"a great idea in the hands of little people"
(John le Carre, Joseph Conrad)
Here’s what I’ve been reading this week…
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carre
When, where and why I bought it: I bought this in a charity shop in Bristol for 50p, after reading John le Carre's first novella Call for the Dead. Honestly, I was converted to le Carre by this passage alone:
‘It’s an old illness you suffer from, Mr Smiley,’ she continued, taking a cigarette from the box; ‘and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. When that happens I am sorry for you.’
It remains brilliant piece of writing, weary and profound, and I've thought of it often since I started working in HR. I knew I wanted more of that.
What it's about: Alec Leamas, a spy who takes on a mission in which he'll pretend to be a defector to destroy a high-ranking Soviet official.
What it's really about: how the grand machinery of the state doesn't care about people at all; the ultimate hollowness of grand ideologies like communism and democracy, especially on an operational level; the loneliness and isolation brought about by bureaucratic systems.
What it's like to read: it's brilliant: queasily thrilling, gripping, filled with twists and startlingly profound. It's immediately clear why it's been held up as a masterpiece. It also appealed on a more personal level, as the past few years have been a gradual process of deconstructing the Christian faith I grew up in - trying to sift out the good from the baggage - and I've unexpectedly found le Carre to be the most comforting person to read in all this.
Take the brilliant description of a disappointing Communist party meeting in Leipzig, where Liz reflects that "it was like the meetings in Bayswater, it was like the midweek evenings when she used to go to church - the same dutiful, little group of lost faces, the same fussy self-consciousness, the same feeling of a great idea in the hands of little people." It's exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance that I've been experiencing in church lately.
None of le Carre's characters are heroes, not really, but like Graham Greene's haunted lovers and priests, they are all engaged in deciphering the meaning of existence itself. Leamas is a great example of this, a man who's deeply cynical about the world's great ideologies (Christianity included) - at one point we read how Liz "sometimes... thought Alec was right - you believed in things because you needed to; what you believed had no value of its own, no function".
That fearsome interrogation, that willingness to shine a hard light on the sacred, is one of the things that makes le Carre's books still so worth reading. They're always wrestling with grand ideas, and refusing to flinch from what they find there. I expect to re-read both this and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before long.
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
When, where and why I bought it: I bought this from an online seller for about £4 a few weeks ago. I'm currently signed up to the Galley Beggar School, run by one of Galley Beggar Press's founders (Sam Jordison), and Heart of Darkness is this month's book for discussion. I've got a copy sitting at my parents' house, still covered in my university notes, but sometimes you need a fresh copy to see things clearly.
What it's about: it's about the sailor Marlow's journey up river and into the jungle, to find Kurtz, the head of a trading post.
(Not Colonel Kurtz, that's the film.)
What it's really about: it's about everything, basically, but it's arguably mostly about the barbarity inside every man, the facades we put up to hide it, and capitalism's murderous impulses.
What it's like to read: it was great when I read it fifteen years ago and it's still great now - but it is properly dense and dizzying. It's more exciting than I remembered, and more visceral - you can see why it's been such an influential text over the years.
Much has been made of the fact that Joseph Conrad was Polish and wrote Heart of Darkness in his second language, and how that lends the novel a sense of dislocation and alienness - as so much of it is about the difficulty of expressing things, or even its impossibility.
Passages like this speech by Marlow remain extraordinary, capturing something universal about the human experience and our fundamental blindness to the reality that surrounds us:
“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...”
Those are clearly the kind of passages I'm craving at the moment - ones that help me interpret the world, that dig into its guts - as although Conrad's style is different from le Carre's, there's a similarity in how both try to capture the universal and the profound.
All that said, though, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is more fun.
Until next time,