the title is taken. A nimble piece of acting by that wily old fox Cyril Cusack.

What do you think of book and film?

A MOST WANTED MAN

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:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd