John le Carre

There has been plenty written about John le Carre following his death. His earlier novels are a perfect picture of post-war austere England and its class-strangled male inhabitants. And they are nearly all male - his women tend towards two dimensional cliched cut-outs - a result, as he himself acknowledged, of an upbringing almost entirely devoid of women. His mother left when he was four and he spent the whole of his childhood, adolescence and early manhood in male institutions. He was sent to prep school at five. He also spent two years teaching at Eton where he observed that the English upper classes are even worse than they pretend to be. In an interview he recounted the time, in his twenties, when he finally met his mother who he had managed to track down. She told him to meet her on the down platform on Ipswich station. When he arrived, there were three middle aged women standing there - but he recognised his brother in one of them. It was an awkward meeting.

His upbringing by his conman father with a background of bankruptcies, cons, jail terms and casual brutality scarred him - but it also, as he acknowledged, gave him a lifetime of experiences on which the novelist could draw. And also an anger that never left him and which sustained and drove his later work when most writers of his wealth and fame might have coasted into gentler waters. The men, so brilliantly drawn in his earlier writing, never really worked in his later novels. They, very often, were the same types - public school, inhibited, class-defined - that hadn’t changed much despite the obvious shift in society. 

But all this is cavilling in the context of a lifetime of furious productivity that rivals Dickens. At his best, he is sublime - and even his lesser works, like Dickens, may not be great literature - but they are always interesting.

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