Fiery Words from FireCrest
PUBLISHERS AND REPUBLISHERS
OF REMARKABLE ORIGINAL FICTION

Sunday, 1 February 2009

How Not To Read?

The Common Pursuit of True Judgement
      Needing something not too demanding to cope while away the insomniac hours, we picked up John le Carré’s Single & Single and enjoyed ourselves over several nights (mornings, to most of you). We don’t like blurb-writers’ inadvertent spoilers – no FireCrest blurb ever gives anything away – so we didn’t read the back of the book until we’d finished it.
      Someone not named at the Glasgow Herald called the book a “masterly work, faultless fiction of the highest order.” Someone equally, and fortunately, anonymous, included this in the blurb: “…a thrilling journey of the contemporary human heart – intimate, magical, riotous, and subtly architected…”
     This is the kind of thing that makes one reach for one’s revolver, only to realize that our clinically deluded government confiscated all three of them a dozen or so years ago. Deep breath. Perhaps pen mightier than pistol after all. If only. Let’s hope. Another deep breath.
     This isn’t a rant against le Carré, but about a collapse of critical judgement. For masterly le Carré surely is – at a certain kind of intelligent ephemera, excellent for otherwise dull train journeys, whiling away a dose of ’flu, or indeed dealing with insomnia. His characters are just the other side of predictable, which keeps one going, but they are so because he is careful to make them somewhat enigmatic – or perhaps because he’s already writing at his limit and not capable of probing them any more deeply. When the protagonists fall in love, le Carré doesn’t show this happening, we’re just pereptorily informed it’s happened. So much for a “journey of the human heart”. This isn’t, couldn’t possibly be, fiction of the highest order, except possibly to commuters who read only on planes and trains and have never brought themselves, feet on earth or bums on seats, to try anything better.
     Le Carré did once publish an attempt at what would now fatuously be labelled “literary fiction” – The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, a sub-Donleavian ramble around a bunch of quasi-psychopathic manipulators and their victim. It entirely lacks Donleavy’s splendidly vulgar comedy or his plangent sadness, both welling from a constant intuition that things can fall apart – for better or worse – at any moment. And Donleavy can certainly show people falling in love. In comparison, the best le Carré can offer is a kind of cynicism. He did well to return to writing the higher class of thriller.
     Le Carré’s best book is probably The Little Drummer Girl, but it’s not a fine work because of any exploration of an intimate human condition. It’s brilliant in the way Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is on India – not for any literary subtlety, but for its acute dramatic exposition of labyrinthine and near-intractable Middle East politics. Unfortunately his ‘solution’ (something a novelist ought know to avoid) almost amounts to the triteness of “all you need is love”.
     We hope le Carré has winced at the thought that any of his books had been “subtly architected”. But then a world in which anyone can get away with a phrase like that, is probably not seven leagues from the one in which le Carré is deemed to write “fiction of the highest order”.

A Bit More Dawkins
      Having been bemused by radical mis- or even non-readings of my piece in Fortean Times on Richard Dawkins (see below), I’m now bemused by the (published) reactions of the magazine’s readers. I won’t tire everyone with the details, but correspondents to FT overwhelmingly seem to take it for granted that to set about the mode of Dawkins’s polemic is implicitly to be arguing a case for God (or gods). This is a bit painful, as I’d been quite explicit – and, I thought, lucidly so – in saying that various particulars of Dawkins’s enormous rant made little sense regardless of one’s particular beliefs. Nonetheless, I am taken to task for arguing for something I didn’t. Irritatingly, the editors have closed the correspondence, so I can’t deliver the proper riposte in their pages. Yes, Virginia, I am whingeing.

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