More on John Le Carre and A Legacy of Spies, with echoes of W Somerset Maugham

October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for the first post on A Legacy of Spies.]

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A Legacy of Spies opens with Peter Guillam recounting  his early life. In line with his mother’s retelling, his father was

…the wastrel son of a wealthy Anglo-French family from the English midlands, a man of rash appetites, fast-diminishing inheritance and a redeeming love of France.

Thus his French mother, and his blissful early childhood spent on a farmstead in Brittany. His father was frequently absent, but that in no way intruded on little Pierre’s happiness. He assumed this idyll would go on indefinitely. But of course, it did not: “The future meant nothing to me until it struck.” At the age of eight, little Pierre was unceremoniously whisked off to England to live with cousins of his father. He barely knew these people. School was a torment, where his heavily accented English was mocked by the other students. Eight more years passed before he was able to return to Brittany, where things were not as he had left them.

As I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that somehow I’d heard a similar tale before. A warmly recollected childhood in France, followed abruptly by a chilly and friendless life in England….Ah, yes, then I remembered:

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

I’m quoting from my 2010 review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.    Mere coincidence? Possibly. It did make me wonder if by any chance John Le Carre has read Selina Hastings’s book, one of my all time favorite biographies.

Like Le Carre, W. Somerset Maugham worked for a period as an agent for Britain’s intelligence service. His experiences in that capacity later informed a series of short stories published as Ashenden: or the British Agent. (After finishing the Hastings biography, I commenced binge reading everything my Maugham that I could get my hands on. While in thrall to this delightful obsession, I read the Ashenden stories and loved them unconditionally.)

 

Some four years ago, I decided to read John Le Carre’s second novel. A Murder of Quality features George Smiley as a former intelligence agent who’s prevailed upon by an old friend to look into a worrying situation. That friend, Miss Brimley, edits a journal called The Christian Voice. She has received an extremely disturbing missive from Stella Rode, a some time contributor to this enterprise. Mrs Rode, who is married to a teacher at Carne, an exclusive school for boys on England’s South Coast, believes herself to be in some sort of danger. Could Miss Brimley help her? Miss Brimley, in her turn, asks the same question of George Smiley. Having agreed to look into the matter, Smiley travels down to Carne in order to see for himself what is transpiring there. (And thus we enter an enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting in academia, my favorite type of locale for a murder mystery.)

I liked A Murder of Quality enough to select it for discussion by the Usual Suspects the following year. I then read and also enjoyed Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s first published novel, which also features George Smiley.

  

Le Carre’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel came out last year; Adam Sisman’s biography, the year before that. I’ve read neither at this point, but reading A Legacy of Spies has whetted my interest, especially in the memoir.

John Le Carre by Nadav Kander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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