Would That He Were With Us Now: a remembrance of John le Carré

“I’m perfectly hopeless at spelling,” John le Carré told me, “but at least I can think up a plot.”

“People say exactly the same thing about me,” I said. “I can’t make up a plot to save myself but my spelling is first-rate.”

He’d been telling me about the book he was working on at the time, the one that turned out to be Single & Single (1999), and he was talking about the father-son entanglement—which worked out brilliantly, unlike the post-Soviet Georgian intrigue plot which, apart from a stunning scene about a plan for the global commodification of ex-Soviet proletarian blood, was surprisingly action-y and not one of his best inventions. “Once I situated the father correctly,” he said in a voice of retrospective pleasure, “I knew I had a premise, in fact a book.”

I had just given him an inscribed copy of mine, and he had given me his Cornwall and London phone numbers. You must come round next time you visit, he said. Of course I never phoned. “You must come round to lunch, anytime you like.” I knew the code, and had known an English woman who became so horrified when an American couple she’d invited had actually come round that she could hardly move or speak, and had to call upon a neighbor to get rid of the unaccountables in her sitting room.

John le Carré and I were in Ojai, California, one late spring evening in 1998 at the house of one of his sons who was in the film business. I’d been passing through on a smallish reading tour, had stopped in town to read to three people at the back of a bookshop and to visit old friends. One of these friends had a sideline in real estate, and had sold le Carré’s son the house we were chatting in, so naturally we’d been invited in bulk to the housewarming party.

We arrived after dark and followed a path of candles to the kitchen door at the side of the wood-paneled house. We were six, two Brits, the rest Yanks of one kind or another, in a spread of ages from teens to sixties. We were surprised to be greeted in the windowed kitchen by the master novelist himself. He looked to have only just arrived in the region: his face looked newly boiled. Its florid redness overwhelmed the pink of his tailored Oxford buttondown.

“Ah,” he said, in mock-overwhelmment, “Welcome, welcome, please come in. Our hosts have assigned me the task of greeting you, and I must provide you each with a glass of champagne on entry.” The kitchen was well provisioned with cases of somewhat chilled champagne. He handed, he poured, and at the second or third glass came up empty. “Oh dear, half a glass and an empty bottle, it will not do. It’s like arriving at an orgy without an erection. Wait a moment and I’ll open a fresh one for you.”

I am instantly reminded, now, of Ted Mundy, the lead character of one of his best late-period novels despite the blown ending (Absolute Friends, 2003). We first meet Mundy in his role as a tour guide, acting effusively the part of a Professional Englishman at a schloss in Germany. I think that if one had read le Carré—who hadn’t; I certainly had—he would have expected one to appreciate both the kitchen-serf performance and what could be seen of the quizzical impersonator behind it.

His virtuoso welcome expanded its range after he asked my English friend Aaron Cass about his interests. Aaron said something about Sufism, or Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi, or perhaps only mentioned the Symposium on the subject at which we had both made presentations in Berkeley a couple of days before.

“Ah,” le Carré said, turning very slightly Aaronward to suggest a furl of almost-privacy and fellow-feeling, “I’m quite interested in Islam as well, which is not at all what people today tend to think it is . . . “ And somehow, without removing himself from the social collectivity or still less cornering Aaron, his voice reduced itself to sub-audibility to anyone else in the room.

There was no one whose essential self, it seemed to me, that his cadences could not authentically or otherwise include in his mist of generous acceptance. In his writing he had accurately articulated his personal and inherited contrarieties; if I’d been a touch more sophisticated I might not have been quite so overset by the fluency of his presentation. He seemed at least as kind in person as he was unsparing in print. Even in his bleakest passages as a writer his strength of compassion had never been in doubt.

He released us after a time, indicating our way toward the party while finicking a tea-towel onto the neck of a new bottle for a couple of couples coming up the path.

The other broadly recognizable person among the hundred or so at the party was Ted Levine, who had played the serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs; which set off in contrast the charming disarmament with which the most famous person in-house had eliminated all possible awkwardnesses by performing so elaborately the status of a servant. It was as admirable and original as his writing, and conceivably as true. It was the most graceful fog of self-obfuscation that had ever enveloped me.

Back, or rather forward, at the Single & Single conversation, I was telling him that I had expected to have to teach in the coming year, but my book, the one I’d just given him and which he still held within view, had won a prize and I was about to get well-paid for the one I was working on now.

“Oh,” he said, “the same thing happened to me when my third one was published.”

I laughed aloud. “That was on an entirely larger scale,” I said. He was talking about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I told him that for the teaching I had expected to do, I had selected three first pages as models for how to begin a novel. “One of them a book you probably don’t know by Robert Stone, then the first page of Under the Volcano—”

Here le Carré performed a fluttery gesture, with an intake of breath, that seemed to indicate a kind of writing so exalted that folks like us should not speak loosely of it.

“The third was the first page of Smiley’s People. The street, the woman, pure bare description, and somehow we’re pulled wholly into it.”

“Ah, I stole that from Balzac.” He mentioned one of Balzac’s many novels. “The room, the bed, the table, the window, and you have the old man completely before we even see him.”

We talked a bit more shop, then parted at what felt like the appropriate moment.

It was a lively party, in large, high-roofed rooms paneled in dark wood. I drank, I noshed, circulated, was introduced, talked and was talked to, checked back with my friends, and at some point I wanted a moment of quiet aloneness. There was an empty armchair in a subsidiary room and I sat down in it, looking contemplatively down at the floor in front of me, feeling fine.

Mr. Le Carré passed by, did a slight double-take, half-broke his stride, and decided that I needed looking after. He sat in a facing wooden chair and we began to converse. Since I’d mentioned that, like him, I’d been to late-Soviet Georgia, the chat gravitated to Soviet anecdotes. I uncorked one about a hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) where I’d stayed with a touring rock band and its subsidiary troops, and that the twelve of us discovered at breakfast after our first night there that each of us had been subjected to at least one extra-vivid nightmare. On subsequent nights the total would come up nine, eight, five, and finally nearly zero. Before Frunze we had stayed at Intourist hotels, but this was a Party hotel for dignitaries and apparatchiks, and we decided that the place was haunted by bad people, bad actions, and tortured ghosts.

“I stayed there too,” le Carré told me. “Did you go to the mineral baths in the basement? No? I was taken down by my hosts, and it turned out there was a store of costumes in a closet, bear and lion costumes for the apparatchiks and bird costumes for the giggling prostititutes they would pursue, drunk and roaring, until they trapped them in one suitable niche or another. And my host asked me, ‘Should we get some women?’ What could I say? ‘Yes, by all means let’s get some women.’ Happily, they were unable to find any at the time. They were terribly apologetic about it, but I felt rather relieved, though it wouldn’t have done to let on.”

We laughed chattily together, while I sat privately amazed that I was swapping Cold War stories with John le Carré in one of the most surreal-seeming moments of my life; a moment in which he had also been able to incorporate the opening motif of champagne bottle and orgy without an erection, with the uncanny kindness of his interest and acceptance a constant in both.

I see now that he had a superflux of sensibility and cognition that needed special theaters of self expression, in the privileged corners that life miscellaneously allows and also, which is how we know him, on the written page.

It would be an extreme understatement to say—and I have met scads of cultured Englishmen—that I had never met anyone like him, and my appreciation of the artist and the man went leaping in search of new, more expansive bounds.

—As published in The Journal of the Plague Year

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