Ten minutes to midnight: a pious Friday in May and a fine river mist lying in the market square. Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret, drawn over with tramwire. Bonn was a dark house where someone had died, a house draped in Catholic black and guarded by policemen. Their leather coats glistened in the lamplight, the black flags hung over them like birds. It was as if all but they had heard the alarm and fled. (John le Carré, A Small Town in Germany)
Bonn was a Balkan city, stained and secret... Bonn was a dark house where someone had died...
John le Carré died on 12 December at the age of 89. The shock felt more considerable than it probably should have considering his advanced age. I considered him my favourite living author, and as with Ursula Le Guin (who died in 2018), longevity was a factor. I was reading both of them by my early teens, if not before, and for many of us very little that follows will have quite the same impact. Others have written more eloquently about his significance as a spy writer, and simply as a great writer. For me his work is deeply personal, and I know that I'm not alone.
I recall le Carré as a sort of mysterious concept before I recall him as an author. My father was often reading his books when I was a child, and I would also see them in the library. In the slightly over-dramatic cover art of the 1980s, 'Le Carré' in huge letters would take up 90% of the space on the cover, and it was years until I learned this was a pseudonym (his real name was David Cornwell). There was something both intimidating and alluring about this monolithic concept.
At some point in junior high, when I would have been 12 or 13, I read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My memory of that first reading, or at least a part of it, is extraordinarily vivid. I was sitting outside at lunchtime, on a sunny and quiet staircase round the back of the school, and riveted to the book. What I remember is reading this passage:
"As he stood there peering into the room, surprised to find it empty, the door behind him closed. Perhaps by itself, but Leamas made no attempt to open it. It was pitch dark. No sound accompanied the closing of the door, no click nor footstep. To Leamas, his instinct suddenly alert, it was as if the sound-track had stopped."
My reaction to this was absolutely visceral. I remember feeling frozen to the spot - somewhat like Leamas himself. At the moment when the door closed I am pretty sure that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. In my memory, this is when I knew that I would go on reading this author.
There is a way in which memory flows in all directions, in time or in our lives (and I am not sure that time is linear, although we perceive it as such). What I don't know is whether I remember such moments so clearly because they pointed the way forward, or whether they have later taken on a greater significance. I'm not sure it matters.
There are many, many le Carré moments in my life. I remember reading Absolute Friends on a Mallorca beach holiday 15 years ago with my parents, when my father had finished reading it. I remember reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy exactly ten years ago while visiting my friends in Japan, and being utterly confused but knowing that it was going to be important. And although I never met him, I was fortunate to see le Carré four times. The first was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's Southbank, in 2008, when he gave a talk for the release of A Most Wanted Man. I cannot forget the thrill of seeing him walk onto the stage. In 2011 (I think) he read from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold on Trafalgar Square, for World Book Night, saying "I want you to imagine that this is the Brandenburg Gate". Later that year I saw him at the premiere of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, and I was as delighted to see him as I was to see the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (or very close!). And in 2017 I was in the second row at the Royal Festival Hall, a night attended by a cross-section of the literary and artistic world, when he gave a spectacular speech about his life (and George Smiley's) for the release of A Legacy of Spies. The advantage of living in London is that your life can be full of such highlights; le Carré's appearances were especially bright ones, for me.
In the past ten years, I engaged with le Carré's work more intensely than I had previously done. I have joked that moving to south London and, for a while, having a view of MI6 from my window had an effect, but it's actually possible; geographic locations have quite an powerful effect on me. Although I had been writing poetry for about as long as I'd been a le Carré fan, I also started writing poetry more intensely in the past ten years, and publishing. Here and there, I also found his influence creeping into my work, whether in the occasional poem actually about spies, or in some acerbic tone or wry observation. Le Carré loved poetry, too. In The Russia House, he quotes Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke in the space of one page. Our Game references Osip Mandelstam. The Honourable Schoolboy opens with Auden's famous lines: "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return." Perhaps most tellingly, George Smiley loved "the lesser German poets".
I have realised that we create a kind of internal genealogy for ourselves. We find the things that matter and they become linked together into a system or a map, and that is who we are, at least in part. The lamplight falls especially brightly, or at least with a particular light, on certain people, places, beliefs, concepts and artistic works on our map. John le Carré's works reside in one of those pools of light, for me. It is very hard to now say goodbye.
Image: John le Carré at the 'Zeit Forum Kultur' in Hamburg, 2008. Photo by Krimidoedel. Used under Creative Commons license