le Carre, John
World War Two
Our interview with Jack Cobbs. Jack is one of the leading
experts on John Le Carre with many articles behind him and
his latest book--Understanding John Le Carre. He is currently
working on...oh, we'll let Jack tell you himself......
About his book (Jack Cobbs' Understanding John Le Carre)
...Nothing mysterious here. It is a "critical biography"
and overall introduction to JLC (John Le Carre) as an author and to his place in both
English literature and the genre of espionage fiction in particular. I
suppose if there is an "agenda" to the book it is that JLC is more than
simply a writer of "entertainments" (a word that I--and he--borrowed from
Graham Greene), but a very serious artist who is dealing with a very
serious subject--the Cold War. There is a peculiar tendency among
intellectuals to dismiss the Cold War as a subject for artistic treatment.
We are happy to read massive thousand-page tomes of political theory and
sociological/political commentary about the conflict, but the idea of
making the this dominant conflict of our post-WWII world the subject of
literature is disturbing to us. The Cold War in fact was (I wish I could
underline in email) our times, and it determined our national and
individual characters in ways more profound than we will ever know.
Further, I suppose, some of my impulse in writing the book came from my
deep-seated hatred and rejection of communism.
I am convinced that the two
great evils of the twentieth century have been fascism (particularly as
practiced by the Germans) and communism None of us have any difficulty
recognizing the vicious evil of the Nazis--it is almost a cliché in spy
novels--but there is a strange softness on communism, despite the ghastly
record of communist governments in Europe and Asia. The communists brutally
slaughtered tens of millions of human beings in this century, and
identification with any communist government is a tacit acceptance of that
slaughter and violation of human rights. I am somewhat bemused that a
number of the middle-aged college professors writing studies of literature
today were waving Mao's "little red book" in the 60's. If any of them had
been Nazi supporters they would be run out of the academic world and decent
society--and justly so--but they seem to have a hard time realizing that
the willingness of communists of any kind to tolerate violations of human
rights should be intolerable to responsible people.
JLC does realize what a brutal gang of thugs the communists are (or were),
and although he hardly glosses over the incompetence and venality of the
democracies, at the heart of his novels I believe is considerable
recognition that with all its hypocrisy the Cold War was ultimately a moral
conflict between--I hesitate to put it in such simplistic terms--the forces
of good and the forces of evil. Viewed this way, JLC is right in the line
of moral English literature dating back to "The Faerie Queen," and before.
For all his complexity and subtlety of character, George Smiley is a
hero--the most brilliantly and believably drawn in the entire history of
I love le Carre. The "great" books? 1. "Tinker, Tailor," 2, "A
Perfect Spy," 3. "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," 4, "Smiley's People,"
5. "The Little Drummer Girl" (I must confess my possible bias on "A Perfect
Spy," because besides being a brilliant novel it is such a wonderful key to
le Carre's life. "Spy. . . Cold" may be a better, more tightly-written
What interests him for me as a reader? How he manages to keep his
integrity as a student of human character in a field that has been
repeatedly corrupted by sensationalists. Actually, I'm afraid that even JLC
is subject to temptation, as my discussion of "The Night Manager"
indicates. The urge to simply lop off a hunk of cops-and-robbers
thrill-a-minute action with the old John Grisham bologna slicer must be
very great, and I am always fascinated at how he manages to sketch his
situation in depth with fleshed-out characters and a real literary artist's
sense of ambience.
I never thought about how he affects me as a writer. I suppose I can
identify with his struggle as a young man to draw a line between his
writing and the compromise of quotidian life. Having worked in advertising
and done a good deal of writing for Reader's Digest General Books as well
as cheese-and-cracker commerciald, I know what it is to try and keep that
kind of facile glibness out of writing that you are trying to make
something better. The miracle to me of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"
is that it seems to have sprung Medusa-like from JLC's head with little
evidence of the process of learning to write that must have gone into it
(Yes, yes. Of course I'm aware of "A Murder of Quality" and "Call for the
Dead.") Still, this writer came to the attention of the world pretty much
fully formed. Another thing that fascinates me as a writer is "The Naive &
Sentimental Lover," a book which I am convinced owes more to James Joyce
another thing. Le Carre, like most of the great masters of British
fiction, is acutely aware of class and its importance in forming human
character and behavior. Most American writers don't understand class and
are embarrassed by it, and so either don't deal with it, or deal with it in
simplistic good-buy/bad guy terms--usually with the upper class characters
being the bad guys. Le Carre, like Trollope, Dickens, and Jane Austen, has
an enormously sensitive feel for the depth of class distinction and its
power to form character and behavior. Smiley is a gentleman; Jerry
Westerby is not. That doesn't mean that either of them is good or bad, but
it is extremely important.
I published a critical biography on Owen Wister more than a decade ago
(Wister was the Philadelphia lawyer who wrote "The Virginian" in 1904 and
virtually created the genre of the Western in American literature, and
ultimately film). In terms of academic work, I've published a fair number
of articles in "reputable" academic journals of topics ranging from
"'Alien' as an Abortion Parable" to a discussion of William Styron's
obsession with pain (a theory that Styron personally told me was "absurd"
shortly before he had his first bout of massive clinical depression which
led to "Darkness Visible."
At the moment I'm working on a book on "American Alcoholic Writers." My
basic thesis is that most (again, I wish I could underline in email) major
American writers in the first half of the twentieth century were or became
industrial-strength alcoholics. I remember asking a man at Chapel Hill who
was working on a "definitive" biography of Faulkner if he had read anything
about alcoholism to write his book, and he said, "I don't need to study
alcoholism to appreciate Faulkner's art." Maybe not, but it helps. As a
recovering alcoholic, I think I have a leg up on the topic, and I am
astonished at the number of supposed "experts" in modern American
literature who have made no effort to learn anything about the subject. I
cannot, for example, imagine writing about the fiction of Raymond Carver
without at least going to a couple of AA meetings to find out what they're
like. I am especially interested in two questions:
a) Why is there such a
dramatic shift in the 1890's in terms of the prevalence of alcoholism among
writers; through most of the 19th century there is relatively little of
it, even among writers who you might expect psychologically to be
alcoholics, like Melville or Thoreau? From Henry James to Jack London is a
pretty dramatic shift.
b) What kind of literature is the alcoholic
psychology likely to produce? I have some ideas about both these
questions, and I've already compiled a mass of relevant material, but I
would be delighted to correspond with anyone interested in the topic, and I
am looking for new sources of information. My working title is "No Second
Acts," from Scott Fitzgerald's famous line, "There are no second acts in
7. Who am I thinking of? Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, Crane, London,
Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, John O'Hara, John Cheever, Eugene
O'Neill, Hart Crane, ad infinitum. Why? Because they were drunks. I
Check out Jack Cobbs' book:
Understanding John Le Carre!
(Understanding Contemporary British Literature)
By Jack Cobbs
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