“Rather than beat the children it is better to buy them books” — Russian poster from 1926
At the beginning of May I decided I would spend the summer reading the entire works of John Le Carre, John Irving, and Len Deighton, each in order of publication. I have done this exercise before with PD James, Vladimir Nabakov, Laurence Gough, and several others, and have enjoyed watching the maturity of the authors as they grow into their craft. At the same time, I will continue to read other books as they come to hand.
The plan has been to read Le Carre and Irving first, followed by Deighton later in the year. This two-month list, therefore, is heavily weighted in favour of Le Carre as his earlier works are easy to read in a day or so, while, as I note below, Irving’s were always a tougher go.
I began the period by finishing Franklin Rosemont’s “Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture“ (2nd ed., PM Press, Oakland CA), which was originally published in 2003. Much as I enjoyed and appreciated the content, this was a tough read due to the style of the writing.
Next up was John Irving’s first novel, “Setting Free the Bears“ from 1968. I had a lot of trouble getting through this to the end and if it had been the first Irving I had ever read I am not sure I would have bothered to keep up with him. It begins well, by which I mean it has the free-flowing peculiarities that one expects from Irving, Two young Austrian proto-hippies begin a motorcycle trip with no destination in mind. However, about a quarter of the way through the book (or less), one of the characters dies and much of the remainder of the novel is taken up with two series of entries from his notebooks. One of the series contains a detailed (and I mean detailed) history of the German take-over of Austria in 1938 followed by a long review of life with the partizans in Yugoslavia. Some of this was fascinating; much was tedious. It took most of the two months to finish the book, and I could only do it by reading Le Carre novels between chapters.
I have started on Irving’s second novel, “The Water Method Man“, but I doubt I will finish that until some time next month. Luckily I had a number of John Le Carre’s early works to leaven the hard work of Irving.
Le Carre’s first two novels, “The Call Of The Dead“ (1962), and “A Murder of Quality“ (1963) introduce his most famous character, spymaster George Smiley. However, although the background to “Call Of The Dead” is the intelligence service, these two novels are much more in the form and style of English “cosy” detective stories. I was reminded strongly of the first few novels by PD James, before she got into her stride. I enjoyed them both, but neither were what I was looking for in Le Carre.
His next book, and the one that made his name, was “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold“ (1964) which is a ripping yarn and a fine thriller in the espionage genre. There are hints of the psychological understanding Le Carre brings to his later works, but this is more of an adventure story than anything. This was followed by “Looking Glass War“ (1965) which rather disappointed me, with too much procedural material and not enough analysis (although perhaps I missed it).
But then we come to “A Small Town In Germany” (1968) where Le Carre really comes into his own. It has the background of a spy novel but is much more a study of English diplomats and others living in the bubble of the British Embassy in Bonn in the mid 1960s. Class pettiness and bureaucratic inertia rule the day, while an outside investigator tries to track down important files that seem to have been stolen by a low level employee. From a viewpoint much later in Le Carre’s career, one might wonder why he didn’t use Smiley as his investigator rather than the less than fully developed Turner, but this was a very enjoyable read. The background to the novel is Britain’s desire to enter the Common Market in 1966. I read it during the week in which Britain voted to leave the EU. So much has changed in fifty years!
I then switched gears and read Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.” This is a wonderfully readable book by an economically-trained journalist which manages to elucidate some highly technical material while spinning a vibrant narrative of the clash between the twentieth-century’s two major economic theorists, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. I learned a great deal and would encourage everyone who is interested in what makes modern political economy tick to give this book a try.
The month has ended with Len Deighton’s first novel, “Ipcress File” (1962). Another spy novel, but very different from the ones I had read earlier this month. Where Le Carre and Irving are very precise in their prose, Deighton is loose and vernacular. It is like reading Gonzo journalism after a diet of the New York Times. The piece is episodic and with a plot that is very hard to follow. In fact, the book ends with several pages explaining what went on. I was reminded of an English cosy crime novel where the amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects in the library and ticks off the clues one by one until the villain is left exposed. The book is, however, an interesting time capsule of “hip” pre-Beatles London in the very early 1960s.