|John le Carré|
The Pigeon Tunnel review: John le Carré comes in from the cold
The once-mysterious writer is revealed as a man riven by self-doubt in this vivid, often hilarious ‘patchwork’ memoir
Sunday 11 September 2016 07.00 BST
nce upon a time, John le Carré was a literary enigma wrapped in the kind of mystery appropriate to his genre, the spy thriller. In the footsteps of Graham Greene, he kept himself in the shadows, rarely if ever gave interviews, and cultivated a persona that offered a teasing mix of riddle and conundrum.
Those days are long gone. In 2015, there was an authorised biography. Earlier this year, as David Cornwell, his real name, the novelist played a cameo in an acclaimed TV adaptation of his 1993 novel, The Night Manager. And now, despite an admitted “childish aversion” towards the press, and a declared love for “the privacy of writing”, here he comes again, backing into the limelight, with “Stories from My Life”, The Pigeon Tunnel.
For Cornwell watchers, this rag-bag compilation of old and new material will seem like vintage Le Carré. “Stories” is the key word. Cornwell remains a magician of plot and counter-plot, a master storyteller. But look behind the smoke and mirrors and you will find a more reflective and slightly chastened figure, all passion spent, and perhaps less comfortable than hitherto in the world of cross and double-cross he has created around himself.
Take, for instance, his career as a spy. Cornwell no longer presents himself as the cold war antihero of the myth-making that surrounded his masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. When he resigned from “the service” in 1964, he now reports “a negligible contribution”. No more is his “debt of gratitude to MI5” for the bleak treacheries of the secret world. Instead, recruiting Curzon Street as a writing school, he salutes the “rigorous instruction in prose” he got from the “classically trained senior officers” who massacred his “dangling clauses and gratuitous adverbs”.
This Le Carré redux also tempers his exhilarating portrait of his incorrigibly crooked father, Ronnie, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird”, the inspiration for A Perfect Spy. In a raw moment of candour, the novelist acknowledges how “very, very bent” his father had been, and how horribly violent towards his mother and himself. Even more remarkable, the son now addresses a subject he has scarcely touched on before: Olive Moore Cornwell, aka “Wiggly”.
Cornwell, repeating Greene’s line about childhood being the writer’s credit balance, has always maintained that he was “born a millionaire”. But another reading of The Pigeon Tunnel might sponsor the idea that young David was possibly bankrupted by Wiggly’s maternal derelictions. He tells us he never felt “any affection in childhood”, and admits that “the frozen child” within did not show “the smallest sign of thawing out” until “the mother who had no smell” was dead. It was in the void left by Olive’s midnight flit, when he was barely five years old, and out of the confusions of his life with Ronnie, that Cornwell became adept at covering his tracks and making up self-consoling stories. He has always recognised that people who have had unhappy childhoods learn to invent themselves.
The Pigeon Tunnel, which concedes that being untruthful became a modus operandi, fitfully explores two potent kinds of invention: the spy novelist who did “a sort of Tolkien job” on MI5 and MI6, and also the gifted contemporary novelist in quest of a fugitive self. On the evidence of these pages, there’s not much doubt that this second line of inquiry is what animates Cornwell in what he calls “the evening of my life”. For the first time, in the frustrating absence of a new novel, he has devoted himself to himself.
Some of the most vivid writing in this strange, occasionally hilarious, patchwork memoir – his bizarre encounters with Margaret Thatcher, Yasser Arafat and various developing world warlords – derives from his courageous and determined efforts to take the secret sharers of his imagination into the field. In story after story, we watch him leave Le Carré at home and become Cornwell at large. Tellingly, he has evolved a new formula for this research process. “First comes the imagining, then the search for the reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.” All this, he adds, “to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit”.
Such grandiose asides are the tell-tale. What remains unreconciled here is his writer’s ambition, and his hunger for approval, the thing that peppers his writing with sharp, disdainful asides about book festivals, his chosen biographer, some of his critics, and his bete noire, the “British literary commentariat”.
In The Pigeon Tunnel, the reader encounters a powerfully divided self, a narrative magician who is both thrilled by his dazzling inventions and yet infuriated by the inhibitions imposed thereby. “Le Carré” wants to be hailed as a great writer, but “Cornwell”, who is steeped in German Romantic literature, knows that his craft will always be patronised by the “commentariat”.
None of this will matter much to his devoted fans, who will encounter a natural storyteller doing what he does best, and marvel that he can still work his magic at 84. Forget the literary critical crossfire, there’s a body of work underpinning this memoir that has given British readers a story for our times. Astonishingly, he has done this since 1963, when Harold Macmillan was still prime minister.
In his prime, Le Carré was a great bestselling writer who achieved the rare feat of creating a world that told us something about ourselves, while also providing world-class entertainment, the novel’s first calling. Trollope achieved this with Barsetshire, and in another key, Wodehouse with Blandings. Smiley and his Circus are similarly immortal. Perhaps it is in keeping with their archetypal shabbiness that their creator should be riven with so much self-doubt. A lesser artist might have settled for the shuttered chateau.
There are many possible interpretations of “the pigeon tunnel”, the haunting image of birds bred for slaughter in the casinos of Monte Carlo that opens this poignant autobiographical collection, but one reading is obvious: however much the free bird of the imagination might long to fly home unscathed, there’s no escaping the fateful guns of a merciless reality.