The "Nip-Round-the-Widdershins" Problem

Caldwell and Scott

The "Nip-Round-the-Widdershins" Problem

Caldwell and Scott

The "Nip-Round-the-Widdershins" Problem
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 9 1999 6:40 PM

Caldwell and Scott

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Dear Tony,

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There wasn't any "admiration" for Single & Single in my earlier note, was there? I do admire le Carré, and this latest one is miles--miles!--better than Our Game (1995), his first foray into contraband in the Caucasus. But I was disappointed by Single & Single, too.

You're right that spy thrillers generally turn on the revelation and defeat of a conspiracy--on the restoration of an established order. This is why Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes (1995), described the detective story as "a deeply conservative genre," a taste for which has rarely gone with left-wing convictions. ("Alas," I believe he added.) None of the arts except lyric poetry has been quite so congenial to defenders of order. This means problems for the whole genre right off the bat--because in our time the order that's being defended is something far less flamboyant than, say, the court of Louis XIV. A certain matter-of-fact, grin-and-bear-it, hostile-to-speculation voice becomes natural to the genre. Self-parody--"I'm-takin'-a-slugga-da-whiskey-as-dis-dame-walks-inna-my-office"--becomes one of the rare tools to make this material interesting.

Le Carré never wanted to be that kind of genre writer. The clearest evidence was that, in his books, the established order didn't really get restored. It was never clear what the established order was. (George Smiley's nemesis Karla had as much claim to be part of it as Smiley.) Anybody could win. (Karla often did.) And anybody could die. (It was the shooting scene at the East German border on the last pages The Spy Who Came in From the Cold that made the book seem so shockingly genre-breaking, and that established le Carré as something more than a spy-thriller writer.) And far from having any self- parody, these were earnest, even solemn books. Thus, while they may not have been "high literature," they were subject to standards as stringent as those of high literature--in that they had to be very, very good in order to be worth reading at all.

What you call the "din of interior monologue and psychological backshadowing" is present in all le Carré's books. The action and mystery and occasional gore that propel the plot create a need for breathing spaces, in which nothing really happens. Most writers filled these spaces with sex or booze. Le Carré's genius was to fill them with introspection. This meant a decisive break from the hard-guy voice--and in his best works it's this voice that makes le Carré le Carré. Sleuths and moles and thugs could fret about Freud, or Green politics, or women's toilet habits, and all in le Carré's oddly graceful prose. (It's not unlike what Bellow did with the serious novel by nesting three-sentence-long short stories into narratives they had nothing to do with.)

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That prose is now tired out. When Oliver Single thinks of his father's Indian factotum Gupta, he uses the pompous sentence-fragment stacking that is the sole artistic trick of J.P. Donleavy at his most cloyingly "artistic":

"Gupta who loved Tiger as no other, Oliver remembered sadly. Gupta whose three brothers were fitted up by the Liverpool Police a hundred years ago, but as legend had it were saved by the fearless intervention of St. Tiger of All Singles. Gupta who begged only to serve, weeping and shaking his head all day."

I was reminded, while reading Single & Single of Dave Barry's complaint about asking for directions in England. There's always a place where your interlocutor loses you with a piece of incomprehensible British idiom: "End of the street, turn left, nip round the widdershins, and it's bang on up behind." Le Carré has always had a "nip-round-the-widdershins" problem. I can't tell whether it's my own ignorance of British usage or le Carré's tendency to swallow his words. But what does this passage mean?:

"In our world, Brock liked to preach, you did best to think dirty and double it. But with Oliver, if you knew what was good for you, you added the number you first thought of as well."

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Or this?:

"It is not Elsie Watmore calling Oliver to arms but Tiger himself, on the internal office telephone. It is not Pam Hawsley, his fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden, or Randy Massingham, his chief of staff and raddled Cassius."

That earned a marginal "yecch" in No. 2 pencil. What's a "raddled Cassius"? What's a "fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden"? (If the implication is what I think it is, don't you pay such people not to be ice maidens?) What's the antecedent of "his"? And once we know who is on the phone, why do we have to go through a description of who isn't?

That said, I still think the book is better than Archangel. Maybe we can get to Harris tomorrow.

Best,

Chris

 

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Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at the
Weekly Standard. A.O. Scott is a senior editor at Lingua Franca. This week they discuss
Archangel, by Robert Harris, andSingle & Single, by John le Carré.