Blinking in the sunlight

October has been a busy month for me, as I have a new book out, The Secret Life of John le Carré. My diary, usually comparatively empty, has been crammed with interviews of one kind or another. I have recorded several podcasts and spoken in universities, bookshops and at literary festivals. I have signed a lot of books, though I should like to have signed even more. If you think this sounds glamorous, think again. Last week I twice trudged up the steps of the overhead bridge at Bristol Parkway station after 11pm, with the rain pummelling down.

I have noticed one significant change since my last book was published in 2019. Back then authors were still expected to travel to a studio to record a live radio interview; now it’s all done on Zoom.

I am a mole
The life of a writer is a varied one. Most of the time we work in isolation, ploughing through archives and making notes, our only human contact being the occasional librarian or Amazon delivery driver. Once we deliver a book there is some contact with editors, proofreaders and indexers, though this is mostly online. As publication approaches, the pace accelerates – at least, you hope it does. For a brief moment – if you are lucky, or have an excellent publicist, as I have – you are centre stage, before retreating into the wings again. I think of moles, burrowing blindly for most of the time, occasionally surfacing to blink in the sunlight before disappearing back underground.

The principal criticism is that I have written too much about le Carré’s private life

Taking it on the chin
Another thing that happens when you publish a book is that it gets reviewed, which can be a disconcerting process. What until then has been a largely personal process becomes public. Strangers are invited to comment at length on your work, and their comments are displayed for the world to read. They may be unfair or inaccurate, but there’s little point trying to contest them.

I have long felt that the pain caused by negative reviews is underestimated. Those who have not published a book may not appreciate how destructive critical reviews can be. Years of effort can be dismissed in a few glib sentences. John le Carré claimed not to read reviews of his novels, but of course he did, and some of them stung. “My hardest duty to myself was to keep the bitterness at bay,” he would recall of the time his novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover received a pasting from the critics. Much of the criticism was ad hominem; it was even suggested that le Carré’s career had run its course. To be denigrated in print is painful, of course, but more damaging was the threat to his self-belief. Without confidence that what you produce is worthwhile, it is difficult, if not impossible, to write. His recovery from the drubbing he had taken would be a test of character as much as of talent. But he remained resilient: bruised, but still standing. And he refused to succumb to resentment. “I love it all far too much to let them fuck it up for me,” he wrote of his critics, in a letter of advice to a young novelist.

Too much information
My new book has received what I’d call “mixed” reviews: some good, some not so good. Reviewers have headed off in such different directions you’d think they were reviewing completely different books. The principal criticism is that I’ve written too much about le Carré’s private life. Some reviewers think this unseemly, others irrelevant. I confess to being slightly surprised. This kind of comment would have been understandable in the Victorian period, or in the first half of the last century, but not since. Nobody nowadays says we shouldn’t be told about Dickens’s “invisible woman”, say, or Lytton Strachey’s homosexuality. Perhaps it is just too soon for le Carré.

While I have been criticised for writing too much about le Carré’s private life, the filmmaker Errol Morris has been criticised for saying too little. In interviews to publicise the release of his filmed interview with le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel, Morris has reacted sharply to suggestions that he should have pressed the author on the subject. His recent New York Times interview with David Marchese is one of the most combative I have ever read.

Keep on drumming
The terrible events taking place in Israel and Gaza have sent me back to le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl, which sadly seems just as topical now as it did when it was published 40 years ago. In that book he succeeded in the difficult task of representing both sides of this intractable conflict. Like many of his contemporaries, he supported the creation of a Jewish national home, and admired the energy and courage with which the Israelis had built a modern state. But his visits to Palestinian refugee camps showed him the other side of the story. He came to believe that “a great injustice” had been done, to salve the conscience of Europeans for their own crimes against the Jews. “We gave them a country which was not ours to give,” he would say later. A people had first been driven from their homes, and then demonised as terrorists for trying to win them back. In The Little Drummer Girl le Carré had set out to put “a human face upon the Palestinians”.

Adam Sisman is John le Carré’s biographer

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Columns, Journal, November 2023

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