Friday, 15 February 2013

John le Carré's Debut Novel, Call for the Dead (1961), in The le Carré Omnibus (Gollancz, 1964)

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

If you've read the previous post, you'll know that I chose this next book not because I wanted to blog about it – although, clearly, that is what I'm about to do here – but because I wanted to read it (and if you're baffled as to what exactly the distinction is there, go read that post).

It's a first printing of The le Carré Omnibus, published by Victor Gollancz in 1964 (and published as The Incongruous Spy in the US the same year). Now, if you've been following Existential Ennui for a few years – unlikely, I know, but there might be one or two of you – you might recall my having blogged about this one before, when I bought it back in 2010; it's a collection of John le Carré's first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), both of which star the author's signature lead, British Intelligence operative George Smiley. That it's taken me well over two years to get round to reading the bloody thing is a terrifically apposite example of how blogging about books can sometimes keep you from reading them, or at least those books you'd probably otherwise have read sooner; I made my way through – and adored – le Carré's later Karla Trilogy – which also, of course, features Smiley – in 2010 and 2011, and yet despite subsequently plucking The le Carré Omnibus from my shelves on more than one occasion, there always seemed to be some other book demanding my attention ahead of it.

Until, that is, I decided to mend my ways a couple of weeks ago and simply choose from the many unread books on my shelves the ones I most wanted to read, rather than the ones I thought would make for a good blog post. And this was the one I kept coming back to – and while neither of the novels within is of the same stature or on the same scale – literary or geographically – as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its two sequels (the third of which, like Tinker, is slowly edging towards the big screen), they are both elegantly written, quietly compelling pieces of, respectively, spy fiction and crime fiction.

In fact, that's one of the interesting things about having the two novels together in this volume: they're quite different in nature – at least, on the surface. Call for the Dead – not only le Carré's debut but Smiley's as well, not to mention that of his occasional sidekick, Peter Guillam – sees Smiley and Inspector Mendel of Scotland Yard investigating the apparent suicide of a civil servant whom Smiley had recently interviewed about his communist background (and who had left a note blaming Smiley for his death), and involves East German agents, multiple killings and even an attempt on Smiley's life. A Murder of Quality, on the other hand, is essentially a murder mystery, a whodunnit, and finds Smiley decamping to a rustic public school at the behest of an old intelligence colleague to ascertain who killed the wife of one of the schoolmasters.

On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that Call for the Dead is a kind of whodunnit too, although I guess that's true of a lot of spy thrillers: you often find there's a mysterious death involved. It also features the first of Smiley's many retirements from The Circus (the colloquial name for MI6), starts with a wonderful precis of his early life, wartime exploits and doomed marriage – to the wayward Ann, who would become so pivotal in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – and boasts a brilliant opening line, which sets the tenor not only for this novel but for later books as well, at least as regards Smiley's emotional travails: 

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.

Mind you, A Murder of Quality can boast for its part one of the best descriptions of Smiley I've come across, courtesy of Mendel's boss at Scotland Yard, Ben Sparrow... but I think I'll save that for the next post.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

On Reading (and Books Blogging)

I don't know how it is for other books bloggers – which I guess is essentially what I am, even though Existential Ennui isn't, I don't think, a stereotypical new release/press release/publicity mill kind of books blog, and furthermore I don't define myself by that label, because doing this – this, this digressive navel-gazing excuse for an ostensible books blog post thing right here – this isn't my job or anything, although I do work in books publishing, and my job does occasionally intersect with my passion – which is to say the books I blog about on Existential Ennui... But anyway, I don't know how it is for other books bloggers, but blogging about books sometimes feels to me like I'm making a rod for my own back.

You see, increasingly over the past year or so I've found myself planning my reading around what I believe will make for a good blog post – or even better, series of posts – rather than around what I genuinely feel like reading at that moment in time. Now, you might reasonably surmise that the two pursuits – reading and blogging – would be indivisible – natural bedfellows, as it were (literally, sometimes, when I'm lying in bed reading a book and making notes on my mobile phone; apologies if that conjures up an unsavoury mental image) – and often as not you'd be correct. But not always, and especially not when I've locked myself into a series of posts – and I realise I have no one to blame but myself there; it's me who determines the course of Existential Ennui, me who decides each time to embark on a series – and find myself reading a book purely because I'm currently blogging about that author or genre (or whatever).

Moreover, two related problems spring to mind. For one thing, I'm not sure anyone should "plan" their reading beyond having a vague idea of which book, or at a push books, they might like to try next; it rather takes all the fun, all the spontaneity out of the act. For another, having to adhere to a structure with my reading can make it feel like a chore – like I'm having to read set texts or something: trudging through one book in order to get to the next one, and then the next one, and so on.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I decided that enough was enough. I had various series of posts planned, but I knew that in each instance, the reading I would be required to do in order to write those posts I would be doing because I was required to do so; in other words, out of a misguided sense of duty – Christ knows to what or to whom; I mean, it's not as if this is the most widely read of books blogs – rather than because I really wanted to read those particular books. On top of that, I knew that increasing pressures from my "real", non-blogging life would mean that, going forward, I was likely to have less and less time available to devote to reading (and bear in mind my reading also encompasses comics, which I don't blog about too often, but which I usually have a small pile of on the go as well), let alone blogging. (Coincidentally, Trent at Violent World of Parker – where, irony upon irony, I'm co-blogger – also hinted at this in his anniversary post yesterday – and happy websitebirthday, by the way, Trent!)

With that in mind, I did something I hadn't done for a while: I stood before my bookcases (hold your horses: that's not the thing I hadn't done for while; I do that all the bloody time, frequently in my pants) and instead of trying to work out which of the many unread books on my shelves I could blog about next, I simply considered which one, or at a push, which two or three, I'd like to read next. It was, I can tell you, a liberating experience (wearing only pants might have helped). Divorced of the burden of blogging, I was able to properly focus on the books as the the things they were meant to be – things to be read – and select the one I had the greatest desire to read.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying I won't blog about the book that I picked, because I can pretty much guarantee I will; nor am I saying that there won't be any more series of posts on Existential Ennui: one springs immediately to mind (although that won't require much reading on my part – that's already been done by someone else) and in fact the book that I selected will probably itself result in a short series of posts. It's more the principle of the thing, or, if you like, the intent behind it: if I only have a certain amount of time to dedicate to reading – a thing I love doing above almost (almost) every other pursuit – then it stands to reason that I should choose the books that I most want to read, and that my blogging should reflect, should be driven by, my reading – not the other way round.

All of which begs the inevitable question: which book did I choose to set me on this newfound path towards reading for reading's sake? I hesitate to say it, as it slightly – perhaps fatally – undermines my entire argument, but: all will be revealed in the next post...*

*Although a clue can be found in the image at the top of this post: there's a book missing from one of the shelves...