The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 


The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

bluecastleWhen I’m sick or sad or it’s raining outside this is my number one book to reach for. What Anne of Green Gables did for me as a child The Blue Castle does for me as an adult. This story is as timeless and warming as hot soup and a warm blanket.

Valancy Stirling lives a cramped dreary life, cowed by her overbearing and critical family. Dismissed as an old maid at 29 and meekly doing everything her family asks of her, her only escapes are her “dream sprees” in her imaginary Blue Castle every night and the nature books of John Foster. A shocking diagnosis from a doctor frees her from her miserable existence and causes her to say and do what she thinks for the first time in her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Montgomery is a genius at capturing the intricacies of human interaction. I grew up reading her Anne series so I always appreciated this but seeing her skill in a novel directed towards adults illustrates her skills in an entirely new light. Her ability to inject warmth and humour into the tragic and mundane makes me return to her again and again.

I love Valancy and her efforts to find “her own little dust pile.” Despite the flowery romantic cover this is actually predominantly a novel about gaining psychological and financial independence. There is a romance with a character brilliant enough to rival Gilbert Blythe and I loved all the other characters too from the colourful “Roaring Abel” to the petty clan of Stirlings.

I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s severely underrated. As I grow older I’ve returned to it more than any of Montgomery’s other books and it also remains close by for a re-read.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

s-l300This is a perfect book for the hot weather, Bonjour Tristesse especially takes place on the Riviera on a summer holiday and the betrayals, affairs and rising tension take place in the summering heat.

This edition consists of two stories; Bonjour Tristesse is the story of the young girl Cecile on holiday with her father and his various girlfriends and A Certain Smile, a novella, the tale of a young woman who, bored by her lover, starts an affair with a married man.

Part of the reason this work became an overnight bestseller in the 50s is because of the young age Sagan was when she wrote it. She was only eighteen when it was published and her coming of age story is coloured with the influence of Sartre and Camus. It shows a level of sophistication that is incredible. The themes of existentialism are interwoven into the threads of this story, the way Cecile lies around in the sand, smokes, and manipulates with an air of nonchalance and bemoans her lack of authenticity.

Sagan’s writing style (translated by Heather Lloyd) is cool and elegant:

 “A Strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.” 

Did that sounds pretentious? It is pretentious. This is very much a novel written by a teenager and while I admired her stylish and atmospheric way of illustrating a story I also couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Its major shortcoming is that it tries and fails to hit the true emotional mark and so becomes very much style over substance.


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

masterThe Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 1966, Penguin 2007, tr: R. Pevear and L. Volonkhsky,

There isn’t another book quite like this one.

One afternoon the Devil enters Moscow and starts a chain of events that leaves chaos and insanity in his wake. In another time Pontinus Pilate chooses between bravery and safety in ancient Judea and finally the courageous Margarita makes a satanic deal to save the man she loves.

This books is a dark blend of absurdity, satire, romance and philosophy and made all the more powerful when considering that Bulgakov risked his life to write the manuscript. Under the Stalinist regime the fear was so great that he burnt the manuscript and then later wrote the whole thing again by heart. The idea that the greatest sin is cowardice is portrayed heavily throughout the book.

Biblical Judea and Stalinist Moscow are the two settings in the story and both are have the suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere of an extremely oppressive state. The secret police lurk behind the pages of Bulgakov’s novel; always chillingly alluded to but never named outright.

The satanic group and the antics they get up to are dark and comical; beginning with a beheading and on to an empty suit running an office, people bursting into song and unable to stop, the events at the theatre, a cat attempting to buy a tram ticket. Actually most scenes with the cat Behemoth:

But worse things were about to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.

And then the unsettling darkness under the mischief makers light hearted guises. The ominous disappearances that could happen to anyone in Stalin’s Russia and the fate that befell Ivan the homeless and Pontius Pilate among others.

Music has such an important role in this story that it almost begs to be adapted to screen. In some cases Bulgakov sets the atmosphere by the music; Ivan’s desperate chase after the strange man he meets on a park bench is to the opera Evgeny Onegin, the opera Aida is quoted often, the Queen of Spades is hauntingly sang in a dream and folk songs are played at Satan’s ball. Faust of course plays a major part in the entire novel.

I recommend this edition by Penguin as it has annotations throughout the book.

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in months. I went through a block of being too intimidated to write reviews in case I didn’t do the book justice. Like this one.

Review: Wuthering Heights 2011

Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights has raised the bar for all Bronte period dramas from now on.  The trappings we have come to expect from period dramas- the classical background music, the lavish costumes, the formal language- have been stripped away to leave the stark humanity of the story itself and the setting of the Yorkshire Moors.

This film shows the children playing violent dominance games in the mud, rubbing it over each others faces, literally pullling hair out and licking bloody wounds clean. And throughout it all you can hear the wind howling over the moors. And closeups of the skeletons of birds and insects crawling through the mud. You know you’re watching a potrayal of real weather in yorkshire when theres mud and torrential rain everywhere.I’ve never felt so emotionally attached to the actors of cathy and heathcliff before. The transition from the child to adult actors felt very seamless and natural despite my usual dislike for this method. The chemistry was electric and the children hardly spoke.

I forgot I was watching a film at some points. Because it was so intimate and there was no background music the whole thing felt very voyeuristic. This is actually what makes the film sometimes uncomfortable or uneasy viewing and why it succeeds for me so well. That feeling is so easily lost in previous adaptations of this book. With Arnold’s version it feels like we have stepped right into not the book of Wuthering Heights but the story itself.