Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

So, I've said this before, and I know it's weird about me: I will frequently read the memoirs or other miscellaneous nonfiction of a writer whose books I'm only vaguely familiar with.

The way this is supposed to work: you like a novelist, so you read all of the novels. Then, maybe, you move on to other things. The odds & sods collections of journalism, the memoirs, the travel puff pieces, and so on.

But I'm more likely to read one or two novels (in this case The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, six years ago), then buy a few other novels (making sure to get the ones in the same trade dress, because I'm also quirky that way), and meander along for a few years without reading any of those other novels until suddenly I pick up the nonfiction book and finish that.

My half-serious explanation is that I'm now a middle-aged man, and middle-aged men have a well-known and nigh-unstoppable tropism for non-fiction. It's just one of those things.

Anyway, that's why I read The Pigeon Tunnel, the 2016 memoirs of the man born David Cornwell and who has written a long series of literary spy thrillers as John Le Carre. It's a book primarily for people who have read those other books, obviously -- not least because it's by the man who spent his adult life writing those books. Cornwell/Le Carre was 85 when this book was published-- and is not dead as I type this; he has a new novel coming out before the end of the year -- but he's a public-school boy of the very old school, a former government employee, and a writer who has been burned by publicity many times. So this is a reticent book, an elliptical one, that has no overall structure or focus and which touches on Cornwell's childhood (the traditional wellspring of writers) hardly at all.

Instead, he has thirty-eight chapters of wildly variable lengths over the course of this book's roughly three hundred pages: some are short anecdotes while others, like the long chapter on his con-man father Ronnie, are full-fledged and well-formed essays. They range through his adult life almost randomly, and touch almost entirely on his professional life -- he does write about his parents (separately), but neither of his wives and nothing about his children. All of those pieces include only what Cornwell wants to tell. Even now, as an old man a generation after the Cold War ended and sixtyish years after he retired from government service, he's clear that he doesn't want to reveal any real secrets.

There are a lot of bits about real-life encounters and how those influenced or were incorporated into his novels: again, this will be most interesting to people who have actually read those novels. And those are mostly his novels of the '80s and '90s -- the Cold War books, the Smiley books in particular, the ones that may have come more out of his own experiences or knowledge, are the ones where he does not have anecdotes to tell us.

He does tell a few stories of his time in government service, though -- mostly escorting West German dignitaries through London in the years around 1960, acting as their translator to UK prime ministers or whorehouse madams. And he of course tells a few stories about the movies and TV shows made from his work: the usual stories of frantic activity that turns into nothing in the end, and some appreciations of Sir Alec Guinness.

I enjoyed reading The Pigeon Tunnel, but Cornwell is a reticent man at his core, and a reader should bring a lot more knowledge and experience to this book than I was able to in order to get the most out of it. It really is primarily for the Le Carre obsessed, I think.

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