Published September 6th 2016.
“It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother.”
Schiller’s “Die Deutsche Muse” epitomizes what I call the German Soul (taken from my own copy of the “Schiller Sämmtliche Werke” :
Kein Augustisch Alter blühte,
Keines Medicäers Güte
Lächelte der deutschen Kunst;
Sie ward nicht gepflegt vom Ruhme,
Sie entfaltete die Blume
Nicht am Strahl der Fürstengunst.
Von dem größten deutschen Sohne,
Von des großen Friedrich Throne
Ging sie schutzlos, ungeehrt.
Rühmend darf's der Deutsche sagen,
Höher darf das Herz ihm schlagen:
Selbst erschuf er sich den Werth.
Darum steigt in höherm Bogen,
Darum strömt in vollern Wogen
Deutscher Barden Hochgesang;
Und in eigner Fülle schwellend
Und aus Herzens Tiefe quellend,
Spottet er der Regeln Zwang
“More difficult to explain is my wholesale embrace of German literature at a time when for many people the word German was synonymous with unparalleled evil. Yet, […] that embrace has determined the whole later passage of my life.”
“The legacy of that early immersion in things German is now pretty clear to me. It gave me my own patch of eclectic territory; it instilled in me the notion that a man’s journey from cradle to grave was one of unending education – hardly an original concept and probably questionable. And when I came to study the dramas of Goethe, Lenz, Schiller, Kleist and Büchner, I discovered that I related equally to their classic austerity, and to their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.”
“To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance.”
These three quotes caught my eye. I was already quite familiar with the connection between German Studies and Culture and Le Carré. Those connections populate his books throughout. Over the years I have also learnt other languages, yet none has fascinated me as much as German does. This is probably because of the clear grammar and easily understandable structures that are distinctive of the German language. Everything has its place in a German sentence, and what I particularly appreciate is that the moment one begins a sentence one must already have a clear notion of how it will end, i.e., before opening my mouth I have to know what I’m going to say... Over the years, the German language became my gate to German literature. It is my opinion that Germany has some of the best literature in the world. It’d be easy at this point to point out a long list of German writers whose literary oeuvre has had an important bearing on world literature. I won’t bother. Everyone knows who I’m talking about. What I also find particularly appealing are the motifs that are dealt with in German literature. The most important historical moments that have shaped not only Germany but also the world (and Europe in particular) are reflected in German literature.
More than 30 years ago I also went into the world of spy fiction. It’s impossible to forget that. It happened in the worst day of my life; I was roaming my city, Lisbon, without rhyme or reason, when I found shelter in cinema Quarteto, one of my favourite movie theatres at the time. There was a spy movie cycle on. What did I watch? A lot of movies based on Le Carré’s movies. I was hooked for life. I went into the theatre and I was Alex Lamas, George Smiley, Karla, etc. for a while. I went into the obscure jungle of the Cold War with my eyes wide shut. It didn’t take long for them to open though. And they stayed open. Through their eyes I became those people. With them I lived the total experience, visual and auditory, going from sepia to grey, from the heavy breathing experiences to the ultimate music soundtracks. The atmosphere of the Cold War seeped into my own reality. That “reality” became my Weltanschauung. This take on reality explains nothing and everything, in a way that all things seemed too damn materialistic and metaphysical, all in one go. I was in front of the screen taking part in my own mental landscape, inhabiting another world, in a time so long and extended, changing my own perception of space and time, turning reality into a different thing altogether. That’s why when someone tells me: “I don’t read
fiction.” (You may change “spy” for any other kind of genre: SF, Crime, etc.), I always say "piss off!".
That’s also why I always think genre is a red herring. A great writer is a
great writer is a great writer. And some of le Carre's work belongs to the
masterwork category. Another example is P. D. James - some of her work is
outstanding, and the crime genre is irrelevant. She addresses universal truths.
What bothers me the most about genre is that there are people who say they
won't read certain genres. How can they say that? It's good (and sometimes
exceptional) writing that makes good (and sometimes exceptional) books, not the
genre they're supposedly in. Words can't be trapped. I can’t dismiss SF, Crime,
or Spy fiction because they belong to a literary ghetto. I can only say, that
in times of anguish, doubt, darkness and despair, the one book that I have
turned to has always been “Smiley's People” with the incomparable Alec Guiness in my mind's eye (Le Carre´s biography contains a wonderful chapter dedicated to Alec). Perhaps
it reflects my own view of life, that nothing is black and white and life is
all shades of muted silver in colour. In one word: “shiftlessness”. But
ultimately my câmera obscura is
lighter than the other câmera obscura (before
you ask, “câmera obscura” is Portuguese - forget Da Vinci, and I would like my own “colour” to
win). Is Le Carre’s prose in his literary biography crafted in a way as to deny
any kind of a narrative arc? I quite agree there are conventions for literary
biographies, just as there are literary conventions for what we like to call
spy fiction, but the thing with Le Carré, more than with many writers, is
whether these conventions falsify or misrepresent reality as we see and feel
it. Does Le Carré, with his literary biographer hat on, has more of an
obligation to conform to genre conventions or to get at the truth of a
subject’s life, and if the latter, what form would do the job? Even after
reading Le Carrés "The Pigeon Tunnel", I still don’t any have good
answers, but giving the definition of a genre normative force begs the
question: "why is this the definition? Why are these the
“The Perfect Spy” is the greatest post-1945 British novel in my humble opinion. Amis, Faulkner, Barnes etc. are all revealed as the shallow, talentless nobodies they really are when compared to Le Carré at his peak.