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A perfect spy -- or a perfect bore?

I've been intermittently reading John le Carré's 1986 novel A Perfect Spy since October; I'm up to p. 458 (almost to the end of Chapter 13) in the trade paperback edition (which has eighteen chapters and 590 pgs.), and I am more than ready to be finished with it.

Despite the big-love blurbs from the New York Times and Philip Roth (whose work I've yet to read, astonishingly enough) declaring A Perfect Spy to be either "perhaps [le Carré's] best" or "The best English novel since the war," respectively, I'm far from being besotted with it. Oh, there is some very nice writing in it, but it's not always, or mostly, contiguous; it reads like nothing so much as a 19th century novelist's take on a mild satire of the business of espionage (or, laughably, "intelligence gathering") in the Cold War era of the 1950s through the mid-1980s. (I'm almost reminded of Thackeray in parts.)

It wouldn't surprise me if le Carré wrote this, the most autobiographical of his novels (I suppose some readers heaved a sigh of relief that this distinction didn't belong to The Naïve and Sentimental Lover....), partly as an intellectual exercise, seeking to emulate some belletrist of the past century, to provide some necessary emotional distance between himself and his dodgy-sounding father (who serves as the model for A Perfect Spy's protagonist's father, Rick; the protagonist is saddled with the vainglorious, to an English speaker, first name of Magnus). However, to someone less erudite than le Carré, at a certain point, all the to'ing and fro'ing in the service of a plot of no particular importance eventually palls, and the references to Thomas Mann and Simplicissimus (the latter of which was referred to in at least one of the books of le Carré's Karla trilogy) lose their assurances of a deeper and more profound meaning to be gleaned by the attentive and diligent reader. Slogging through the increasingly diminished joys to be had in A Perfect Spy, one should perhaps be forgiven if the rather unkind phrase "whiskey-dick" comes to mind.

Meh. I'm willing to treat A Perfect Spy as a one-off, but I think I'll take a break from le Carré for a while after I've finally finished it. Haven't read Len Deighton in a few years; I've got the other two Bernard Samson trilogies (the Hook, Line and Sinker and Faith, Hope, and Charity trilogies; the first one is the Game, Set and Match trilogy, followed by the stand-alone prequel novel Winter) to work through, as well as some Harry Palmer books.



Comments

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bishopjoey
Dec. 18th, 2014 08:41 am (UTC)
Roth
I've missed out on Le Carre in general - I got a free audiobook of (possibly) Tinker Tailor - might have been Smiley's People. Not sure. After about 3 hours, I couldn't really keep up. I could tell it was fantastic stuff, but audio wasn't the medium for it.

That said, I enjoyed Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint but haven't felt the need to delve more deeply. Best beloved enjoyed The Human Stain and I might pick it up at some point (after I conquer Dead Romance and Inherent Vice.

(Some wag many years ago tagged Portnoy's Complaint "The Gripes of Roth" perhaps before Roth actually published any really serious gripes. Like the one about not getting a Nobel.)
uvula_fr_b4
Dec. 18th, 2014 10:52 am (UTC)
Re: spies, lies, and counterfactuals
The one Philip Roth book I do intend to read is The Plot Against America; probably should read Portnoy's Complaint (or at least "Portnoy Darns His Socks," ha-ha) and Goodbye, Columbus at some point, but I'm in no tearing hurry to do so. I think I've tucked enough Harlan Ellison under my belt to have absorbed Roth's sexual preoccupations by osmosis any way.

For all my kvetching about A Perfect Spy, I am glad that I'm reading it; I'm just annoyed that it's going so slowly for me, far more slowly than any of the Karla Trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolbooy; and Smiley's People; my review of the trilogy is here, BTW) did. I have a major complaint about the book's structure as well, but I'll address that if I post a review of it. (I'm snatching time on the family computer, as my desktop and laptop are both kaputt; pretty depressing setting up a LinkedIn account when you don't have a Facebook account to auto-populate it with "contacts.")

Good luck with Inherent Vice (a remaindered copy of which I also own); I made it a little over halfway through Against the Day before finally stalling out a few years ago. Thing is, I could probably pick it up where I left off and not really miss anything, since the plot was such a dog's breakfast -- no reference to the book's "Worst Sex Scene of 2006" intended. Some good to near-great writing, but a cohesive novel it really wasn't, I'm afraid. (Still intend to tackle Gravity's Rainbow and V some fine day, but I may have to re-read The Crying of Lot 49 to remind myself just why I flipped for Pynchon in the first place.)

Le Carré seems to be a rather adaptable writer, based on the excerpt of his latest novel, A Delicate Truth, that Harper's Magazine ran in its April 2013 issue; I was interested in the excerpt, but somewhat ambivalent about le Carré writing more á la Ellroy, if you follow.

I found myself regretting not knowing French when I read an article about Gérard de Villiers, a rather louche-sounding pulp novelist with an alarming amount of connections to actual employees of several countries' intelligence agencies. You would probably have far better luck laying hands on some of his books in your current location than I would in the wilds of the Upper Midwest, setting aside my language barrier. (I don't believe more than a handful of the books in his SAS series have been translated into English, based on the dekko I had on Abe Books' site last year.)

( 2 monkeys shocked! — shock the monkey! )

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