Good old writers

Who says old geezers can't write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That's certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.

Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can't tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.

There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.

Let's begin with the journalists.

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Le Carre’s Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

John Le Carre hates the “war on terror” and sympathizes with its victims. But he has let his feelings get the better of his art in A Most Wanted Man, for sympathy alone cannot animate the title character. Issa Karpov doesn’t come to life like George Smiley.

We see and hear Issa, but never get inside his mind. Le Carre presents him as a mystery figure on the run – we never learn whether he is the dreaded Islamic terrorist he is alleged to be or was unfairly imprisoned and tortured in Turkey. It is one thing to leave the readers guessing about his true nature. But to keep the readers guessing, a character has to be more complex like Gatsby or Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. Raving and ranting against injustice, Issa is more like a character out of a propaganda play.

Fortunately, there are more interesting characters in the novel. Like Gunther Bachmann, the German spy who has to keep an eye on Issa when he arrives in Hamburg. And  Annabel Richter, the attractive lawyer who helps refugees and shelters Issa. And Tommy Brue, the British banker who is holding the money left by Issa’s father, a crooked Russian army colonel.

Issa, whose mother was a Chechen, wants to donate the money to Muslim charities, keeping only some for himself to study medicine and become a doctor.

But life is never easy for a man on the run. Nor for those prepared to help him. While Anna is questioned by Gunther, Tommy has to contend with British secret agents, who claim the money was really paid by them to Issa’s father. The Americans also appear on the scene, pursuing bigger game.

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Len Deighton and John Le Carre

Len Deighton turned 80 last week, I just discovered from the Guardian. He was born on February 18, 1929, according to Wikipedia.(Telegraph photo.)

Honestly I didn’t even know he was still around, for I haven’t seen any new book by him for a long time. His last thriller was Charity, published in 1996.

That’s sad because he is one of the two greatest British spy fiction writers. Second only to John Le Carre. Ian Fleming doesn’t even come close. I wouldn’t describe Graham Greene, whom I love, as a spy fiction writer.

Deighton is, in fact, more versatile than Le Carre. He has written books like Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, World War II air-war stories like Bomber and Goodbye Mickey Mouse, and Only When I Larf, a comic thriller about conmen.

He is more snappy and less literary than Le Carre and doesn’t meander like Le Carre does sometimes, though his plots can be equally complex. What a fiendish maze he wove around his spy, Bernard Samson. Starting with The Berlin Game in the early 1980s, he wrote three Samson trilogies, ending with Charity. Midway through the series, Samson’s wife, Fiona, goes over to the Soviets but then he discovers she is working as a British double agent.

Both Deighton and Le Carre started publishing in the early 60s.

But Samson is closer in spirit to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus than to Le Carre’s spy, George Smiley, in some ways. He is first and foremost a rebellious field agent and not a mandarin who is also good in the field like Smiley.

Deighton’s prank

Deighton also has a sense of fun. The Guardian says:

Deighton managed to achieve a false entry in Who's Who. It read, "Eldest son of a Governor-General of the Windward Islands. After an uneventful education at Eton and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was President of the Union, he signed on as a deckhand on a Japanese whaler.

In reality, he was a Londoner who finished school and worked as a railway clerk, airline steward, photographer, waiter, illustrator and art director before making his name as a writer.

Early success

Both Deighton and Le Carre had their first books published in 1961. Deighton’s The Ipcress File proved a bigger success than Le Carre’s Call for the Dead featuring George Smiley. The Ipcress File was made into a film starring Michael Caine.

Le Carre hit the big time with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was immediately hailed as a classic when it appeared in 1963. And he is still writing. While Deighton has not published a thriller for more than 10 years, Le Carre, three years his junior, came out with A Most Wanted Man last year.

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Le Carre: The spy who almost went out into the cold

John Le Carre was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union when he worked for MI6 during the Cold War in the early Sixties. "I wasn’t tempted ideologically, but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest," he tells the Sunday Times.

As a British Foreign Service officer based in Germany, he knew how defectors were spirited across the Iron Curtain and described the manoeuvres vividly in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his most famous thrillers published while he was still in the Foreign Service in 1963.

Le Carre — real name David John Moore Cornwell — was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 after teaching at Eton from 1956 to 1958. His secret service career ended prematurely when his cover was blown by another former British agent, Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963 and revealed the identities of scores of British agents, many of whom were subsequently killed.

The Sunday Times says:

"It seems that in 1987 le Carré was offered the chance of a meeting… with the traitor (Kim Philby), fixed up through a shadowy Russian intermediary…  But le Carré demurred; he could not dine with Philby. “I just couldn’t do it. I said no.”

Why? “I just couldn’t do it.” He pauses for a moment. “There was always an instinct towards corruption in him. And remember, he was responsible for sending countless British agents to their deaths, to be killed – 40 or more in Albania . . . ”

Le Carre also answers questions about his feud with Salman Rushdie whose Satanic Verses he criticised as an affront to Muslims. But his own words now may offend the Muslims.

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John Le Carre on his new book and his craft

A new book by John Le Carre is something to look forward to and here
he talks about his 21st novel, A Most Wanted Man, coming out this
month. It is set in Germany like his 19th  novel, Absolute Friends, and
indeed some of his most famous books. He has had not a love affair but an
obsession with Germany, he says in this videoclip, posted on The

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