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Monday, 14 November 2016

John le Carre lays out some of his times. Mark Pierce reviews THE PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE

THE PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE by John le Carre. Penguin. 317pp.

David Cornwell
Readers of John le Carre who have been ever more disappointed since he published a (possibly “the”) classic spy thriller (‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, now 42  years ago) and one perfectly-pitched gem of a plot (‘The Russia House, 1989’) can now return to the fold. Well into his eighties le Carre has done himself proud.

Readers now have the choice of ploughing through a worthily exhaustive biography of le Carre now available, or turning to the author’s own re-telling of his best stories about his life and work. Le Carre, who refers to himself here by his actual name, David Cornwell, disarms a reader by ostentatiously fudging the question of whether any of these stories might happen to be true. “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. “

Throughout his 38 chosen tales of his life le Carre-Cornwell reveals himself as entirely capable of living off the sniff of a nuance, and making otherwise mundane facts sing. He can be self-deprecatory (occasionally), witty (every now and again), and always deeply, richly observant about flaws and foibles in character and the odd quirks of fate. A fair number of his characters are introduced in their real-life guises; the springs and triggers of a few plots are exposed. The literary magician does let readers in on a few tricks of his stagecraft – or, to borrow a term from the profession which animates his novels, of tradecraft.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley
For film buffs, two considerable bonuses are included in the text. The first involves the author observing Alec Guinness at work; an expert at close, precise observation defers to a past master in that art. Guinness played le Carre’s diffident, rumpled spy, George Smiley, in two still-watchable BBC television series. Here, Guinness, “day and night”, “studies and stores away the mannerisms of his adult enemy, moulds his own face, voice and body into countless versions of us, while he simultaneously explores the possibilities of his own nature”.  Watching is an integral part of that professional repertoire; so, too, are mimicry, the skill to sift and filter impressions, and an insistence on appraising “the meaning of his orders and the quality of his comrades”.

The second film-tagged pleasure is a chapter based on the premise that “one day … it will be recognised that the best films of my work were the ones that were never made”.  A reader might quibble, recalling the starkly dramatic adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, UK, 1965) or Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer acting together to lift The Russia House (Fred Schepisi, USA, 1990 ) towards the standard of the original story. I concede that some of the other versions of le Carre novels were awful: tedious, over-simplified, under-done.


Nonetheless, le Carre has put up with a beguiling assortment of dead ends, false hopes and blind alleys in his dealings with film directors and studios. In this book he tends to blame Hollywood. “Nobody does silence better than Hollywood”. The supporting cast of miscreants include stars unwilling to commit themselves, screenwriters incapable of dealing with deep complexity, and directors tempted by the lure of other projects. The opportunity cost of missing out on those films might be considerable, but the stories are whimsical rather than sad, amused more than bitter.

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