Rod Liddle

John le Carré is like Shakespeare – his plots are improbable beyond comprehension

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

Thank the blessed Lord it’s over. Not Brexit, or Theresa May’s flailing and spastic governance. I’m talking about John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which has been serialised on the BBC on a Sunday evening, just when people want to watch something interesting.

I watched it with the missus, and by episode two decided I would much rather spend my Sunday evenings assaulting my own head with a claw hammer. But we persisted with this expensively shot garbage because we are a married couple and therefore think it right and proper to engage in joint activities and stick with them regardless of how distressing and unpleasant they may be — such as watching The Little Drummer Girl or having sexual intercourse.

I have heard Le Carré referred to as ‘Shakespearean’ — and that is true, insofar as his plots are concerned. Much like the plot of Hamlet, say, Le Carré’s are so wildly improbable as to be beyond comprehension, utterly divorced from the real world and the way in which people behave. (The amount of credulity required to swallow the plot of The Little Drummer Girl would be beyond even the most stupid follower of Momentum, I would suggest.) And because Le Carré, a spy writer, is all about plot, what is there left for us to enjoy? Characterisation? Not a chance. The characters are ciphers for the author’s fashionably baleful view of the world, in which the cynicism of the Soviet Union is matched by the cynicism of the West, to the degree that it is impossible to tell them apart and there are no goodies or baddies. And yet this too is a crass simplification.

Nor would we read Le Carré for humour. Americans are often derisive of the British affection for the comic novel, from Wodehouse via Bradbury to Tom Sharpe, those confections in which everything is geared, sometimes laboriously, towards the next chuckle. They have a point, too: the best fiction accords to humour the natural, important but not commanding part it plays in our lives. But have you ever read a novelist with fewer laughs than Le Carré? He makes Henry James seem like Frankie Howerd. And the dialogue, the stilted dialogue: has a Le Carré character ever said anything which you remember for its insight, its resonance? Or simply because it sounded rather wonderful? I would reckon not.

Three decades ago Le Carré — a charming, clever and hospitable chap in person — was regarded as a writer of upmarket espionage thrillers, somewhere in the vicinity of Robert Ludlum in the literary league tables. But he has been a beneficiary of the revisionism that attends to all of our literary and artistic and musical talents: he is now thought of as being deadly serious and incredibly significant, his literary abilities exaggerated beyond all measure.

I can’t imagine another elderly or dead white, public school-educated, heterosexual male writer whose stories would be deemed admissible for a BBC adaptation these days. Certainly not Orwell or Waugh or even Martin Amis. John le Carré makes the cut not because of the brilliance of his prose or his plots but because of his fashionable world viewpoint: a revulsion for the West and what it has, in its wickedness, done to other countries. Le Carré loathes the West — and, of course, by extension, Israel.

The perception that each side is as morally bad as the other, except that the West (because of its wealth and hegemony) is even more cynical, accords entirely with current liberal sensibilities. No matter that it is palpably wrong and a kind of convenient and frankly cowardly evasion of the truth. The imprecation that we should not judge foreign cultures or governments or institutions — and that in every case our own perfidies easily outweigh those that have been ranged against us — is the dominant paradigm.

But to my mind there is a fairly simple morality in the Cold War, for example: an ossified and paranoid authoritarian regime responsible for the mass murder of its own citizens was eventually, mercifully, defeated by the contradictions in its own system and the resolve and determination (and wealth) of democratic countries. There are, I would suggest, few shades of grey in the falling of the Berlin Wall and the emptying of the gulags. It is pretty straightforward as to where the rectitude lay, no?

The literary world is fond of its revisionism, mind, even if in the past those cast out into the wilderness were handed their exit visas more because of the style of their writing than because of their political affiliations. Both John Steinbeck and (even more so) Sinclair Lewis were denuded of their fashionability very quickly after their deaths because, while both men were certainly left of centre, the rather journalistic style they deployed had ceased to please in the decade of the nouveau roman and the likes of Robbe-Grillet. You can still find Steinbeck on some GCSE English courses, but only the simple novellas, such as Of Mice and Men. Sinclair Lewis seems to be gone for good, which I think a bit of a shame.

Today the style of writing is less important than the political affiliations and politics of the writer. Few literary greats have been defenestrated quite as quickly as John Updike, for example, who was being hauled from his plinth even before his death from cancer in 2009. Updike’s problem was to have written from deeply within his time and from the standpoint of a white male heterosexual: that don’t cut no ice no more. He’s a privileged sexist bigot now.

Much the same odium has fallen on Saul Bellow — in my opinion almost Updike’s equal as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 20th century. And it is happening to Philip Roth too. They will be replaced by authors who have far less literary merit but look a little different and are more attuned to the political zeitgeist. Happy reading.

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