When le Carré met Sebald – in The Spy Who Loved the Books of John le Carré

A posthumous and unpublished book by John le Carré, not a bottom of the drawer (we were promised), a real novel completed and conceived like this: what fun! It is not important, then, the detailed history of its publication, the fact for example that the author finished writing it in 2014, apparently, before the publication of the testamentary and impressive. Legacy of Spies… The book is there, available under the French title of The spy who loves bookstranslated by the faithful Isabelle Perrin who succeeded her mother alone.


In this regard, it is necessary to insist on the trembling joy that we experienced for many years to find their two names, each time, on the cover of the novel that appeared: “translation from English by Isabelle and Mimi Perrin”, which Mimi is a rather romantic character, a famous jazz singer before becoming, among other things, the French voice of Le Carré…

In other words, we start reading The spy who loves books (isn’t it something like an epitaph, this very free adaptation of the original title, Silverview ?), telling ourselves that we have to savor this moment, afraid that both (let’s face it) fail, especially after the terrible Return of service published two years ago… And now a surprise awaits us, starting on page 21: John le Carré meets WG Sebald! It seems unlikely, but it has to happen: the master of the spy novel, always fascinated by Germany, a great but very ironic European spirit, says his admiration for the Bavarian exiled since the 60s in the east of England, very extensive author of a work brutally interrupted, died in a car accident in 2001. Of course, this feels like a tribute, especially since Sebald’s book is cited in The spy who loves books is one of the most beautiful and perhaps the most melancholy, The Rings of Saturnwhere the narrator makes us walk the lanes of Suffolk and meet Kafka or Thomas Browne on a stroll, a properly dizzying meditation.

How did John le Carré get to Sebald? By melancholy, certainly, which particularly bathes the last books of the novelist, and gives him a special light of twilight… The plot is set up, therefore, by the relationship bound between a young man, Julian Lawdnsley, a financially exhausted former merchant who has become a bookseller in “a little seaside resort lost on the Suffolk coast”, and his first client, one Edward Avon, a intriguing character, who claims to have known his father in the past and has all the trappings, including knowledge of Slavic languages, of a returning agent… In truth, Julian’s literary knowledge is not very extensive, that’s why he trusted his eldest who suggested that he build a kind of “Republic of Literature” in the basement of his bookstore dedicated to the most important works of world history n g letters, and thus introduced him to Sebald as a possible guide in this work. if:

“I have to warn you from the beginning The Rings of Saturn is not a tourist guide in the sense that you and I would understand it. But I’m too pompous (…) The Rings of Saturn is a literary tour de force, a spiritual journey that begins on the steps of Suffolk and embraces all the cultural heritage of Europe until its destruction. Sebald, WG, he explains, this time using English pronunciation to allow Julian to notice. Former professor of European literature in our University of East Anglia, depressed like the best of us and now sadly dead. May he rest in peace. »

To be honest, we are not sure of the exact meaning of this project of the “Republic of Literature” in the general economy of the novel, especially since the character of Edward Avon is throughout the book as if shrouded in a haze of mystery, which is not actually disappears from the plot and wraps around his wife, the wealthy owner of the Silverview estate, himself a former senior MI6 officer, who is dying of a cancer… In his last words in the novel, the John le Carré’s youngest son, Nick Cornwell, rightly suggests that this aspect of the book may explain his father’s resistance to the idea of ​​publishing it immediately, the writer’s own wife, at the time of writing, fighting the cancer that will kill him. It also seems that some situations in the book may correspond to the operations of the British intelligence services, which the writer, out of honesty, never wanted to describe in real detail. But what does it really matter?

Few things happen directly The spy who loves books : we have appointments and doubts, we talk a lot, we exchange documents and envelopes, we move without deciding towards something that could very simply look like death… Or maybe it is already there, this death , and it is behind this glass (or paper) wall that we observe the world moving without reality. The posthumous character of the novel in any case reminds us, almost daydreaming, of the status of fiction in John Le Carré: aren’t his books, almost always, found on a kind of sideline of the world, even beyond, or rather, the dark backstage, the carbon paper whose delicate deciphering makes it possible to better understand the meaning, or rather that this meaning is meaningless? Even the characters dearest to the novelist, more meditators than actors, emerge in a kind of Platonic cave, a whispering theory, which reveals itself by lining it with the moiré of the fabric of the world, however eaten by a moth… It’s there like vertigo, and we also know how important the theme of vertigo is to Sebald.

The spy who loves books is in this register, based on the uncertainty in which we remain about the true nature of beings.

A passing of Rings of Saturn thus we can return to the memory, when the narrator is watching the ocean, one night in Southwold: “Suddenly I had the impression that I felt very clearly the slow sinking of the world turned upside down in the darkness. In America, Thomas Browne tells us in his treatise on the burial of urns, the hunters rose at the hour when the Persians sank into the deepest sleep. The shadow of the night moves like a towed train over the earth, and like almost everything, after sunset, reaches circle after circle – so he goes on – one can, always following the sinking day, we continue to see the globe we live in full of prostrate bodies , as if cut and harvested by Saturn’s scythe – an endlessly long grave for mankind afflicted with great evil. »

Without straining the line too much, we can say that this wonderful Brownian reflection reflects the concerns of John le Carré, who always thinks about the joint twilight of a world and people who believe, with a lack of significance or failure (they are often English… ), orienting its course. This is true of the great novels of the Cold War era (The Mole, The Smiley People, A Small Town in Germany…), and still so in the last stage of the writer, with a kind of intelligence… square (dare the formula) when it is a question of continuing to play spies in a universe of simulacra, nostalgic for the great opposition in the past. . The spy who loves books is in this register, comparable to an exercise in ironic style, but more: beyond its framework, as always based on the uncertainty in which we remain about the true nature of beings (is he good? is he bad him? is he an enemy or our agent? etc.), the book derives its unique strength from his immediate proximity to death, for which it offers something like an apprenticeship, under Sebald’s note therefore, that the hero Julian reads a few pages every day.

In this journey, and as often in Le Carré, something passes from the difficult father/son relationship, and from the question of an initiation where books are helpful but perhaps not quite enough… Julian and the old Edward find themselves thus, at the end of the book and at the end of the world, at a point that is also like the last cape of Great Britain: “At last it is over The rings of Saturn, he knows what to expect in the lost solitude of this end of the world, which even the fishermen have found unsustainable. They passed through a pedestrian walkway, littered with trash, climbed a rickety wooden staircase, and made their way through the mud, through all the boat’s gear to emerge at a quay littered with trash. ” Describing the place as ” a hellish place “, the novelist then enjoys talking to his characters about the funny noises they hear there, on this dock at the end of nowhere… ” The grapeshot of glorious history of Great Britain”, suggested one. “The grapeshot of our glorious future…”, added another, to which we thought we could hear the amused laughter.

This is pure John le Carré, disillusioned and prophetic, no doubt, about the fate of his country, and a demonic skill in the art of mixing without seriousness the individual paths and collective destinies, in the darkness that does not prevent pleasure. As for the future… there is no real answer to the questions it poses, and even if we believe that the plot is closed, the enigma is solved, the mystery continues to reflect on us in its own way, like a doubt at the end, the ends of everything: there you are, simply, the most metaphysical of spy writers, and perhaps the most entertaining of metaphysical novelists. Ironic master of aporia, it is not surprising to see him then finish all his work, in a certain way, through the pirouette of this very small last sentence: “And this is the secret that I will not reveal to you no “. Better than the “spy who loves books”, we can read there the most perfect epitaphs.

John le Carre, The spy who loves booksThreshold, 2022, 240 pages.

Fabrice Gabriel

Writer, Literary Critic



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