Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
The Other Side of Silence
Bernie Gunther Thriller 11
Philip Kerr (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £9.49)
Philip Kerr has produced yet another outstanding Bernie Gunther story. It is 1956 and Gunther is working as concierge in the Grand Hotel, St Jean Cap Ferrat. Somerset Maugham resides at the hedonistic Villa Mauresque. Burgess and Maclean have defected to Russia. Maugham is compromised by a photograph taken some years earlier, showing him in the company of a naked Burgess and Anthony Blunt, and finds himself the subject of a blackmail plot. Maugham engages Gunther to act as liaison. Within this story, as always, Kerr weaves another, related to the end of the war in the now Kaliningrad and the disappearance of the Amber Room, stripped by the Nazis from the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg, then described as the eighth wonder of the world. Old enmities resurface while deep, heartrending wounds are reopened.
Kerr reveals much about Gunther: unhappy, reflective, loyal and, in the Kaliningrad episode, a man in love in an oasis of happiness, amidst an ocean of utter terror and disintegration. The final episode is reminiscent of le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The narrative is electric, reflecting Cold War tensions. The atmosphere of lives lived to the full in the heady mid-1950s Riviera provides a perceptive backdrop for the acutely observed theatre of Cold War espionage. For Maugham and Gunther, the stakes are ineffably raised, entwining the Cambridge Five. Compelling.
John le Carré: The Biography
Adam Sisman (Bloomsbury: £25; e-book £11.88)
A devilish tricky thing, biography. Slippery too, at the best of times. So when you tackle the creator of bestselling novels for half a century whose own life story could have come from his own pen (and in parts did from time to time), this job must have been on a par with making a hook for Leviathan.
David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, has lived, even disregarding his critical and material success, a life to leave most breathless. The son of Ronnie, a father who makes Arthur Daley look like Mother Theresa, Cornwell's childhood was spent constantly on the move, from house to house (never really a proper home, since his mother walked out when he was aged five) and from school to school. The changes were brought about primarily because of his father's attempts to stay one jump ahead of his persecutors and prosecutors. These attempts were by no means always successful. Cornwell père was made bankrupt on several occasions, spent more than one spell at His Majesty's pleasure, and had to be bailed out by his son from time to time. In later life David encountered Reg, one of Ronnie's associates, who remembered Ronnie fondly despite having taken the rap for him. “We was all bent, son,” Reg recalled fondly, before adding: “but your dad was very, very bent.”
Cornwell emerged from this with a First from Oxford, fluent German after a year in Switzerland, and a spell as a real life spy under his belt. He developed the role of an outsider, a distaste for authority and an early world weariness. He also seemed to have a knack of writing about events which were just about to break. His early Cold War books foresaw some of the changes; his novels set in the Middle East and Africa seemed eerily real, helped no doubt by his extensive travel and meticulous research. In later life his feuds with critics and fellow authors such as Salman Rushdie, and his regular falling out with agents and publishers, earned him the title from some of Angry Old Man. In all, a jampacked 84 years.
This book was some four years in the making. Biographies with excessive detail can be dreadfully dull, pure facts being trowelled on in place of good writing. Sisman's book has no fewer than 1,030 notes. How can such a mass of detail be appraised? The simple answer is, with very high marks indeed. While professing himself to be a le Carré fan (as am I), Mr Sisman carefully looks behind the “truth” as he is offered it, gently teasing out fact from remembered fact from fiction, and probing into corners which the subject may have wished left alone. While Cornwell complained at one stage that this biography was going to end up as a “warts only”, as opposed to a “warts and all” book, it seems to be a very balanced and hugely readable account of the fascinating life of one of our most distinguished and successful living novelists.
A Small Town in Germany
John le Carré (Penguin Classics: £8.99)
While first published in 1968, this book could easily reflect the current tensions within the EU. The action centres around the UK embassy in Bonn, the small town of the title, which until Berlin was renewed as the capital of the reunited Germany, was the post-war capital of the then West Germany. Its outer reaches, Bad Godesberg, were the diplomatic quarter. The UK is seeking to join the then EEC with opposition from France; Germany is caught between the two states, seeking to assert its own self interest. Germany faces the internal threat posed by Karfeld, who is leading a movement calling on Germans to acknowledge their past, his own being the relevatory denouement of the novel. Violent demonstrations occur and more are feared, the focus being UK interests. There is austerity, and if only the public were aware of the ineptitude of the FCO. Harting disappears with the Crown Jewels of secrets from the embassy, and Alan Turner is sent in to trace him. Slowly the story develops, and the truth of both Harting and the relationships within the embassy staff amongst themselves and with "the thief" are enticingly revealed. Classic le Carré.