A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

This 2017 work has a wonderful opening, offering just the perspective, just the framework, that has always fascinated me. A retired spy, Peter Guillam, living in France, is summoned to London. Because certain lawyers are challenging a decision he and his superiors made a generation ago during the Cold War, a decision that resulted in the death at the Berlin Wall of one of their operatives, Alec Leamas, plus an innocent girl, Elizabeth Gold. The lawyers are acting for the two children of those victims.

What I loved so much is this perspective of a mature narrator reviewing a more innocent past, and seeing that past in a new light. Often a more ironic and more introspective light. And in doing so here, le Carre is also revisiting the climax of his first successful espionage novel, A Spy Came in from the Cold. This involved the British penetration of the Soviet and East German spy apparatus, a splendid accomplishment for those times. And that early novel is a highlight of the author’s career, just as the espionage story was the same for Guillam’s career.

But now Guillam also sees the challenge to this past escapade as a challenge to the legitimacy of his entire career. Whereas the new generation sees only the dark side of that operation, and these children of the two victims are seeking justice for the death of their respective parents.

Such questioning is a frequent theme in the author’s other espionage novels. Indeed, his hero Guillam, expresses his own reservations near the end of this tale: “How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?” As a former spy himself, a member of the British Secret Service that is called here the Circus, le Carre has long felt that bringing forward the dark side of espionage is a legitimate way to portray his former profession.

The problem for me is that much of the novel involves flashbacks to memorable events of the Cold War. For Guillam seeks to recall those past events in order to justify them to himself before he faces any tribunal. But the problem is that many of the details of the operation are introduced through official reports of the World War II era, a technique that may help Guillam recall the past but which have no perspective, and which, each time, slows the dramatic flow of the those events.

The result is that we have lost the perspective of the present evaluating the distant past. Instead, the past is evaluating the past. And as Guillam attempts to remember the details of his past effort that is now being challenged, there is a further complication. Because the operation and its aftereffects were quite complicated, and are not easy to follow

This is Le Carre’s 24th novel, most of them espionage novels. And he is 85 years old. One senses that this may be his last such novel, and that he may have used his first spy novel as a crutch to recreate once again the world that he was so much a part of.

One wonders, indeed, if he may also be poking us in the rib, as if to say: here’s another look at that early novel that you were not aware of. But one must also say that this latest work has the intellectual and moral depth that one expects from a le Carre novel. What it lacks is the dramatic tension as the discovery of the operation’s deaths become known. There is one surprise death, but, being in the past, it does not have a major impact. And surely more of the self-doubt and guilt that Guillam now feels in the present should have also existed at the time of the operation. Instead, there may have been sorrow back then at the operation’s failure, but there is no suggested second-guessing of their actions by these gung-ho operatives.

This work offers a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s first successful novel. It thus deepens the moral evaluation of that novel by raising new doubts about the legitimacy of our heroes’ actions. What it also reflects is an elderly author revisiting his past, and finding new depths to explore. As Robert McCrum says in the Guardian: “’Le Carre’s new novel displays a grand old man of English letters conducting a masterclass in the genre he has made his own.”

If this is the last of le Carre’s espionage novels, it is a good way to go out. Even if it lacks intense drama, it probes the impact of a major event that has rested, quietly, within one man’s conscience. That is the legacy that this spymaster now acknowledges. (August, 2019)

Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland

I have enjoyed McFarland’s novels in the past, and I enjoyed the large portions of this 2004 novel whenever the author followed ten-year-old Ben Rome’s struggle to understand the dysfunctional family he is part of, the life of his black pal Burghardt who belongs to the separate society that exists around him, and the town’s white leaders who say they are acting in behalf of the world he is part of.

But the author also has a political story to tell here, and this kept interrupting the family story, the buddy story, and the story of growing up that so interested me. Indeed, the author writes that he was initially inspired by actual political events, when the leaders of Prince Edward County in Virginia decided in 1959 to close its public schools rather than integrate them, as the Supreme Court had decreed. Instead, the county decided to open whites-only private schools

So while I was interested in Ben’s experiences, as he tried to understand the adult world around him, tried to figure out what these adults, including his own family, were really saying, and tried to understand why the town’s leaders treated the black people as they did, the author kept distracting me with the political events of this small town of Farmville. Yes, these events would eventually come between Ben and his buddy Burghardt, but by then the emphasis was on those political events, rather than on Ben’s efforts to understand what was happening to his relationship with his buddy, and how the world he was so used to was changing.

Ben spends much of his life palling around with Burghardt, as well as working with him harvesting the eggs on his father’s egg farm. He also has a sympathetic sister, Lainie, who is troubled by her pregnancy, a mother who is cowed by an aloof father, an older brother Al, a thief who runs around with dubious pals, and a grandfather, Daddy Cary, both a big wheel in town and a sexual predator, who rules his offspring with an iron hand. Tension builds, as Ben’s family works on behalf of the new private schools, while Ben himself tries to figure out why they want to deprive his best pal of an education.

Each new development in the town’s campaign interrupts Ben’s story, whether it is moving the athletic field’s flood lights, collecting new books, or constructing new classrooms. The novel’s latter portion centers, in fact, not on Ben but on the town’s campaign to close its public schools and create new private schools that cater to white people only. There is even an epilogue that betrays the novel’s focus as well as its origins, since it concentrates on the legal outcome of the public school issue, and only incidentally updates the reader on the future or the fate of the various characters.

How I wish that McFarland had written a novel about a young boy trying to understand the racially mixed society around him. But the author becomes too involved with his inspiration for the novel, the county’s closing of its public schools, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, its illegal strategy to avoid having the black and white races mixed together at school.

Much more interesting, however, is Ben’s struggle to understand the real world. As Ron Charles writes of Ben in his Christian Science Monitor review: “Why, he wonders, do adults insist so strenuously that children tell the truth, when it’s obvious that the key to maturity and power is withholding it?”

But I take issue when Charles further writes: “The result is a novel that provides as much fresh insight into the social history of America as it does into the nature of adolescence, drawing us back with a degree of fascination and horror to the nation’s past and our own.” I take issue because, no, the role of fiction, the role of a novel, is to explore human nature, not to explore the political movements around its characters. The latter belongs as context, yes, but it should not drive the novel, as it does here.

I really enjoy novels that capture an adult’s recollection of a youth in which they seek to understand the world of adults. But that should be the inspiration, not the tool used to recreate a moment in time when society either changed or resisted change. Otherwise, the social change becomes the driving force in the novel, rather than the people in the novel who are causing, resisting, or trying to understand that change.

I would hope that McFarland in future novels gets back to his characters and their changing lives, rather than focusing on the changes in society that affect his characters’ lives. (May, 2017)

The Love of My Youth, by Mary Gordon

This 2011 work begins as a wonderful novel. Miranda and Adam, now close to sixty, were lovers forty years ago. Then they separated, marrying others and raising children. Now, both are visiting Rome and have been brought back together by a friend, whereupon they immediately relate to one another. And to their past together.

The wonder comes from their mutual doubt, their mutual worry. Can they cross together that forty-year chasm? Are they even now being disloyal to their current spouses? Can they get over the hurt that their separation caused? Where should this re-discovered relationship now go? What of the integrity they have stood for all their lives?

Simultaneously, they are living today, and they are living forty years ago, living one life externally and one life internally. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, caught by an author who is mature herself and understands exactly how one’s mind and one’s emotions might react to such circumstances. Some readers might even be intrigued by another question: will they or won’t they? The reader who knows Mary Gordon, however, will expect something more.

Then the novel shifts gears. Adam persuades Miranda to meet with him for an hour or two every day so he can show her, and help her better appreciate, the sights of Rome, a city with its own memorable past. It is really, of course, because he is still intrigued by her; and, despite each of their current marriages, he wishes to explore the possibilities that have arisen from their meeting.

Whereupon, each time this couple meets, they banter about Rome’s history and art and the people they encounter on the street, and the reader receives mini-portraits of moments in Rome’s past. It is continually interesting banter, even as the couple deliberately avoids any personal conversation about their own past, not least because of their own existing marriages. And yet…that past is always in the air. But the result, even so, is a lack of drama. Because their relationship never advances, because they seek to avoid at all costs what in today’s literary world might seem to be an inevitable outcome.

Meanwhile, author Gordon interrupts the daily Roman tour to flash back to the past when Adam and Miranda were lovers. Not how they became lovers, because there was no drama there, simply an immediate realization by both. Instead, it is how they accommodated their love to each other’s careers, his as a promising student pianist that required long hours of private study and hers as an advocate for social causes that required being with people, whether working for the World Health Organization, especially in India, or for Planned Parenthood while living with Adam in Boston.

And again, there is little drama in the past, for their love enables them to adapt to each other’s needs. And while there are continual reminders that they will eventually separate, there are few clues regarding why. So we continue to absorb this beautifully told tale, wondering what will happen in Rome today, wondering how this author will resolve their situation, and also wondering what could have so abruptly torn them apart, could have destroyed that deep, passionate love forty years ago.

And we do find out, of course. The final flashback reveals why they separated. It is well-told, but a bit melodramatic, and also rather ordinary, as we learn why Miranda has never wanted to voice the name Beverly. Then we return to Rome, and Adam and Miranda decide where to go from here in a moment of mutual introspection that is entirely in character. Indeed, there is a beautiful, suggestive ending in the penultimate chapter, and one wonders why this novel still goes on. Did the publisher, the editor, the author, find it too inconclusive? I did not. But that appears to be the case, for the final chapter makes absolutely clear their future relationship.

What has begun as a highly promising novel of two married people, now quite mature and encountering their first love of long ago, turns into merely a successful work of former lovers touring Rome. It is a tender work, and vergers on being emotionally moving. It is satisfying as well, but it is not a great work. Perhaps because the couple spends too much time avoiding issues, avoiding whether they are still open to love, and avoiding a discussion of the responsibility for their separation. The latter, perhaps, because it would negate the suspense of the reader finding out why. For a story that is occurring so deeply inside these characters, in fact, this novel is much too concerned with surface events.

In her Times, review, however, Liesl Schillinger suggests an appropriate metaphor for their tour through the streets of Rome. She compares the centuries-old stone architecture of that city with the “entombed emotions” of Miranda, “as she retraces old ground with the man who hurt her more deeply that any man could hurt her thereafter.”

One should note that this begins as Adam’s story, as he establishes his pursuit. Because, we later learn, he has felt a sense of guilt for their youthful break-up. But then, this becomes more of Miranda’s tale, reflecting her viewpoint, as is perhaps natural for a female author. But despite this propensity, at key moments Gordon delves with equal insight into Adam’s heart and mind, into his doubts about right and wrong, both then and now, and his sensitive reserve. With the end result being a finely balanced presentation of this mutual revisiting of the past—a result that is fully satisfying, even as one is aware of its missed potential. This would perhaps entail a deeper exploration of their consciences.

Mary Gordon’s novels will always be on my reading list. And while there was no need for the characters’ spiritual life in this tale, it might nevertheless have helped here, and its return to her work would revive my interest even more. (April, 2015)