Friday, 30 September 2011

Westlake Score: The Jugger (Parker #6) by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake); Allison & Busby Hardback, 1986

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

This latest Westlake Score – which, for those who've evidently been dozing or "goofing off" at the back of the class, are posts in which I detail newly acquired editions of various of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's novels – may not look like much to you, chief, but to me it represents another step on the path towards owning every one of Richard Stark's Parker novels in hardback.

Published in 1986, this is the Allison & Busby hardback edition of The Jugger – the sixth Parker novel, originally published in the US in 1965. To recap: in the 1980s, British publisher Allison & Busby reissued almost all of the initial thirteen Parker novels – from Point Blank (a.k.a. The Hunter) to Slayground – in hardback, the first time that many of those novels had been made available in that format. (A&B also published Deadly EdgeParker #13 – in 1990, but only as a paperback.) For book collectors, then, the Allison & Busby editions afford almost the only opportunity to own those twelve Parkers as hardcovers. Almost... but not quite. I'll return to that in a moment.

Of course, this is something that only really matters to book collectors – for whom hardbacks are always preferable to paperbacks – but matter it does (to us), and consequently a good number of the A&B hardcovers have become quite scarce and rather valuable. For instance, I had to order this copy of The Jugger from New Zealand – from the lovely folks at Codexco, Christchurch, an undertaking which gained an additional wrinkle with the recent earthquake there – while AbeBooks currently lists just two other copies of this edition, the cheapest of those being fifty quid. Mind you, the A&B editions are an imperfect solution to a collecting conundrum: about half of the Parkers they reissued were printed on inferior paper stock, which has since browned, and all of them are littered with typos. (Allison & Busby were once described to me by a secondhand bookseller as "a cowboy outfit".) The dustjacket designs are an acquired taste, too; most were designed by Mick Keates, and while I do like the first wave of jackets he created, with their bold typography, the second wave – which included The Jugger – I'm less keen on.

Even so, the Allison & Busby Parkers are much in-demand by collectors, and always command good prices when they (infrequently) appear on eBay. However, at least as regards a scant few of those thirteen Parker novels, there is another option for collectors. Because some of those Parkers were published as hardbacks a good decade or so prior to the Allison & Busby editions. They're incredibly scarce, and little-seen... but in my next Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui cross-post, I'll be showcasing all three of them.

Meanwhile, on the non-Westlake/Stark front, next week I'll hopefully have a couple of reviews for you, both of them novels set – although published sometime after, in 1978 and 1979 – around World War II. One of those books is by Len Deighton, and the other sees the return to Existential Ennui of our good friend, Ross Thomas...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: a First Edition of Piers Morgan's The Insider (Ebury Press, 2005), a Review Thereof, and an Alan Clark Connection

This final post in a series on politically-themed diaries – a series that, judging by the paltry number of hits thus far registered on each of the two previous posts, has been as indifferently received as the political party conference season which inspired it – concerns a volume which has more to do with tabloid journalism than with the inner workings of state or government. But newspapers and politics are inextricably intertwined, and the author of these diaries enjoyed almost unparalleled access to the men and women at the top of Britain's governmental tree, among them the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Plus, the ostensible subject of the last two posts, Tory politician Alan Clark, crops up in the diaries too...

Piers Morgan's The Insider was first published in hardback in the UK in 2005 by Ebury Press, under a dustjacket designed by Two Associates, featuring photographs of Morgan with the great, the good, the not-so-good, and, er, the Queen. I bought this copy just the other day in a Lewes charity shop, but I read it a few years ago in paperback, and it is, you'll doubtless be surprised to learn, a thoroughly revealing account of what it's like to be a tabloid newspaper editor in Britain.

These days Morgan is best known – especially to Americans – as a judge on America's Got Talent and the host of Piers Morgan Tonight, but from 1994 to 2004 he was editor of the (now defunct) News of the World and then the Daily Mirror. The Insider comprises his diaries from this period, and it's an extraordinary account. Morgan isn't the most stylish of writers, and his tendency to name drop can become wearisome, but as an insight into what a tabloid editor does, The Insider takes some beating. Morgan reports the countless conversations he had with Tony Blair (and Cherie Blair) and many other senior political figures, all of whom courted him and solicited his opinion on a variety of matters. New Labour's (understandable) obsession with the press permeates the book, while Blair alone warrants a column-and-a-half's worth of entries in the index.

It's all fascinating stuff, and even the celebrity side of Morgan's job has taken on an extra significance in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. I must admit I haven't read Morgan's follow-up, Don't You Know Who I Am?, as his post-newspaper career is of rather less interest to me, but The Insider is a cracking read and no mistake.

I mentioned in the previous post that I'd be returning to "the Coven", the mother and her two daughters Alan Clark had an affair with, because that particular extramarital dalliance also crops up in The Insider. The News of the World had been trying to establish the identities of the Coven ever since Clark's first volume of Diaries had been published in 1993, and on Sunday 29 May, 1994, under Morgan's editorship, the newspaper finally exposed them, naming judge's wife Valerie Harkness and her two daughters. Far from becoming enemies, however, Morgan and Clark subsequently became fairly friendly. Later that same year the two met at the Conservative Party Conference (which rolls around again next week, bringing us full circle) and retired to the bar, where Clark demanded tens of thousands of pounds for the "distress" the NOTW's story had caused him and his wife.

"Look, Alan," replied Morgan, "that's a bit on the pricey side to be honest. I've got a better idea. You give me fifty thousand and we won't disclose the other nine women who've come forward to say they had affairs with you."

Clark snorted, then leaned closer: "Nine women . . . God – what were their names?"

And on that disgraceful note, it's time to move on from the political diaries (cue ecstatic cheering...), and return to the crime fiction, with a Westlake Score...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A Review of a First Edition of Alan Clark's Diaries: In Power 1983–1991 and Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993)

Continuing this short run of posts tying in with Britain's party political conference season, we move on from the second volume – or, chronologically speaking, first – of Alan Clark's Diaries, to the first volume – or rather, second:

Alan Clark's Diaries were first published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1993. I can't actually recall where I bought this first edition/first impression, but the UK hardback went through umpteen printings, so while first editions litter the likes of AbeBooks and charity and secondhand bookshops up and down the land, first impressions aren't so common. This volume, which covers the years 1983–1991, has picked up a subtitle since its original publication, and is now known as Diaries: In Power. It caused quite the sensation when it first appeared, for all manner of reasons, but primarily for the light it shed on the Arms to Iraq/Matrix Churchill affair – with which Clark, as Minister of State for Trade in the Conservative Government, was intimately involved – and for the infamous affair Clark was embroiled in with a mother and both of her daughters (together nicknamed "the Coven").

I'll be returning to that disgraceful multiple dalliance in the third and final political diaries post, but it's worth reiterating here how exceptional Clark's Diaries in general – and this volume in particular – are, almost in direct proportion to how objectionable he himself was. His political views are pretty much the polar opposite of mine, and certainly to the right of even the most foaming of true-blue Tories, while he was an absolute shit to his wife and the most horrendous snob. But his near-fascistic leanings, his fawning appreciation of Margaret Thatcher (whom he called "the Lady"), his rampant libido and his attempts to cast himself as a Lord in all but name – forever bemoaning the state of Saltwood (his inherited Kent castle home) and his need to sell off its treasures in order to fund his mania for classic cars and his high stakes gambling – are what make this initial offering of his Diaries so compulsively readable – that and the fact they're beautifully written.

Of course, like many diarists, Alan Clark didn't write his Diaries in a vacuum. Committed diarists are usually well aware of their journal-writing forebears, and one diarist in particular exerted a profound influence on Clark:

Chips: The Diaries of Henry Channon was first published in hardback in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1967; the edition seen here is a more recent paperback edition from 1993, re-edited and with a new introduction by Robert Rhodes James, and presumably issued to tie in with the publication of Clark's Diaries. Like Clark, Channon was a relatively minor political figure in the period his diaries cover – 1934–1958 – but, also like Clark's, Channon's diaries afford an outsider's clear-eyed viewpoint on momentous events, including the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII and the fall of the Chamberlain Government in 1939–40.

Channon was as much of a snob as Clark, and equally as distasteful in his own way, but his diaries are elegantly written and endlessly fascinating. Clark frequently mentions Chips in his own Diaries; according to Alan Clark's editor, Ion Trewin, Clark kept Channon's diaries close to hand, and "rarely failed to dip [into them] with his early morning tea". Unlike Clark's Diaries, however, Channon's have fallen out of print; the last edition was a 1996 paperback, and AbeBooks currently lists just thirteen copies of Chips in any edition, the cheapest being about forty quid. (I bought my copy in Brighton Books years ago, for much less than that.)

No such problem with the final volume of diaries I'll be looking at, however: those are in cheap and plentiful supply, in first or any edition, a consequence, perhaps, of the low esteem in which their author is held these days...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Review of a First Edition of Alan Clark's Diaries: Into Politics 1972–1982 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000)

We're in the midst of the political party conference season here in the UK; this week it's the turn of the Labour Party, who have descended en masse on Liverpool to debate how they can make Ed Miliband seem dynamic and purposeful – or at the very least mildly interesting – while last week the Lib Dems invaded Birmingham and next week the Tories will take Manchester, all to the overwhelming indifference of the British populace. (All three main parties have forsaken their traditional seaside conference locales this year for some reason.) So, in a slight change of tack from Existential Ennui's regular course, I thought I'd take a look at a few politically themed books this week – a mixture of recent and older acquisitions, all of which take the form of diaries, and all of which are connected in some way to this man:

Alan Clark, for those who don't know, was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton from 1974–1992 and for Kensington and Chelsea from 1997 until his death in 1999. He held various junior governmental posts, including Minister of Trade at the DTI and Minister for Defence Procurement at the MOD, and became a privy councillor in 1991. He was a historian (and son of another famous historian, Kenneth Clark, the man behind the television series Civilisation), an author, a serial philanderer, a collector of classic cars, an inveterate snob and a frequent gambler who lived in an inherited castle in Kent (whose treasures he occasionally flogged off in order to sustain his extravagant lifestyle), skied regularly in Switzerland and held political views only marginally to the left of those espoused by Germany's National Socialists (he was an admirer of Enoch Powell, and once called himself a Nazi in a letter to The Guardian). But above all he was a committed diarist, and it's in this capacity that he's best remembered today.

Published in three volumes, Clark's Diaries are by turns revealing, insightful, hilarious, hypochondriacal, vain, narcissistic and utterly disgraceful, and rank among the best political diaries ever committed to paper, rivalled only by those of Samuel Pepys and especially Henry "Chips" Channon, on whose diaries Clark modelled his own. They are, quite simply, brilliant, characterized by an elegant and fluid style, and shedding light on the life of an MP – albeit a highly unusual and idiosyncratic one – and the inner workings of government. (John Hurt – who was so magnificent recently in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – played Clark in a 2004 BBC adaptation of the Diaries.)

The volume seen in this post was the second to be issued, but chronologically is the first in the series, covering the years 1972–1982, and was published posthumously in 2000. I picked up this hardback first edition/first impression for a couple of quid (which is about what you'd pay for it online, except without the additional postage) in a Chichester charity shop (having already read it in paperback) during my summer hols, partly because Clark's Diaries are among my favourite books ever, but also because it makes for a nice companion to one of the books I'll be blogging about in the next post, which will encompass both another volume of Clark's Diaries, and the diaries which exerted the biggest influence on Clark's...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "The Question", with Larry M. Harris; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March / July 1963)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Rounding off this intermittent series of posts on crime novelist Donald E. Westlake's early-1960s science fiction stories, I've a particularly pithy tale which Westlake was the co-writer of, rather than the sole author. And of all the SF stories I've been reviewing in this series and the previous series, I think this might just be my favourite.

"The Question" was first published in the States in the March 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, although the one you can see above is the British edition, published some months later in July. Westlake's co-author was Larry M. Harris, alias Laurence M. Janifer, a science fiction author who also penned a handful of sleaze paperbacks, which is possibly how his and Westlake's paths crossed (as in, Westlake also wrote sleaze softcovers, rather than our Donald was devouring them or anything). "The Question" was later reprinted in the 1978 Doubleday collection 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov (with Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander), so it's slightly easier to come by than some of the other Westlake SF short stories I've reviewed. It's also a decidedly short short, clocking in at just two-and-a-half pages.

Now, I've tried to keep these reviews of Westlake's science fiction largely spoiler-free, but in this instance, I'm going to go ahead and reveal the ending, because it's so intrinsic to the nature of the tale. Therefore, if you have any intention of sampling "The Question" – and if you do, you'll be better off tracking down the American edition of F&SF or the Asimov collection, for reasons I'll return to in a moment – stop reading now.

The story begins with an irritable, solipsistic sort named Rossi – "sometimes prey to the impression that the universe was aimed, like a pistol, straight at his head" – sitting alone in a room marking English term papers. The telephone rings, and a voice asks him what the weather's like outside... At least, I assume that's what is asked, because in the British F&SF in which "The Question" appears, there's be a line of text missing. The offending section runs like this: 

'Hello there,' a voice on the other end said, a bright and cheery weather it was, outside.'

The missing line falls between "cheery" and "weather", but luckily, the question is repeated shortly thereafter, so I can get the gist of it. Anyway, Rossi quickly becomes infuriated by this asinine line of enquiry. The voice, however, is insistent, and after almost slamming down the receiver, Rossi's curiosity gets the better of him, and he informs the voice that "it looks like a nice day". That's not quite enough for the voice, so Rossi explains that it's a little cloudy. "You can't see the sun, you say?" responds the voice, and after Rossi concurs, the voice thanks him. But just before the voice rings off, Rossi overhears something evidently not meant for his ears: 

Just a few words, but in those few words Rossi realized that he had been right, right all along. Everything centred around Rossi. Maybe he would never know why, or how. But the world, the entire world, was—truly and completely—aimed right at the Rossi head.

And what are those few words? 

'It's O.K., Joe,' the voice said casually. 'He can't see it. You can take it away.'

And with that, the story ends. It's a metaphysical head-scratcher, for sure: the eponymous question applies not only to the one posed by the anonymous caller but to the tale itself, which left me with more questions than answers. One thing it brought to mind for me was The Truman Show (1998), which also played with the concept of solipsism and the juxtaposition between apparent normality and a secret world behind the scenes. Certainly Westlake and Janifer adhere to the dictum of "less is more" with the story, although it could be argued a little more of the "more" might have been of benefit; Rossi and his surroundings are so lightly sketched that the eventual punchline lacks some impact. However, that's a minor quibble. "The Question" does precisely what it sets out to do, namely leave the reader utterly perplexed and pondering the meaning of that final line of dialogue.

And that's yer lot for Westlake SF – at least for the moment; there'll be an additional SF post down the line. Next on the non-SF Westlake front I'll probably have a Westlake Score, but ahead of that, with the annual political party conference season in full swing here in the UK, I'm heading slightly off piste from Existential Ennui's traditional concerns with a selection of politically-themed books, all of which, to a greater or lesser degree, have a link to a celebrated diarist, famous philanderer and notoriously right-wing Member of Parliament...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Banksy of Book Publishing: Echo and The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook (The Ilex Press, 2011)

(NB: This post also appears on the blog for The Ilex Press, the Lewes-based illustrated and pop culture publisher of which I'm managing editor. I'm cross-posting it here partly for posterity and partly because I've got nowt else to post today.)

By and large, Ilex's authors are an agreeable, accommodating bunch, always willing to speak to the press or make themselves available for oversubscribed signing sessions. But there is one Ilex author who shuns the spotlight; who exists in a shadowy world of half-truths and obfuscation, his identity shrouded in mystery. That author is "Echo", the man (or possibly woman; who can tell? I've only ever communicated with him/her via email) behind the recently published The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook.

If you're not familiar with this particular tome, it is, in essence, and as its title suggests, a sketchbook, comprising over fifty line-drawings of classic Metropolitan Line and Hammersmith & City Line – or "Big Met" and "Little Met" – train carriages, which fold out to a great big long tube train and on which aspiring graffiti artists can scrawl their tags and designs for masterpieces. There are a few sample pieces to get you started, along with a couple of characters. But there's also an essay detailing the history of British graffiti, from the mid-1980s until the present day, written by a man (or woman...) who was there: the aforementioned Echo.

Little is known about Echo, but many and legion are the tales of his graffiti career. There's the time he was chased down a train line in the dead of night by the transport police, their torches bobbing towards him as he pelted alongside the live rail, eventually tumbling down a bank and scrambling over a barbed wire fence to make his escape. There's the occasion he had to hide in a bush to elude a squad car, and the time he was stopped by a couple of coppers whilst carrying a bag full of spray-paint.

But I think my favourite Echo story dates from early in his career, and concerns a piece he and his crew spray-painted one night on a pristine whitewashed brick wall. The location was scouted out by a member of the crew, who at that time was infatuated with a then-popular pop princess. Unwisely perhaps (they were all very young), Echo and the rest of the crew agreed to do a piece dedicated to this pop waif on the wall their crewmember had found. Come nightfall, the crew gained access over a back fence from an alley backing onto a terrace of suburban homes, so Echo had no idea what the building – a 1960s brutalist Bauhaus affair – was. The piece was completed in a few hours (Echo did the character, his particular speciality), and that was that.

Cut to a few days later, and Echo decides to go and check out the piece in situ. Retracing his steps down the back alley, he's met by the glorious sight of the crew's slightly embarrassing spray-painted shrine to a pop star. But there, in front of the wall, are what looks to be hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls, engaged in lunchtime games of hopscotch and huddled in conspiratorial groups in a tarmacked playground. The wall, it turns out, was propping up the roof of a girls' comprehensive. To this day, Echo isn't sure whether that made the piece even more embarrassing or strangely apposite.

Echo is mulling over a further book detailing further episodes from his graffiti career, but in the meantime, you can read his appreciation of the UK graffiti scene in The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook, and doodle your own pieces on its pristine train-carriage pages.

Which is certainly better than writing on the wall of a girls' school...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "The Earthman's Burden", Galaxy, Vol. 21, No. 1 (October 1962)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

After a slightly-longer-than-anticipated John le Carré-shaped diversion, it's back to the short stories written by Donald E. Westlake for various science fiction magazines in the early 1960s. And whereas the previous Westlake SF short (if you can cast your mind back that far) involved teleportation, this next story centres on... telepathy...

"The Earthman's Burden" was first published in the October 1962 issue of Galaxy Magazine (cover art by the great Virgil Finlay), and unlike the last two stories I blogged about, this one has been reprinted since – in the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. I've no idea what the editorial criteria was for which stories were included in that volume; while "The Earthman's Burden" is a decent enough effort, it's not, to my mind, any better than "Look Before You Leap". It also faces stiff competition in this particular issue of Galaxy: it's preceded by strong stories by Cordwainer Smith (the classic, exemplary "The Ballad of Lost C'mell") and – a personal favourite author of mine – Ray Bradbury, whose "Come into My Cellar" is typical of his punch-to-the-gut shockers.

Inevitably, then, when stacked up against two giants in the science fiction field, Westlake's story rather suffers by comparison. Although in one respect it's quite prescient: what the tale most reminded me of was the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise", which originally aired in 1967, five years after "The Earthman's Burden". Indeed, Westlake's SF stories do seem to have more in common with the more prosaic likes of Star Trek and Lost in Space, or, more appositely I guess, The Twilight Zone, than with the more lofty themes and preoccupations of the likes of Smith and Bradbury. It's even possible to imagine a parallel universe where, after years of toiling in the sleaze paperback market and contributing scattershot short stories to magazines, Westlake went on to embark upon a career in television, rather than becoming a crime fiction author.

Certainly "The Earthman's Burden" would make for a compelling hour's worth of TV. The plot deals with an expeditionary force of warlike humans from the Empire of Earth and the Protectorate, whose mission it is to seek out, er, old life and civilizations – namely those colonized planets which have been "lost" since the collapse of the Old Empire. Chancing upon a primitive colony on a small planet, Commander-in-Chief Helmut Glorring (shades of National Socialism there) sends Captain Strull, scientist Cahann and a lobotomized marine named Elan down to the surface, where they're met by a cheery man called Harry. Turns out the natives are blissfully unaware of the Empire of Earth, due to the fact that their colony was established before the advent of the Empire. And though on first appearance the natives seem benign, it soon becomes clear they possess extraordinary powers...

Much of the fun of "The Earthman's Burden" comes from the background Westlake establishes for Glorring and his subordinates on the spaceship Lawrence. The Empire of Earth is military-dominated, a hierarchical society where battlefield prowess is prized; consequently the denizens of the Lawrence are prone to impromptu bouts of wrestling. Meanwhile the colonists go from forgotten harmless innocents to slightly more sinister agent provocateurs, concocting a strategy which could well result in the destruction of the Empire. It's not entirely clear where Westlake's sympathies lie, either: on the face of it, it's with the colonists that we're meant to empathize, but the means by which they intend to enact their plan smacks of coercion. While the aim may be noble, the method is rather less so.

"The Earthman's Burden" clocks in at close to thirty pages, and one can't but feel that a lower page count and resulting editorial trimming might have benefited the tale; Ray Bradbury's immediately preceding "Come into My Cellar" manages to be more effective in half the space. Then again, Bradbury was the master of the short story, so it's probably a little unfair to make that comparison. But the next – and final (for now) – Westlake SF short I'll be reviewing certainly doesn't outstay its welcome: it really is very short indeed. And, unusually, Westlake enlisted a co-writer for this metaphysical tale...

Ahead of that, though, I'll have a post on a newly published book on graffiti and some revelations about its mysterious author...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

And so we reach the climax of John le Carré/George Smiley Week, a week which has seen an overlong examination of two first editions of le Carré's masterwork, 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a review of its follow-up – and the second instalment in the "Karla Trilogy" – 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy; another review of the third part of the Quest for Karla, 1979's Smiley's People, and its attendant 1982 BBC TV adaptation; and a look at Smiley's final appearance, in 1991's The Secret Pilgrim, ably assisted by the erudite Roly Allen.

And we finish, slightly later than planned (I had hoped to get this post up over the weekend, but no matter), with some thoughts on Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's brand new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie, which hit British cinemas on Friday and is, lest we forget, the reason for all this le Carré blogging. And I'm delighted to report that the film is magnificent: not quite as magisterial as the original novel, but even better than the 1979 BBC adaptation, whose long shadow it manages to elude.

Where it benefits is, surprisingly, in its relative brevity. Clocking in at just two hours, it's less than half the length of the Alec Guinness-starring television version, but the compacting of events helps to clarify them, going some way towards countering the complex nature of the plot. There's still a lot to take on board: an opening mission to Hungary (Czechoslovakia in the original novel) which results in British intelligence operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) being shot; the consequent ejection from the Circus (the colloquial name for MI6) of Control (John Hurt) – whose off-the-books directive sent Prideaux to Budapest – and Control's number two, George Smiley (Gary Oldman); the ascension of Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) to head of the Circus; and the introduction of fellow Circus big beasts Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Denick) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).

And that's before we even get to Smiley being brought back out of enforced retirement to hunt down a mole at the top of the Circus, assisted by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberpatch); the introduction of "rogue" agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who has vital information about the mole; the further introduction of bit-part players Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs, the Circus' expert on Russia), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina, the object of Tarr's affections) and Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office); and the concept of "Witchcraft", the name for the source of the Circus' information on the Soviet Union, and the means by which Percy Alleline is propelled to his elevated position. That the movie Tinker Tailor retains all these characters and plot elements and is still comprehensible (if you pay attention) is no mean feat in itself, but even more remarkable is the way the film also taps into the novel's escalating tension, something which, to my mind, was largely absent from the Beeb version.

There are alterations, mainly to do with locations, although one character becomes a closet homosexual, a trait which, if it is in the novel, I must admit rather passed me by. But for the most part the film is quite faithful. Necessarily that means it's a period piece, but the story's theme of betrayal – both geopolitical and emotional – remains timeless. The early 1970s setting is both effectively recreated and lent an aesthetically pleasing art-house gloom; the Circus is realised as a cavernous warehouse dotted with curious office "pods", the most striking of which is the soundproofed main meeting room, its convex orange walls giving it the appropriate appearance of a hellish lunatic-asylum cell.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Oldman's Smiley has been getting all the attention, but for me John Hurt's irascible Control, Colin Firth's suave, agreeable Bill Haydon and especially Tom Hardy as poor, doomed Ricki Tarr are standouts. As for Oldman, I can't recall ever seeing him this still, this internalised: his Smiley betrays little emotion, aside from one raised-voice moment towards the end. It's a mannered performance, for sure: all slow reactions and creaking turns; but then so, in its own way, was Alec Guinness's (neither Oldman nor Guinness are/were "naturalistic" actors).

Probably Oldman's biggest scene as Smiley comes when he tells Peter Guillam about his encounter with his nemesis, KGB supremo Karla, in India many moons ago; here the film hews closer to the source text than the '79 TV version, which showed the meeting rather than – as happens in the movie – having Smiley recount it. But three other Smiley moments stayed with me, all of them, I believe, new inventions by Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan.

The first of those arrives early in the film, in a scene – not in the novel – showing Control's deposing during a meeting. When asked, "And what about Smiley?" Control replies, "Smiley is coming with me" – a statement which appears to be news to George: Oldman's reaction is of barely suppressed astonishment. The two traipse through the bowels of the Circus and finally stand facing each other on the pavement outside. There is no salutary handshake; wearily, Control simply turns and walks away, leaving a bemused Smiley to do the same, his life effectively over.

The second moment is a direct nod to Alec Guinness, and comes shortly after Smiley's dismissal. Up to this point, while Smiley is bespectacled, his glasses are quite ordinary: thin-rimmed, unremarkable. But his eyesight worsens in retirement, and a visit to the optician's results in a new pair of spectacles: bifocals, similar to those sported by Guinness in 1979.

As for the the third moment, that acts as a triumphal coda at the film's close. I shan't spoil it, except to say that it sets up a sequel in a way that the novel doesn't, and is underlined by a suitably jolly and debonair cover version of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" by Julio Iglesias.

There are other new additions, notably a shocking execution and a recurring scene depicting a Christmas party at the Circus, which features a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by le Carré. Even so, the spirit of the novel remains intact. By any measure Alfredson's (comma-less) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a triumph, better than we had any right to expect and a definite a contender for film of the year. It really is that bloody good.

And that's it for le Carré and Smiley for now, although I will be returning to both down the line, with posts on the earlier George Smiley novels. Next up, though, it's back to the Donald E. Westlake science fiction magazine stories...

Friday, 16 September 2011

George Smiley's Last Stand: The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré; UK & US First Editions (Hodder & Stoughton / Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

We're approaching the end of John le Carré/George Smiley Week here on Existential Ennui, which I've embarked upon to commemorate, or celebrate, or just plain "big up" the British release of the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which hits cinemas today. And having covered all three parts of le Carré's "Karla Trilogy" – of which Tinker, Tailor... is the first instalment – today we turn to the final le Carré to feature Smiley – although it's a rather different proposition to its predecessors...

The Secret Pilgrim was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK in 1991. Now, the thing to note here is a word that I haven't included in that preceding sentence, one which I invariably trot out when introducing the hardback books I blog about: "first". The reason for that being, although this edition of The Secret Pilgrim was the first British one, it wasn't the first one in the world. Unusually in le Carré's backlist, that honour goes to the American first edition:

Which was published by Knopf, also in 1991, but in January, some months before the UK edition. This can be established courtesy of a number on the dustjacket back flap of the American edition – which sports the code "1/91" – and the copyright page in the British edition:

So the US edition is in fact the true first. Of course, none of that quite gets to the nub of the matter, namely why I own two copies of the same book – although on past – and indeed recent – evidence, I suppose that shouldn't be terribly surprising. Fact is, I picked up the British first edition for a quid in a Lewes charity shop, and then shortly after that spotted the American first on a cheap books table outside a Cecil Court bookshop. Suffice to say, since I'd always rather have a true first edition (and I prefer the deckled page edges of the US edition and its R. D. Scudellari-designed dustjacket), I'll be releasing the British one back into the wilds shortly, donating it to my mum's forthcoming Beckenham Book Fair, which is taking place at Beckenham Baptist Church, Elm Road, on 12 November, and which was inspired in some small part by my books obsession.

The Secret Pilgrim does, as I say, mark George Smiley's last literary hurrah (to date, anyway), but it's actually narrated in the first person by Ned (no surname), a British intelligence operative in the twilight of his career whose task it is to train the next generation of spies. And to their Sarratt passing-out dinner at the end of their training course, Ned has invited as guest of honour... George Smiley.

I haven't read The Secret Pilgrim myself, but my estimable friend and colleague – and noted le Carré aficionado – Roly Allen, has, and reckons it's "a minor work in the canon, but very good fun and it fleshes out the Circus mythology very nicely. One gets the impression that le Carré wanted to use up a bunch of short story ideas (based, apparently, on real incidents) and give Smiley a final (final) goodbye (Smiley retires more times than Frank Sinatra) and hit upon Ned's career structure as a way of doing so."

Roly continues:

It does of course touch upon the usual le Carré themes. There's that clever sensitive young lady with the nice bum and an overdeveloped conscience, again! (Actually – yay – there are two! And one of them is sexually adventuresome!) There's the remote house on the Atlantic Coast, again! There are the (two!) stories hingeing on is-he-one-of-ours-or-one-of-theirs, again! There's that Bildungsroman-of-the-middle-aged-man trope, again! 

But hey, who cares. It's jolly good nonetheless. And Smiley has one line which has really stuck with me – which is his take on the end of the Cold War – which a lot of people would do well to remember, especially when they are erecting statues of Ronald Reagan in London and not mentioning Gorbachev once. "It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare that he had no clothes". Ultimately the Cold War ended because the Russians chose to end it: an "impossible event" which many people still cannot quite compute. (Not that Gorbachev can't have been a saint: he was of course a loyal party functionary for three decades before glasnost, etc).

And there you have it: The Secret Pilgrim in a nutshell. Thanks to Roly for his learned and witty insights, and with that, le Carré/Smiley Week is almost done. But not quite. Because tonight I'm off to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the cinema, so I'll be posting some thoughts on that over the weekend. I'm not sure when precisely, because I'll be spending part of Saturday and Sunday in Essex dressed as a geography teacher and dancing to '80s hits (don't ask). All being well, though, you can expect a final missive sometime over the next day or two...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

John le Carré's Smiley's People (Karla Trilogy #3): a Review of the Novel (Hodder & Stoughton, 1979) and the BBC Television Adaptation (1982)

It's John le Carré/George Smiley Week here on Existential Ennui – a week's worth of posts celebrating the release of the new movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And following on from yesterday's review of the second part of le Carré's "Karla Trilogy", 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy, today it's the turn of the third and final part in the Quest for Karla: Smiley's People. But I won't just be reviewing the novel – oh no. Much as I did with this post on Tinker, Tailor..., I'll also be reviewing its 1982 BBC TV adaptation, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Exciting stuff, and no mistake.

First published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1979, Smiley's People begins with George Smiley out in the cold once more, following his brief tenure as head of the Circus (le Carré's name for Britain's intelligence service) in The Honourable Schoolboy. Now replaced by Sir Saul Enderby, Smiley is reactivated by Enderby and Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office Oliver Lacon when General Vladimir, a Russian emigre of whom Smiley was chief case officer (his "vicar", to use the espionage nomenclature) is murdered on his way to a crash meet. Lacon is keen for Smiley to sweep the whole mess under the carpet, but Smiley has a different agenda, one that will again lead him inexorably towards his shadowy nemesis, the head of Moscow Centre, Soviet spymaster Karla.

The book and the television series of Smiley's People are so much of a piece that it makes more sense to discuss them together rather than separately and consecutively. Indeed, it could be argued that – and unlike, I'd suggest, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its TV spin-off – the Beeb adaptation of Smiley's People is the superior beast. While le Carré did have some involvement with the 1979 telly version of Tinker, Tailor... – adding the closing scene between Smiley and his wife, Ann, for one – for Smiley's People he took on the role of co-screenwriter (with John Hopkins). He's also, I believe, stated that Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in Tinker, Tailor... influenced the spy's characterization in the novel of Smiley's People.

Certainly the majority of the scenes in the Smiley's People TV series and a good chunk of the dialogue are lifted verbatim from the page. But whereas with Tinker, Tailor... the TV screen did little to enhance the novel's introspective nature – in fact slightly smothered it – Smiley's People more readily lends itself to live action, as, instead of squirreling himself away in a Paddington hotel room to pore over old files, here George by necessity must do a lot of the legwork himself, practicing his tradecraft as he trots back and forth to Paris, Hamburg and Switzerland. He's never been so animated in the Karla Trilogy – in all senses – as he is in Smiley's People: determined, driven, obsessed with the hunt for Karla. This is Smiley on the warpath.

His quest leads him to seek out old contacts, among them the flamboyant Hungarian Toby Esterhase – himself ejected from the Circus and now making a living trading in fake artworks – and the Russian expert Connie Sachs, gone to seed in a tumbledown country shack, addled by booze yet still able to conjure up the past under duress. Smiley exploits his former associates mercilessly; some are eventually happy to help the legendary George Smiley, others less so, but all are pressed into service irrespective of their reluctance or current arrangements.

But in many respects Smiley is himself a pawn, resurrected as a waddling Cold Warrior by Saul Enderby and Oliver Lacon, yet in danger of being disavowed should his mission go too far off piste. In one memorable scene in both the novel and the TV series he's interrogated over dinner by Lacon – not so much to extract a progress report as to provide a spot of relationship counselling. Lacon's marriage is failing – pressures of the job and all that – so he elicits Smiley's advice, little realising that Smiley's own marriage is over – here more finally than before; prior to setting off on the final leg of his European tour, George visits Ann in Cornwall, resulting in a clifftop conversation that's as terminal as it is chilly.

I mentioned at the end of the post on The Honourable Schoolboy how it's become clear to me that each of the novels in the Karla Trilogy hinges on relationships with women. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is unbalanced by the Circus mole's affair with his philandering wife, and consequently blinded to the mole's treachery – remember that it's as a result of a past, pivotal encounter with a younger Karla (played, in the TV Tinker, Tailor..., by Patrick Stewart, who briefly reprises his role in Smiley's People) that the mole is eventually directed to begin that affair, Karla having been tipped off by the aforementioned cigarette lighter, inscribed to George from Ann, which Karla pockets – while in The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby is sent into a tailspin by Lizzie Worthington.

In Smiley's People, the central role of the women in these men's lives is made explicit. Karla is attempting to craft a "legend" – a falsified background – for a female agent, exploiting the Russian expat community in Paris. Who this "agent" is, and why Karla has had to resort to such unorthodox methods, is at the heart of the story, and in a way is a reversal of George's betrayal by Ann. As if to underline this theme of romantic or emotional betrayal, in the closing moments of both book and TV adaptation the cigarette lighter comes back into play, a symbol of the damage inflicted by Smiley and Karla upon one another and on their relationships. Suitably, aptly, in the end the lighter is discarded. In Smiley's People – as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy – a wayward woman proves the downfall of a fractured man; that the trilogy was begun shortly after the breakdown of le Carré's own marriage cannot be a coincidence.

Given le Carré's close involvement in the making of the TV Smiley's People it's perhaps unsurprising how faithful it is to the book. Nevertheless, on occasion the transposition from page to screen is arresting, not least in the use of locations: the German shipyard where Smiley goes to find an associate of Vladimir's, Otto Leipzig, is so precisely realised – or, more accurately, matched – that it was just as I had pictured it in the novel. There are minor alterations: since the BBC skipped adapting The Honourable Schoolboy (reportedly due to budgetary concerns over the Far East locations), aspects of Sam Collins's (minor) role are inherited by Lauder Strickland, lent a delicious obsequiousness by the brilliant Bill Paterson. But by and large, everything in the novel ends up on the screen.

To my mind, perhaps the best sequence in the television series comes when Smiley, Strickland, Peter Guillam and another Circus colleague, Molly Meakin (played by Lucy Fleming, niece of James Bond creator Ian Fleming), are gathered together by Saul Enderby in his office to chew over the available evidence. (In the novel it's merely Smiley, Enderby and Sam Collins, and the meeting takes place in a Knightsbridge hotel.) As Enderby, Barry Foster puts in just this one appearance in the series, but by Christ he makes it count. Pompous, louche, self-assured, but still sharp, Foster's Enderby is a scene-stealer of a performance: part genial host, part terrifying headmaster figure, with a neat line in withering put-downs. At one point, observed by Guillam, he caresses Molly's neck and shoulders, an action that accrues an added piquant significance when you recall that, in The Honourable Schoolboy, Meakin is the reciprocated object of Guillam's affections.

Director Simon Langton's staging of the Enderby office scene is a masterclass of slyly exchanged glances, tacit acknowledgments and, in the case of George, feigned engrossment in a file. As for Alec Guinness as Smiley, his inhabiting of Smiley's skin is so complete as to make the tissue-thin demarcation between the two almost unnoticeable. More than ever before, Guinness is George Smiley, both in the adaptation and in the source text. One thing's for sure: Gary Oldman has a hell of a lot to live up to in the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy film.

Though Smiley's People marked the end of George Smiley's literary career as a leading man, it wasn't quite his final appearance. That honour goes to the next book I'll be looking at, a much later novel from 1991, which I have in two editions. But which was the first...?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré (Karla Trilogy #2): a Review (Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)

From a meandering missive on the first instalment in John le Carré's "Karla Trilogy", le Carré/George Smiley Week continues with a review of the second novel in that triumvirate:

The Honourable Schoolboy was first published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1977, but despite being a direct sequel to 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it's a rather different kettle of fish to its illustrious, magisterial predecessor. Following the events of the former, here we find the Circus – le Carré's location-inspired name for MI6 (based, as it is, in London's Cambridge Circus) – in a state of extreme disrepair – its upper echelons excised, a shadow of its former self. The mole hunt and its denouement have left George Smiley in temporary charge of the service – inherited from Percy Alleline, who in turn inherited it from the deceased Control – assisted by Peter Guillam, Russian expert Connie Sachs and China watcher Doc di Salis, as well as shady ex-Circus type Sam Collins.

It's Smiley's obsession with Karla – head of Moscow Centre, and the man who placed the mole at the heart of the Circus – which drives the novel. Lest we forget, it was on Karla's direction that the Circus mole began an affair with Smiley's wife, Ann, after Karla trousered Smiley's inscribed-by-Ann cigarette lighter during a years-distant meeting between the two. On the wall of Smiley's office there now hangs...

...a passport photograph by the look of it, but blown up far beyond its natural size, so that it had a grainy and some said spectral look. One of the Treasury boys spotted it during an ad-hoc conference about scrapping the operational bank accounts.

'Is that Control's portrait by the by?' he had asked of Peter Guillam, purely as a bit of social chit chat... Control, other names still unknown, was the legend of the place. He had been Smiley's guide and mentor for all of thirty years. Smiley had actually buried him, they said: for the very secret, like the very rich, have a tendency to die unmourned.

'No, it bloody well isn't Control,' Guillam the cupbearer had retorted, in that off-hand, supercilious way of his. 'It's Karla.'

Based in the hollowed-out ghost-ship that is now the Circus, Smiley, Connie and di Salis's efforts to unravel Karla's far-reaching conspiratorial tendrils (and the Circus mole's treachery) and salvage what they can of the service's networks of agents make for effortless reading. But Smiley at al aren't the primary focus of The Honourable Schoolboy. The novel's ostensible lead – and the "schoolboy" of the title – is in fact former newspaperman and Circus stringer Jerry Westerby. Dispatched by Smiley to Hong Kong, Westerby follows the trail of money that ultimately leads to Karla, a trail that takes Westerby to Cambodia and Thailand and involves a Mexican mercenary, a Chinese billionaire, and the paramour of both those individuals, Lizzie Worthington, a femme fatale who will prove to be Westerby's undoing.

The Honourable Schoolboy is a novel that divides opinion. While some appreciate the depth of characterization le Carré brings to Jerry Westerby, others find Westerby's story a distraction from the goings-on at the Circus. I must admit that I fell into the latter camp whilst reading the novel, finding Smiley and co.'s patient picking-apart of Karla's conspiracies more interesting than Westerby's travails. But on reflection, and at a little distance, though the Far East sequences are densely written, and the confused, fuming Westerby a difficult proposition as a lead, in the end his exploits are intrinsic to the novel, lending it a richness and profundity that makes The Honourable Schoolboy a complex but rewarding piece of fiction.

Unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, British first editions of The Honourable Schoolboy are readily available and can be had for less than a tenner, although if buying online via AbeBooks, Amazon Marketplace or eBay, it's worth checking with the seller that what they're offering is indeed the first edition. As I outlined in this post, a lot of the copies listed as the first online are missing a price on the dustjacket front flap, and have white endpapers as opposed to the map endpapers you can see here. I now believe my assumption in that rather ill-tempered post – that the lack of price and blank endpapers signifies a book club edition – was mistaken; I think it merely signifies an export edition. But even so, I know which version I prefer.

One thing that has become clear to me through reading all three parts of the Karla Trilogy is how the plot – and much of the emotional impact – in each hinges on the main players' relationship with a woman. I'll be exploring that further in the next post, which will be on the third and final novel in the "Quest for Karla", 1979's Smiley's People, with a special emphasis on its 1982 BBC television adaptation...

Monday, 12 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Karla Trilogy #1): a British First Edition... and a British First Edition (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)

This Friday sees the release of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's new adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And since le Carré is an author I've returned to a few times on Existential Ennui (click on his tag at the bottom of this post to locate previous entries), and Tinker, Tailor... is among the best books I've ever read, this week's posts will be exclusively dedicated both to le Carré and to the novelist's most famous creation, George Smiley, star of Tinker, Tailor... and its sequels, 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy and 1979's Smiley's People (not to mention many other novels besides). Together, those three books form the "Karla Trilogy" – or "Quest for Karla" – and over the coming days I'll be reviewing the second and third instalments in that trilogy – with a special focus on the 1982 television adaptation of the latter – as well as taking a look at the final le Carré novel to feature Smiley.

But first, this:

A British first edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1974. Now, regular readers might recall my having blogged about this magnificent book – in this particular edition – before. Most recently that was in this post, in which I reviewed the novel – although in truth that "review" consisted of little more than a hastily assembled string of nouns – and then banged on about its 1979 BBC TV adaptation; needless to say this is precisely the blueprint I intend to pursue with Smiley's People later this week. But I also blogged about the book in this post, in which I examined various aspects of the British first edition – its cover design, photography and so forth – along with its collectibility and value at that point in time.

So how come I'm now showing you another first edition? Well, while the copy of the first I showcased before – which I bought on Amazon Marketplace last year – is in generally good nick, it does have a fold running vertically down the front of the dustjacket:

Despite this flaw, I was perfectly happy with this copy. But then more recently I happened to be browsing Amazon Marketplace and spied (ba-dum, tish) a very cheap copy – as in, a couple of quid – of what I suspected might also be a first edition (the item description was somewhat minimal). So I took a punt, and it turned out it was indeed the first edition – and first impression (the Hodder first went through at least three printings, later printings of which can be identified by the words "Second impression" or "Third impression" directly after the "First printed 1974" in the copyright text block). Result.

See, while British first editions of the novels either side of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are in fairly plentiful supply (with the exception of the three novels from the beginning of le Carré's career and one or two more recent efforts), firsts of Tinker, Tailor... itself have become rather scarce. That might be down to it being widely regarded as le Carré's best novel – perhaps rivalled only by 1963's The Spy Who Cam in from the Cold – but I suspect it might also be because, back in 1974, there hadn't been an espionage novel from the author for six years. The book immediately preceding Tinker, Tailor..., 1971's The Naive and Sentimental Lover, was an autobiographical work written in the wake of the breakdown of le Carré's marriage; his last spy novel, A Small Town in Germany, was published in 1968. So his return to the genre might explain the multiple printings of Tinker, Tailor... and consequent scarcity of the true first.

Whatever the case, in recent weeks, with the new film imminent, prices for the first of Tinker, Tailor... have skyrocketed. Copies on eBay are currently troubling the £150 mark, and could well go higher. Which leaves me with something of a dilemma: what to do with the additional copy of the first I own – and indeed, which one to keep even if I do decide to sell. Both copies have their merits: the "newer" copy doesn't have the vertical fold in the dustjacket that the "older" one does, but it does have more edgewear and chipping on the jacket:

On the other hand, the page edges of the original copy are a little foxed (and the publisher's-stain on the top edges more pronounced), and the text block is cleaner and brighter in the more recent copy:

And while the indicia is the same in both:

The endpapers are a light peach in the more recent copy and – possibly due to where or how it's been stored – a pronounced orange in the original one:

Curiously, they also feel thicker in the original, as if a heavier paper stock were used. The cases, however, are virtually identical:

So, I'm in two minds as to what to do. Or, more accurately, three or four minds. Do I sell one? If so, which one? Do I keep both? Or – and on previous evidence this is the most likely outcome – do I dither ineffectually until the moment has passed? What say you, readers?*

While we await the answer on that one, let's move on to the next post in le Carré/Smiley Week, which will be on the sequel to Tinker, Tailor..., 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy...

* Belatedly, I decided to sell the first copy. The eBay listing can be found here.