The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré (Victor Gollanz and Pan, 1963)
“We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean…one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold…d’you see what I mean”
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the story of a complicated under cover mission perpetrated by the British Secret Service against its enemies in communist East Germany. The protagonist is Alec Leamas, a veteran spy grown weary of the interminable daily duplicity of his life as an agent, who agrees to undertake one final mission before he retires from his double life to “come in from the cold”.
It is a very exciting read, but it’s not just the daring adventuring of Alec Leamus that provides the thrills – attempting to follow and unravel the elusive and multifarious complexities of the story and of the motivations of Alec’s task masters is equally as exhilarating. The story of Alec’s mission can be confusing. Much of the information a reader requires to follow the twists of the tale is implied. The story is positioned in a hard, cold, unrelentingly grey environment; a dank, dark London and a cold East Berlin form the backdrop. There’s not much give. Nothing comes easy, there is little light or softness to ease your troubled, question filled mind along the way. However, there’s something incredibly satisfying about extracting the human motivations and truths from this stark scape. The little flares of light, the glimpses of humanity, and the moments when you understand (or at least think you understand) what is happening are flashes of sheer delight.
I reached the end of this book whilst on a long train journey. I was so stunned by the finish, I found myself sitting with my mouth agape (actually agape), desperately looking round for someone to talk to about it. It’s an enthralling, edge of your seat narrative cleverly populated with intriguing, sad characters. I loved it and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1954)
“What wouldn’t he give for a fierce purging draught of fury or contempt, a really efficient worming from the sense of responsibility.”
Lucky Jim centres around the misanthropic protagonist Jim Dixon, a lecturer in medieval history at an unnamed university in the UK. Trapped by his own apathy and consumed by enraged perceptions of all that surrounds him, Jim consoles himself with the thought that “…the one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding new ways in which one could think they were bad.’”
I appreciate that the next bit of this sentence won’t be news to anyone but, on the off chance you haven’t read it, this book is very, very, very funny. Though Jim is a contemptible character, his elaborate attempts to dig himself out of trouble, to hold on to his cushy academic perch at the university and to win the girl of his fancy are A HOOT.
Even funnier than the comic series of misunderstandings, mismatches and manipulations, or the gallery of cranks, frauds, and neurotics (Jim included) who pepper the story, is Jim’s withering inner monologue (and indeed the external projection of the same merciless mutterings in his mimicry and face pulling antics). It’s a hoot I tell you, a hoot.
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (first published in Great Britain by Collins, 1988).
“I met her in Muir and Merrilees, at the handkerchief counter. Yes, she is in charge of the gentleman’s handkerchiefs. I told you that she could manage a responsible position.”
The Beginning of Spring tells the tale of Frank Reid, an English printer living in Moscow. In March 1913, Frank’s wife Nellie ups and leaves him and their three children for her native England without a word of explanation.
In spite of being set against the fascinating backdrop of politically turbulent, frozen Russia, the private story and the private worlds of Frank and the characters by whom he is surrounded as they adjust to life without Nellie form the real story.
Character, humour and quite an astonishing level of detail are conveyed in such a compact, exact manner, you almost don’t notice they’re there. Until you do, and then you are left somewhat awestruck at how it was done. It’s a bit like going to dinner with a truly gracious and sensitive host, you don’t notice that you are being fussed over, but you never have to look around for the gravy.
This is a gentle, funny, low-key story which made me not only care for and want to know even more about the characters, but also about the author who managed to create them so beautifully.