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New books: Frederick Forsyth memoirs, John le Carre biography


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#1 glidrose

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Posted 12 November 2015 - 11:34 PM

Quick declaration: I've not read either book, only skimmed them. In short, the Forsyth memoir is underwhelming but the le Carre bio is mandatory reading, even if you don't like le Carre's novels. (I don't.)

I'll quickly get the Forsyth out of the way in a single paragraph. Forsyth glosses over his own novels, provides few anecdotes. In the early 1990s Forsyth learned that his long-time friend and financial advisor had been robbing him and many others. Forsyth - who had recently given away half his assets in a divorce - was now left penniless and a million in debt. Forsyth glosses over this in several perfunctory pages. I don't even think he names the adviser, who tho' convicted gets a slap on the wrist. Perhaps the early chapters which deal with FF's foreign correspondent career are better but I couldn't bother checking. Forsyth's writing is as clunky as ever. I'm reminded of Kingsley Amis's retort that you don't get a single bloody spark out of the prose. The book also has no index - always a bad sign.

Now onto the Adam Sisman biography of John le Carre.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I want to shout it from the rooftops: THIS BOOK DEMANDS TO BE READ. YOU MUST READ IT.

Sisman makes several friendly references to Ian Fleming and James Bond. Tho' some of these he blatantly shoe-horns into the book. When Sisman tries tracing where le Carre got the name "Smiley" from and if he got it from the Eton rolls (unlikely), do we really need to learn that IF got the names Blofeld and Scaramanga from Eton classmates? The author also incorrectly claims that OHMSS was the last novel Fleming saw published. (*cough* You Only Live Twice *cough*)

On the other hand the book never mentions JLC's famous 1966 "ideal defector" put-down of Bond nor JLC's retraction of said comment in 2010.

JLC and fellow spy novelist Len Deighton had a casual friendship during the 1960s. They went their separate ways in the 1970s but renewed their friendship in the early 1980s.

JLC had a love-hate friendship with fllmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick turned down the chance to direct "The Little Drummer Girl." He also turned down the chance to direct "The Night Manager", but he very much wanted to direct JLC's autobiographical novel "A Perfect Spy". Unfortunately by this time JLC had sold the film rights to the BBC. Kubrick then offered to direct the BBC production. JLC excitedly went to the head of BBC programming with the proposal. The BBC head was aghast, rejected it outright saying that Kubrick would take seven years to complete it. In the early 1980's Kubrick asked JLC to write the script for what would become Kubrick's final film "Eyes Wide Shut". They two men met and hashed out story ideas. However the plan fell apart: JLC wanted to set it in a small English village, whereas Kubrick was adamant that it be set in New York City. Ultimately, JLC and others felt that Kubrick was a terrible person to do business with. Kubrick was obsessed with guns and sent JLC copious faxes about the kind of weapons the villain Roper should use in JLC's novel "The Night Manager". JLC forwarded one of these faxes to film producer John Calley with the scribbled addition "Isn't he an [email protected]@hole?" Calley had long ago introduced the two men; they hit it off so well at first that Kubrick gave JLC a private screening of his recently completed movie "The Shining".

JLC was the initial impetus that saw Kubrick make "Full Metal Jacket". JLC had praised Michael Herr's book "Dispatches" and either introduced the two men at a dinner party or told Kubrick about the book - I can't remember which, I don't have the bio in front of me. [UPDATE: Both.]

JLC's 1993 novel "The Night Manager" was more autobiographical in the now lost original draft. JLC overhauled the manuscript while staying with film producer John Calley - yes, that John Calley who would soon take over MGM and become a thorn in EON's side. Calley acted as wetmaid and story adviser while le Carre set about redrafting the manuscript. What makes this so interesting is that "The Night Manager" is a James Bond pastiche. Several critics approvingly noted that it was a Bond novel in all but name.

There's lots of goodies about the making and un-making of the film versions of his novels. Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie", "The Firm") had the film rights to "The Night Manager", but JLC rightly suspected that nothing would get made. Years before, Pollack had gotten the film rights to "A Small Town in Germany" but had done nothing with it. Apparently Pollack had a history of buying books at great expense to the studio, then losing all interest in the project. Pollack and screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown") felt the book lacked an ending but couldn't devise anything satisfactory. JLC disagreed and so wrote an ending which they rejected. JLC loathed Towne's screenplay and apparently has to keep quiet about his disdain for fear of being hauled into the libel courts, but that's another story.

"The Little Drummer Girl" suffered from the staggeringly miscast Diane Keaton. But that was the least of the production's ills. Director George Roy Hill ("Butch Cassidy" "The Sting") was by now suffering from Parkinson's but somehow managed to hide it from the studio. For those who have seen the film, you'll know that JLC himself does a cameo in the film. The frequently profane George Roy Hill apparently forced JLC to do it, then forced him through 17 takes even though JLC had only the one line. There's a suggestion that Hill did this to punish and torment JLC.

The book also paints a very unflattering portrait of Sean Connery who starred in the adaptation of JLC's novel "The Russia House". "Twat" was the word that came to mind.

Tony Scott ("Top Gun") was initially hired to direct "The Tailor of Panama" and did location shooting with JLC, but bowed out after the studio rejected his proposed overblown budget. Tony Scott apparently hated reading; his assistants had to summarize the book and read out passages to him.

JLC appears to be very demanding & temperamental with his own publishers, expecting them to make him their #1 priority, going so far as to fire an editor whom, I believe, was out of town editing somebody else's work.

JLC is also very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. He too often assumes that personal vendettas lay behind negative notices, and occasionally gets into barbed correspondence with the reviewers. Tina Brown, John Updike, Clive James, Hugh Greene (Graham's brother) are among those whom JLC believes have it in for him. JLC even attacks famed double agent Kim Philby for dismissing his books as "nonsense". Philby said no such thing. In a letter to novelist Graham Greene, Philby explains that he had merely said that he found "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" too elaborate a plot but otherwise a breath of fresh air after all that James Bond nonsense. Philby admired all of le Carre's books except for [UPDATE] The Honorable Schoolboy - too long, too far-fetched, forgotten before it's over.

JLC would never let Jonathan Cape - Ian Fleming's own British publisher - anywhere near his own books. Apparently Cape publisher Tom Maschler did dirty on le Carre once, publicly outing the affair JLC had with fellow novelist James Kennaway's wife Susan. For what it's worth, Kennaway wrote about it in the novel "Some Gorgeous Accident" and JLC wrote about it in his disastrously received non-spy novel "The Naive and Sentimental Lover". Kennaway was killed in a motor accident at age 40, heart attack. Kennaway also scripted the acclaimed movie "Tunes of Glory" which the older Brits here will have seen, and co-wrote "The Battle of Britain", directed by Bond's own Guy Hamilton.

Lots of fascinating info about JLC's father, the infamous, twice-jailed con-man Ronnie Cornwell.

JLC's actress sister Charlotte Cornwell sued "The Bitch on the Box" Nina Miskow for defamation. Tho' successful, Charlotte Cornwell was left virtually bankrupt by the staggering legal fees. BTW, we've all seen Charlotte - she plays a police Inspector in the Val Kilmer movie "The Saint".

The book also dwells on JLC's friendships and feuds with writers as diverse as Graham Greene, would-be authorized biographer Robert Harris ("Fatherland" and "Imperium"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), Harold Pinter (well-known playwright who has a cameo in the film of "The Tailor of Panama"). Philip Roth (author of "Portnoy's Complaint", a seemingly unlikely ally), Clive James, Norman Rush, and his would-be unauthorized biographer Graham Lord, among others. Even this bio's author Adam Sisman says he didn't exactly have an easy time writing this quasi-authorized biography and hopes one day - after JLC has died - tho' he's too polite to say this out loud - to "to publish a revised and updated version."

And there's so much more. Let's not forget that JLC worked for the British Secret Service during the cold war.

I've not even read the book yet. This is what skimming the index turns up!

Edited by glidrose, 16 November 2015 - 06:32 PM.


#2 Dustin

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Posted 13 November 2015 - 05:51 AM

Gods...this really sounds like required reading; thank you for the heads-up there, glidrose.

I've been saying from day one that The Night Manager was le Carré's stab at a Bond novel - but it also reveals how different both authors really are in their approach, coming from opposing directions and aiming for very different results with their work. A 'real' Bond novel from le Carré would likely disappoint many readers.

As for Philby's remark about the too elaborate plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, this is a justified verdict. Perhaps le Carré felt it impaired on his reputation as a so-called 'realistic' author of spy lore. But that moniker is warranted more for his characters, which are for the most part detailed and fully realised breathing human beings - even when they often seem to be similar in personality traits.

As for the film adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl, I always felt that to be a criminally missed opportunity. I love the book and have read it three or four times, yet about the film I remember next to nothing apart from Kinski, who had no business to turn up in it in the first place.

Anyway, thanks for the recommendation!

#3 glidrose

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Posted 16 November 2015 - 06:33 PM

Thanks Dustin. I knew I could count on you to chime in. :)

#4 Dustin

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Posted 16 November 2015 - 07:11 PM

You're welcome. I do wonder if le Carré has a - publishable - opinion on Daniel Silva's first Allon novel, as that book is heavily 'inspired' by The Little Girl.

Anyway, going to get this soonish.

#5 glidrose

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Posted 16 November 2015 - 07:32 PM

Apparently le Carre does not read or enjoy modern fiction. He tried to read Ian McEwan's books but, if I remember right, couldn't get into them. In 1974 JLC said that reading cuts into his writing time so something's gotta give...

#6 Dustin

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Posted 16 November 2015 - 07:47 PM

Hah - I'm not at all surprised! I often wonder where writers who publish a book a year take the time to read 20 books to give their favourable quotes for the sleeve...

#7 Mendalla007

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Posted 16 November 2015 - 09:59 PM

The JLC bio got a very favourable writeup in The Economist recently and that's how I found out it existed. Unfortunately, like too many of his later novels (meaning anything after The Constant Gardener), it will probably languish on my reading list for a while. Simply don't seem to have a lot of time for reading or watching movies these days.



#8 Dustin

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Posted 22 February 2016 - 06:27 PM

Some interesting snippets by John le Carré on The Night Manager and adaptations of his books in general in last Saturday's Grauniad: http://www.theguardi...sion-adaptation

Personally, I think there's a little shard of a razor blade hidden in there...

#9 New Digs

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Posted 22 February 2016 - 07:41 PM

JLC is a fascinating man. A great author but also I love watching his interviews where he comments on current political affairs. I will pick up this book at some point.



#10 glidrose

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Posted 12 September 2016 - 11:08 PM

Le Carre's own memoir "The Pigeon Tunnel" is now out in bookstores.

Many enthusiastic news articles. You can google search them yourselves.


 

JLC is a fascinating man. A great author but also I love watching his interviews where he comments on current political affairs. I will pick up this book at some point.


Curiously, I cannot get into the book despite my earlier enthusiasm about the snippets. I do not know if it's because JLC comes across as unpleasant or the bio's author Adam Sisman makes JLC out to be so unpleasant or because Sisman just has an unappealing writing style.

 

Some interesting snippets by John le Carré on The Night Manager and adaptations of his books in general in last Saturday's Grauniad: http://www.theguardi...sion-adaptation

Personally, I think there's a little shard of a razor blade hidden in there...


On TNM, JLC and his sons Simon & Stephen Cornwell have meaningless executive producer credits.



#11 Dustin

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Posted 13 September 2016 - 04:12 AM

I wasn't thinking of TNM there; it was this snippet that got me thinking so:

...And as a footnote: the feature film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Gary Oldman as George Smiley, seemed to enthuse its makers in the same eerie way.



#12 Dustin

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Posted 22 September 2016 - 07:35 PM

Just got my copy of The Pigeon Tunnel...and what a most entertaining read it is. The memoirs of a writer whose œuvre shaped at least one half of the entire 'serious' spy genre. They are gratefully concise and follow only a rough thematical structure instead of a strict chronological order; a sequence of brief episodes highlighting le Carré's experiences as a public spy, both for the British authorities and in the services of his stories later.

After just a few hours I'm already through the first quarter of the book, something that rarely happens to me in recent years. Since it's in effect a series of anecdotes it can only rate as a most subjective and incomplete autobiography. But I feel you get closer to le Carré as a person than a traditional biography, complete as it may be, would get you.

#13 Dustin

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Posted 06 October 2016 - 03:46 PM

So, finished The Pigeon Tunnel, as memoirs go one of the best I've read, entertaining, intriguing, funny...and more than a bit harrowing, too. If you want to get all the facts and details the 'traditional' biography by Sisman may be your thing. But if you want to meet the person John le Carré/David Cornwell, you are better equipped with this. And it's already telling that, despite being exposed from the go, le Carré managed to disappear behind this old 'working name' almost completely. So much so people who don't know him but want to establish some kind of familiarity - or intimacy even - insist to call him 'John'. How and why this should be you will understand a bit better after reading The Pigeon Tunnel.

As a fan of le Carré's work since the early 80s I've known for some time that A Perfect Spy must be considered an early attempt at a 'literary' autobiography. But only after reading The Pigeon Tunnel I realise to what extent le Carré described his own life and experiences in this personal roman à clef. If you know the novel you will be surprised to learn how little of it was invention. And if you think the novel's father figure was a plague for his son and family, then you will find that le Carré had to scale him down to fit on the page of the invention. The real version was even a bit larger than fiction.

But le Carré's tumultuous connection to the man who was his father is only one chapter of 38 (titled 'Son of the author's father' for reasons that will make you laugh out loud - or scream). Others concern memorable encounters with involuntary readers (Jean-Paul Kauffmann), drinks on set with Richard Burton, a heartfelt thank-you to a peer who saved his school education, scenes from Vientianne, Beirut, St Pancras, Sidon and Honk Kong. We meet Yvette Pierpaoli, who simply appointed herself children smuggler in a bleeding Phnom Penh surrounded by Khmer Rouge, we meet the real-life counterparts of Charlie Marshal, Jerry Westerby, Issa, Smiley and several other people whose influence on the œuvre of le Carré you may see in a different light after reading. Such as Margaret Thatcher.

All in all one of this year's better reads for me - and I did read a few good books already. One odd thing though: for the memoirs of one of the two British espionage novelists it's most odd how there is not a single mention of Ian Fleming or James Bond. Le Carré and Fleming are the two names who shaped the genre like few others. If you walk along the border of the country called 'British Spy Novel' nearly every inch of this border was defined by either author. Others may have come before, others may add their own border stones yet in the future. But the current shape and general direction for the last 50 years was - and still is - largely defined by the landmarks left by Messers Fleming and le Carré. Given this fact it's strange to note the complete absence of the one in the memoir of the other.

Anyway, a thoroughly entertaining read.