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"if you were reporting on human pain, you had a duty to share it"
- John le Carré, quoting a dictum of Graham Greene, in 'The Pigeon Tunnel"
First, a disclosure, I was given this book by Viking Books. These types of offers I typically refuse. I don't like feeling under obligation to review or even read a book just because it was given to me. I might do it for friends, but even then, I am VERY picky about what I read. I have thousands of unread books and thousands of others I that are on my radar to read. I usually feel a bit like Melville's Bartleby, aroused only to the level of wanting to reply "I would prefer not to.". But this is John le Carré. Anyone who knows me knows I'VE been pimping John le Carré books for years. My goal is to be a le Carré completest by the end of next year (I still have yet to read The Night Manager, The Tailor of Panama, Absolute Friends, Our Game, or The Naive and Sentimental Lover) but there is a sadness that comes with finishing, with having no country left to visit or no book left to read. I, however, own them all. Often multiple copies. So, how could I refuse a free le Carré? Also, so I wouldn't feel completely like I was writing for free books, I also went out to purchase the Audiobook so I could listen to le Carré talk about his own life.
Surprisingly, this is le le Carré's first memoir. That both feels a bit strange and a bit right. First, le Carré is a master at timing and also understands when is the proper point to introduce a character and how much to show. John le Carré, the pen name for David Cornwell, is often reluctant to do interviews (their is a bit about that in this book) and is a bit publicity shy. He isn't Pynchon or Salinger for sure, but the energy of pimping his stuff and his reluctance sometimes to delve into the narrative of his own life (he worked for awhile for both MI-5 and MI-6) and his relationship with his father seems to be something he is often reluctant to discuss. Ironically, these two issues feed his fiction heavily. His father and his relationship with his father's ghost seems to push through most of his fiction. So, too, obviously does le Carré time as David Cornwell the spy. There is a thin, unbleached muslin shroud between fact and fiction (le Carré talks about his in this book). Perhaps le Carré's greatest book, A Perfect Spy, which Philip Roth (yes, that Philip F'ing Roth) once called "the best English novel since the War" was grown out of David Cornwell's relationship with his own father.
The memoir itself is filled with anecdotes and loosely goes from past to present, but also breaks time's arrow to describe certain relationships with certain people or movies made of his books. I loved especially the parts of this book where le Carré writes about Graham Greene and the craft of writing. I knew le Carré got around, but after reading the memoir, I can safely say he belongs with George Orwell, Graham Greene, William T. Vollmann, Paul Theroux family of adventure writers whose fiction is informed from the trenches. They don't just know where some bodies are actually buried, they may have seen the corpse AND the murder.
So, why only four stars? Because I'm judging this book against his best fiction. This is a fun memoir and a very good le Carré. Again, going back to how this is his first memoir, I wonder why now? I hope he is not done with fiction. I hope this is not him saying, I'm done. He is in his 80s, and after he is done, I'm not sure what to do. We have been waiting for 400 years for another playwright to equal Shakespeare. How many centuries will we have to wait for another le Carré. Dear GOD, I fear too long.
24 of 28 people found this review helpful
John LeCarre is the only author to whom I've written a fan letter, though it was never sent. He manages to entwine action, intrigue, deeply woven plots and complex character with such lyrical prose that at times over the years I would have to stop and just take a breath at such a powerful line, or paragraph, or concept. His biography is no exception, & listening to his narration made the book that much more enjoyable. My hope- shared, I'm sure- is that this beautiful mind continues to flourish for many, many more years. A wonderful book, and magnificent performance.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful