The big news yesterday was the the death of David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre.
He was 89, which is pretty ripe as old age goes, and had been writing up till the end. There’s always a tinge of sadness, nonetheless.
For me, some of the sadness is purely selfish. We might get some posthumous publication out of him, but he aint writing anymore. That’s sad because I reckon he was one of the very best novelists writing in the English language – never mind limiting it to spy novels. He was a gifted observer of human foibles and acute when describing them. As far as prose goes, his is some of the more intelligent you’ll come across.
He’s one of those authors that I feel like I’ve known all my life. You know how books evoke memories, and particular periods in your life, well he was one of those writers I feel as if I’ve lived in parallel to, on the other side of the world.
If I close my eyes, I can see places long lost to me, places where I read his books or spoke of them – and of course, all the memories of those places and periods are there also for me. I cottoned onto Le Carre early, and then there was a big gap before I returned to him about 20 years ago.
I had an Aunt, who was a great reader. For every birthday and Christmas, I could count on getting at least a book from her, beautifully wrapped in gold or silver foil with a ribbon around it. She cultivated my reading, and I was happy to have it cultivated.
She lived in Sydney, and I would stay with her most of the time I visited there, and I actually lived with her in her Watson’s Bay apartment for a while in the eighties (what a vivid memory that is). She had several bookcases full of books, and there was Le Carre.
I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy in hardback while I was there. In the adjoining years, I also read The Spy That Came In From The Cold, and A Murder of Quality.
It was years until I read any of his books after that, though I was an avid watcher of the various TV series and movies made from his books.
I don’t know what brought me back to him. It’d never been a deliberate decision not to read him, more so that he had moved out of my reading orbit. Then he returned.
Over the last 15 years, I reckon I’ve read a dozen of his books, maybe more. There are no duds, though some are better than others. If nothing else, I always enjoy the quality of writing.
Not surprisingly, he was also an astute commentator of current affairs. He was clever and erudite and his politics – no coincidence – were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Like for many of us, the rise of Trump and Brexit was horrifying to him. He wrote well about that, seeing in it something revealing of the human condition – but then all his writing was about that really.
Funny how people die. That’s another one – and my aunt passed on nearly 20 years ago. Times go on. Sad to see him go, but it had to happen.