March reading: The seduction styles of Gale, Le Carre, Sebald

March has been a strange month for reading. It looks like not a lot got read, but there was plenty of Adorno and Benjamin and DeLillo, mostly in bits and pieces, that’s just not going to get a look-in on this blog. From last month I’m glad to say I finished Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature – a slim, wondrous book, that I was thrilled to be able to pass on to my brother-in-law, who’s about to enter that strange second world of parenthood – and I was equally thrilled to read Just William’s Luck’s review of Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits, which I’ll be looking out when I’m in the US next month. Together these two books make up what must be the totality of that minor sub-genre Intelligent Dad-Lit. Any other contenders, let me know.

Reviewing-wise, I read Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (for the TLS) and Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man (for the Indy). A sobering pair of authors for someone just having had his own novel sent out to publishers, and seeing the first rejections come back. Here, you might think, is how to write bankable books. Gale’s characters, especially, are delivered up on a plate – so touchable, so knowable, it’s almost fetishistic. People should stop going on about Franzen and McEwan – Gale is today’s realist novelist par excellence, if you take realism to be the strand of literature that sets out, above all, to flatter the bourgeois readership that they, too, have, if not immortal souls, then inviolable selves. Good god, you think: if these characters on the page seem real, then how much more real must I be! (The comeback, of course, being that you only feel real, dear reader, because you’ve been hypnotised into it by all those novels you’ve read.)

So I look at Gale and Perrotta – and Will Eaves, whose very fine This Is Paradise (my Indy review here) takes the Gale template and nudges it towards a more Flaubertian lyricism that, through the cat’s-cradle intricacies of its language, puts into the doubt the very characters that it goes about constructing.

I look at these guys – and yes, I’m fully aware of the gender bias of my reading: if there was a simple, honourable explanation for it I’d give it; and it’s an issue I’d love to have time and courage to reflect on, along with my problem with short stories, and my natural inclination towards realism as a mode, despite the experimental approaches I read and often approve of.

I look at these guys, and I think: what can I learn from these people about the kind of character creation, the kind of approach to creating analogues of human beings on the page, that makes books sell. That, too, is not something I feel ready to come to a judgement on, but let’s just say that it’s something that’s bouncing around in my head

Perhaps not much got read this month because I read, for the first time in a long time, John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I read it as the first part of the new Hodder & Stoughton edition of Smiley Versus Karla, which continues, in its 1,582pp marathon, with The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Like many people, I come to this after having watched the Tomas Alfredson/Gary Oldman film.

Part of my problem with both book and film, this time around, is that I hadn’t been able to come to them innocent and spoiler-free and, frankly, half the pleasure with such items is the warm and soothing mud bath of ignorance that they offer. So I found myself in that horrible meta-position of enjoying not so much the hunt, as the mechanics of the hunt, the aniseed trail laid down by the author. Particularly this is true because so much is made, these days, of Le Carré as a great novelist, whereas when I first read him in my teens there was something slightly embarrassing about him. Sure, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was super, but then that novel benefitted so much from the cool afterglow  of Richard Burton’s film performance.

Is Le Carré really a great writer? He’s certainly a wonderful scene-setter, and he’s masterful at the slow, pragmatic striptease whereby he divulges the details of “tradecraft” – the mechanics of the spy’s life and work, work and life. It comes piecemeal, and in situ, so that our understanding always lags a few moments behind the prose. Take for example the scene in which Peter Guillam goes to the Circus archives to fetch the all-important Testify file, how he goes about stealing it, and covering his tracks so its absence won’t be noticed. Or the final scene, with Smiley waiting in the safe house, in his stockinged feet. It’s a thrill to see the detail, and then learn its pertinence – we’re being seduced, basically. And I suppose this parcelling out of detail – like slipping sweets to a child – extends to some of the characterisation, as when the headmaster at the dodgy private school where Jim Prideaux is teaching gets put out by Prideaux’s casual donning of an Oxford cricket sweater – put out not by the suggestion that it’s fake, but that it might be real:

Bogus Oxford men he could deal with, just as in his time he had known classics masters who had no Greek and parsons who had no divinity. Such men, confronted with proof of their deception, broke down and wept and left, or stayed on half pay. But men who withheld genuine accomplishment, these were a breed he had not met but he knew already that he did not like them.

But I wonder about the actual logical progression of the narrative. After all, all the book is, is the plodding journey of Smiley from suspicion to proof, which he takes, scene by scene, by way of his encounters with various dumb witnesses, who each unknowingly gives up their morsel of information, and the arrival in his ken of particular documents. There’s a line that struck me, when Smiley realises that “between the mole Gerald and the Source Merlin there was an interplay that could no longer be denied”, and I puzzled over this. In all honesty, I can’t say if the puzzle, laid out in retrospect, is solvable, or credible, or even a puzzle. The author manages the reader’s ignorance, and gradual enlightenment, so meticulously, and oppressively, that I no longer know if I’m impressed by his performance, or whether I was just mesmerised by the illusion of mystery.

It’s not just Le Carré, it’s all mystery fiction, or at least anything less unambiguous in its presentation than Agatha Christie: caught up as I am in the pleasure of reading, I would at no given point be able to take stock of what I actually know, and so tend to take the book’s word for it that the revelation, when it comes, is genuine, and my astonishment and gratitude sincere. (This in contrast to television and cinema, where I would generally be able, on request, to offer up a full inventory of clues received, deductions made.) So I look forward greatly to the next instalment, The Honourable Schoolboy, which I honestly can’t remember having read.

This month’s pick-up partial re-read is WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. He is one of those writers that I have real problems getting to grips with, in part because of the ever-increasing clamour of his importance. The prose is so solid, yet so slippery. It avoids the gaze. It refuses to state what it’s about – and what it’s about. If Patrick Gale seduces by virtue of his presentation of an ideal vision of what it is to be human (rounded, flawed, but ultimately knowable, ultimately – always – redeemed), and if Le Carré seduces de haut en bas, dropping the reader breadcrumbs of significance and then persuading him, at the end, that he’s eaten a whole, wholesome loaf of bread, then Sebald is the most unnerving of seducers – one that takes you home, then keeps leaving the room mid-sentence, so that you must follow, only to find when you catch up with them that they’ve changed the subject.

The strangest thing about Sebald is that he wants to be read. He’s gone beyond Beckett, beyond the voice with nothing to say that cannot but speak. Sebald is close, after all, to the slightly malodorous man sat in the library working his way through the local history section. We read Sebald, but we wouldn’t deign to read the primary texts. Instead we let him seduce us with this mixture of the provincial, the arcane and the left-field canonical. At the end of it what have we learned, what have we retained? Is Sebald the answer to Adorno? Is this what poetry looks like, after You-Know-What? As you can probably tell, these are half-formed ideas. Like everything, I would like to think I’ll come back to them.

I also read Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, which I’m still chewing over ahead of writing a review of his new novel, The Detour, which definitively answers that age-old dilemma, how do you follow up an IMPAC-award-winning debut?

Books I picked up that may be continued: The Sight of Death, by TJ Clark, a brilliant piece of art writing in which the author spends six months looking at two Poussin paintings; and the sporadically interesting The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which also made me think about male and female writers, and what kinds of books sell.

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