Monday, 28 December 2015


Reading About Writers

I have just finished reading a book about books. One of my pleasures in life is to close a book and then shelve it. See those excellent spines and the bound worlds jogged flush and glued to them! To finish reading a book never fails to pose a happy dilemma. What next to extract from the stacks on the night table?

A happy Christmas inflates the piles of prose in our bedroom. This year’s was no different. Our good friends Alex and her husband Netflix Derek dropped off a gift bag on the evening of the 24th while Ann and I were out. Their present to me was a 1966 first edition of The Life of Ian Fleming by John Pearson. (They gave Ann Word Freak, a book about competitive Scrabble and I foolishly gave her the latest edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary; 2016 tilts at the dining room table do not bode well for me.) Stats Guy came for turkey; he gave me a cold and Adam Sisman’s recent biography of John le Carre.

Prose portraits of two of my favourite writers are now in the house; and me between books. I would rather read a novelist than read about a novelist, just as I would prefer to listen to the Rolling Stones or view a Lawren Harris painting as opposed to reading about them. All artists cease producing eventually and I find it impossible to let go of those whom I’ve long admired and appreciated despite their intermittent output or sheer inactivity. A well-researched objective biography (and its sister subjective memoir) allows the hobby scholar a welcomed peek behind the creative curtain; I dine heartily on the zest of peeled layers.

Fleming and le Carre were not contemporaries. The James Bond creator died young, aged 56 in 1964. Call for the Dead, le Carre’s first novel, was published in 1961. Perhaps I will soon learn that they did indeed cross paths for a moment or an hour in time. Each filed a version of the spy novel into his particular dossier: Fleming added violence and sex to adventure stories, a genre a modern publisher might describe as young adult before James Bond infiltrated it; le Carre then transformed those stories into complex, sober and disconcerting literature through a looking glass. Both authors are indebted to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.

All four of these thriller writers led more intriguing lives than the vast majority of their readers. All served Britain in a military or intelligence capacity at some instance during the Phony War, the Second World War and the Cold War, and thus their fictions are necessarily informed even if they all signed government gag orders. Greene is the subject of an exhaustive multi-volume biography by Norman Sherry despite Greene’s own five attempts to make sense of portions of ‘a sort of life’ and his ‘ways of escape.’ Ambler’s last book Here Lies Eric Ambler is as clever as the double-entendre of his title; his wry reminiscences of a brief stint writing advertising copy particularly resonated with me.

And what of Ian Fleming had he lived long enough to write about his life? One hundred pages into Pearson’s biography young Ian is already altering his personal history and literally forging a new identity for himself, assembling his 'legend' as they say in intelligence circles. John le Carre is the last of these men alive – and the only one who hides behind a pen name. His memoir, excluding what he chooses not to reveal about his duties with MI5 and MI6, is scheduled for publication in 2016.

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