Pol­i­tics, not style, lev­i­tates medi­ocre au­thors

Deccan Chronicle - - Oped - Rod Lid­dle

Thank the blessed Lord it’s over. Not Brexit, or Theresa May’s flail­ing and spas­tic gov­er­nance. I’m talk­ing about John le Carré’s The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl, which has been se­ri­alised on the BBC on a Sun­day evening, just when peo­ple want to watch some­thing in­ter­est­ing.

I watched it with the mis­sus, and by episode two de­cided I would much rather spend my Sun­day evenings as­sault­ing my own head with a claw ham­mer. But we per­sisted with this ex­pen­sively shot garbage be­cause we are a mar­ried cou­ple and there­fore think it right and proper to en­gage in joint ac­tiv­i­ties and stick with them re­gard­less of how dis­tress­ing and un­pleas­ant they may be — such as watch­ing The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl or hav­ing sex­ual in­ter­course.

I have heard Le Carré re­ferred to as “Shake­spearean” — and that is true, in­so­far as his plots are con­cerned. Much like the plot of Ham­let, say, Le Carré’s are so wildly im­prob­a­ble as to be be­yond com­pre­hen­sion, ut­terly di­vorced from the real world and the way in which peo­ple be­have. (The amount of credulity re­quired to swal­low the plot of The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl would be be­yond even the most stupid fol­lower of Mo­men­tum, I would sug­gest.) And be­cause Le Carré, a spy writer, is all about plot, what is there left for us to en­joy? Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion? Not a chance. The char­ac­ters are ci­phers for the au­thor’s fash­ion­ably bale­ful view of the world, in which the cyn­i­cism of the Soviet Union is matched by the cyn­i­cism of the West, to the de­gree that it is im­pos­si­ble to tell them apart and there are no good­ies or bad­dies. And yet this too is a crass sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

Nor would we read Le Carré for hu­mour. Amer­i­cans are of­ten de­ri­sive of the Bri­tish af­fec­tion for the comic novel, from Wode­house via Brad­bury to Tom Sharpe, those con­fec­tions in which ev­ery­thing is geared, some­times la­bo­ri­ously, to­wards the next chuckle. They have a point, too: The best fic­tion ac­cords to hu­mour the nat­u­ral, im­por­tant but not com­mand­ing part it plays in our lives. But have you ever read a nov­el­ist with fewer laughs than Le Carré? He makes Henry James seem like Frankie How­erd. And the di­alogue, the stilted di­alogue: Has a Le Carré char­ac­ter ever said any­thing which you re­mem­ber for its in­sight, its res­o­nance? Or sim­ply be­cause it sounded rather won­der­ful? I would reckon not.

Three decades ago, Le Carré — a charm­ing, clever and hos­pitable chap in per­son — was re­garded as a writer of up­mar­ket es­pi­onage thrillers, some­where in the vicin­ity of Robert Lud­lum in the lit­er­ary league ta­bles. But he has been a ben­e­fi­ciary of the re­vi­sion­ism that at­tends to all of our lit­er­ary and artis­tic and mu­si­cal tal­ents: he is now thought of as be­ing deadly se­ri­ous and in­cred­i­bly sig­nif­i­cant, his lit­er­ary abil­i­ties ex­ag­ger­ated be­yond all mea­sure.

I can’t imag­ine an­other el­derly or dead white, pub­lic school-ed­u­cated, het­ero­sex­ual male writer whose sto­ries would be deemed ad­mis­si­ble for a BBC adap­ta­tion these days. Cer­tainly not Or­well or Waugh or even Martin Amis. John le Carré makes the cut not be­cause of the bril­liance of his prose or his plots but be­cause of his fash­ion­able world view­point: A re­vul­sion for the West and what it has, in its wicked­ness, done to other coun­tries. Le Carré loathes the West — and, of course, by ex­ten­sion, Is­rael.

The per­cep­tion that each side is as morally bad as the other, ex­cept that the West (be­cause of its wealth and hege­mony) is even more cyn­i­cal, ac­cords en­tirely with cur­rent lib­eral sen­si­bil­i­ties. No mat­ter that it is pal­pa­bly wrong and a kind of con­ve­nient and frankly cow­ardly eva­sion of the truth. The im­pre­ca­tion that we should not judge for­eign cul­tures or gov­ern­ments or in­sti­tu­tions — and that in ev­ery case our own per­fi­dies eas­ily out­weigh those that have been ranged against us — is the dom­i­nant par­a­digm.

But to my mind there is a fairly sim­ple mo­ral­ity in the Cold War, for ex­am­ple: an os­si­fied and para­noid au­thor­i­tar­ian regime re­spon­si­ble for the mass mur­der of its own cit­i­zens was even­tu­ally, mer­ci­fully, de­feated by the con­tra­dic­tions in its own sys­tem and the re­solve and de­ter­mi­na­tion (and wealth) of demo­cratic coun­tries. There are, I would sug­gest, few shades of grey in the fall­ing of the Berlin Wall and the emp­ty­ing of the gu­lags. It is pretty straight­for­ward as to where the rec­ti­tude lay, no?

The lit­er­ary world is fond of its re­vi­sion­ism, mind, even if in the past those cast out into the wilder­ness were handed their exit visas more be­cause of the style of their writ­ing than be­cause of their po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. Both John Stein­beck and (even more so) Sin­clair Lewis were de­nuded of their fash­ion­abil­ity very quickly af­ter their deaths be­cause, while both men were cer­tainly left of cen­tre, the rather jour­nal­is­tic style they de­ployed had ceased to please in the decade of the nou­veau ro­man and the likes of Robbe-Gril­let. You can still find Stein­beck on some GCSE English cour­ses, but only the sim­ple novel­las, such as Of Mice and Men. Sin­clair Lewis seems to be gone for good, which I think a bit of a shame.

To­day the style of writ­ing is less im­por­tant than the po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions and pol­i­tics of the writer. Few lit­er­ary greats have been de­fen­es­trated quite as quickly as John Updike, for ex­am­ple, who was be­ing hauled from his plinth even be­fore his death from can­cer in 2009. Updike’s prob­lem was to have writ­ten from deeply within his time and from the stand­point of a white male het­ero­sex­ual: that don’t cut no ice no more. He’s a priv­i­leged sex­ist bigot now.

Much the same odium has fallen on Saul Bel­low — in my opin­ion al­most Updike’s equal as the great­est Amer­i­can nov­el­ist of the se­cond half of the 20th cen­tury. And it is hap­pen­ing to Philip Roth too. They will be re­placed by au­thors who have far less lit­er­ary merit but look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent and are more at­tuned to the po­lit­i­cal zeit­geist. Happy read­ing.

By ar­range­ment with the Spec­ta­tor

To­day the style of writ­ing is less im­por­tant than the po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions and pol­i­tics of the writer. Few lit­er­ary greats have been de­fen­es­trated quite as quickly as John Updike, for ex­am­ple.

‘It’s a des­per­ate fight for sur­vival in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment’

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