The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Still Trying To Escape The Chill After All These Years

“We’re all the same you know, that’s the joke.”

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is John Le Carré’s 1963 novel about the Cold War, as fought by the secret services of Britain on one side, East Germany and Russia on the other. Well, I talk of sides, but that isn’t really accurate. You’d think it would be clear which side was which, seeing as there’s a great big Berlin Wall between them, topped with barbed wire, swept by search lights, guarded by soldiers. Ironically, the book shows that one side is much the same as the other. It is difficult to work out who is working for whom. Spies double cross their governments, though that treachery might be loyal service in disguise. Both sides use the same ruthless methods.

There is a curious use of the word “same” in the novel. It crops up a lot. Have a look at page 12 – when Control is talking to our world-weary spy protagonist, Alec Leamas. The word “same” appears nine times. And then through the book, it’s there repeatedly – 57 times in all. I counted them! Same even appears on the very last page, referring to steps on a ladder over the Berlin Wall. Same, same, same. That got me thinking – when we find the same cold on both sides of the wall, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the cold is everywhere, and there is no coming in from it.

But there is warmth in the book, personified in certain individuals, particularly in the figure of Liz Gold, a lovely, caring women Alec Leamas meets while working in a library. She is nurturing, sensible and kind, the moral compass of the book really. Consider Elizabeth Gold’s name. Gold has all sorts of positive connotations of warmth and happiness. Then again, don’t you think gold sounds so much like cold? It’s sounds almost the SAME! If the cold is everywhere, maybe the warm is too.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a fascinating book, a compelling spy story hiding all sorts of subtlety, like a cold war cypher. It is certainly true that readers can make a pessimistic interpretation. John Le Carré, by all accounts was himself a pessimistic and troubled man. Nevertheless, there is something in his book, a suggestion that while we are out in the cold with no possible hope of relief, warmth is never far away.

Piranesi By Susanna Clarke – Controlling The Tides

Sketch from the “Imaginary Prisons” series by Giovanni Piranesi – eighteenth century Italian archaeologist, architect and artist

(Be aware, some spoilers may follow)

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, published in September 2020, is set in a kind of parallel world. This takes the form of a series of vast, interconnecting halls on three levels stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions. The lower levels of “the house” are washed by ocean waves, the upper levels obscured by cloud, the mid levels are habitable, at least if you know how to fish, and burn dried seaweed to stay warm.

I read this book two ways. The first involves the way people, self-regarding as always, tend to see their own affairs reflected in the world around them. The world of the house seems to be an actual physical manifestation of human thought over millennia. The house judges those within it through the action of natural events, rewarding those it favours and punishing those it doesn’t, mostly through the action of floods. This reflects the way many societies have viewed nature involving itself with their affairs. The ancient Egyptian civilisation, for example, had priests whose job it was to intercede with the gods to make sure the Nile flooded regularly and replenished the soil.

From this point of view I thought the scenario of Piranesi, an entire world built as a reflection of humanity’s doings, was as silly as expecting Egyptian priests to really control flooding with their prayers.

However, there was another aspect of the book that made me think again. The central character, known as “Piranesi,” emotional and mysterious though his bond with the house may be, is also a scientist. By close observation he knows when high tides will occur, and when they will pose danger by washing through the habitable part of the house. So when a dangerously high tide appears to help Piranesi, while thwarting his enemies, that is just a reflection of his understanding of tides, rather than any mystical judgement by the house. Piranesi really is in tune with the house, but he achieves this not with prayers and mysticism, but through close observation and note taking.

So the book is about the relationship of rationality and irrationally, or art and science if you like. Getting to the house involves a bit of mystical setting aside of rationality, but once there, what seems to be mysticism is actually the result of careful study.

Piranesi is an interesting and imaginative book, with an engaging central character. The setting may be bizarre, but it’s actually a mystery story, which even involves a police character who helps unravel the puzzle of how Piranesi ended up in the house. At a time when society seems to be struggling with irrational ideas, this is a timely reflection on how people think about the world around them

The Truman Show – Leaving Conspiracies Behind

Conspiracy theories and disinformation are rife. Many of the reasons for this come up in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show – which I watched the night before the storming of the United States Capitol. This is an odd sci-fi story, involving an orphaned baby, Truman Burbank, who is adopted by a television studio and placed unknowingly in a reality show where everyone else is an actor.

Conspiracy theories make people feel important. They are about having “special knowledge” ignored by most people. This sets the believer apart as one of the chosen few who really knows what’s going on. No need to go to university for years, and then spend a long time gaining expertise in a job, to end up in a position of eminence. You can get all that by simply believing that the world is flat, or that the American election was stolen. The reasons people believe in conspiracy theories are complex, but I think you can say generally that a frustrated desire for prestige is often involved. Conspiracy believers are either unwilling or unable to achieve prestige in the normal, laborious way. They seek a short cut to self importance. It’s like choosing to steal a car rather than waiting to earn the money to buy one.

Truman Burbank grows into adulthood unaware of the true nature of his life. But then a number of production mishaps on the show start to make him suspect something is going on. He feels that he is living in a world focused entirely on himself. Clearly this suggests that he is very important. He has to try and square this feeling with the fact that he also seems to be an ordinary man.

Truman’s efforts to escape his false existence come to a climax in a sailing voyage across the “ocean” towards the limit of his world. And fittingly, his odyssey takes place on a flat Earth which really does have an edge. His boat bumps into the outer wall of the huge Truman Show studio. Truman disembarks, and walks around the sea’s margin, while the show’s director seemingly talks to him from the sky. We see the prestige which this closed world confers on Truman. He seemingly walks on water while God speaks to him from the heavens. God – that is the director – calls on Truman not to leave the show. It is so tempting to stay there and remain at the centre of things. But beyond the door lies the real world, and the woman who once broke the rules by loving Truman for himself and not because she was an actress following a script. Truman stands at an exit door in a painted sky, and debates with himself what to do. Finally he makes the decision to leave, cheered on by his audience. But his exit also results in the loss of his fame and importance. Truman’s glorious denouement coincides with two security guards reaching for a TV guide, to help them decide what to watch next. So you can see why some people hang on to their illusory beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

I think The Truman Show is a lesson in humility. We all have to accept that knowledge is hard won. Truman nearly drowns on his hazardous voyage to the edge of his world. He really has to work for what he knows. And his moment of triumph, ironically, is the moment he realises that everything doesn’t revolve around him. To truly appreciate the world, we have to stop telling ourselves that we are at the centre of it.

What Maisie Knew By Henry James – Innocence Meets Experience

What Maisie Knew is a 1897 novel by Henry James, about a young girl, tossed around between two parties in a vengeful divorce. They fight over custody of Maisie, and fight just as hard when each parent thinks they are being expected to spend too much time with the child. Then there is a sub plot of nannies and guardians who themselves have affairs with each vile parent, and with each other – and fight over Maisie!

This plot sounds like a kind of nineteenth century version of Dynasty. The tone of the writing, however, is very much nineteenth century literary fiction. The story is told from the point of view of Maisie, who is both confused by the machinations of adults, and able see through the self-serving fictions adults cook up to make themselves look good. We see events through Maisie’s eyes, but rather than the narrative voice remaining with her, we hear instead the tone of a world-weary, adult with literary pretensions. So the viewpoint and the voice make for an odd mixture, a combination of the innocent, and the knowing, which is fitting for the book’s preoccupations.

This is a very artful book, reflecting on the contradictions of knowledge and deception, innocence and experience. As just a brief example – Maisie always sees the best in everybody, which is a lovely quality. But admirable though this quality is, it has the practical effect of making her believe in whoever she is with at any particular moment. Her guileless effort to be loyal to everyone, can also have the appearance of flighty disloyalty.

A number of reviews of the book are included at the end of the Penguin edition. One from the Manchester Guardian of 1897, concludes by saying:

“It is undoubtedly a work of art, but hardly one you would like to hang on your walls.”

I think this sums it up. What Maisie Knew is a very clever book, but is by no means an easy and relaxing read. The world of childhood only comes to us through the voice of an adult, who loves his long sentences and even longer paragraphs. This is a children’s book for the sort of adult who is willing to suffer for their literary rewards