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Grand Illusions

The Looking Glass War

by John le Carré
Coward McCann, 320 pp., $4.95

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

by Giorgio Bassani
Atheneum, 293 pp., $4.95

The Second World War remains the overwhelming event of our time. It is possible that even now we have not yet really begun to face it. It is certain that we have not begun to overcome it. It is a trauma in the collective mind of Western society. So much was brought to an end by it; so much can never exist again as a result of it. And so much happened in it for the first time.

Two new novels undertake to deal with that cataclysm and certain of its implications. John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is in some ways a sequel to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. It will in all likelihood be as successful. Although its action takes place today, during the Cold War, that earlier event hangs heavily over everything in the novel and determines the fate of everyone in it.

The characters in The Looking Glass War are members of a small, neglected, and all but defunct department of military intelligence in the British government. During the War they had been an enterprising, vital operation, training spies and agents and dropping them into occupied Europe to work at gathering information and performing sabotage. After the War the department was not dismantled, but was allowed, along with its chief officers, to go on existing in a minimal way, with a few agents in the field doing heaven knows what and not much of that. The advent of the Cold War does nothing to change the status of this organization; instead a whole series of new intelligence operations—British equivalents of the CIA—is brought into existence. These agencies develop techniques appropriate to operating the intelligence or spying side of the Cold War; meantime the small holdover outfit from World War II carries on in a trance, as if it were still 1943.

Then something unexpected occurs. One of this department’s agents stumbles across some information which strongly suggests that the Russians are handing over nuclear rockets to the East Germans and that launching implacements are being constructed in East Germany. The political implications of such a possibility are of course staggering, and the Ministry to which the department is attached authorizes an “overflight” over the indicated area. The department sends one of its members to collect the film, but he is murdered and the film is not recovered. Things are getting serious now, but not so serious that anything gets done correctly. The Ministry and the newer Cold War agencies, for obscure and dishonorable reasons of their own, choose not to take the matter out of the hands of the incompetent little department. Instead they allow them to re-activate themselves and mount an operation on their own. This delights the small bureaucrats (most of them Oxford men) who have been in mothballs for almost twenty years. The department begins to hum with activity; a Humber from the Ministry motor pool is put at their disposal; they take to sleeping at the office. And after some deliberation they choose to recruit once again a spy they had used in Holland during the war.

This former agent, Leiser, is a Pole by birth who has settled in England and become a prosperous garage owner. Inferior—in his own eyes and those of others—by virtue of his foreign birth, lack of education, and status, he is buffaloed by the old Oxonians into resuming his spying career. The department rents a house in North Oxford to which Leiser and several staff members are sent in order to train for their mission. But unfortunately the training is carried on with World War II equipment, World War II techniques and World War II aims. The department knows no better, and no one is going to help it out. The end is pre-ordained. Leiser is sent across the East German frontier, and he is a gone goose. He murders a sentry at once, and then begins to send long radio messages over his World War II radio set. The Russians and East Germans can’t at first believe what they are hearing—they think it must be some child or amateur tinkering with a home-made transmitter—but they soon close in and capture him. He has discovered nothing, and for political reasons is disowned by his English employers. The little department of military intelligence will presumably continue to stumble quietly along. Q.E.D.

Carré has written another spy story and thriller, but he has written something more as well. His novel falls within a tradition that originates in the Conrad of The Secret Agent, includes the Kipling of Kim and Stalky & Co., and (on its less elevated side) the novels of John Buchan. This tradition comes to him directly in the works of Graham Greene. Carré is the legitimate heir of Greene; he is, one might say, the Graham Greene of the Cold War, and it is perhaps fitting that the major difference between him and his master should lie in the nature of the Cold War. Neither Carré nor his characters has any religious belief; they live “in a wilderness of abandoned faith,” a faith moral and political as well as religious in implication. Their every attempt at faith proves to be a dangerous illusion, and they listen “with the piety of an agnostic, feeling perhaps this was how, in some clean and magic place, it really ought to be.” The field on which the Cold War is waged is neither clean nor magic, and nothing is as it really ought to be.

Carré has inverted the tradition; he shows how it has gone sour. The chief assumption of this tradition is that the world is controlled by secret forces. These forces, with their seats of power in such places as London and Moscow, require for their purposes a band of trusted agents, a “secret elite” as Carré puts it, who see to it that the world keeps running as it should. These agents joyously and skillfully play what Kipling called “The Great Game,” the secret manipulation and administration of society. This point of view was indeed appropriate in the great days of the British Empire, when for a time it seemed possible that the world was “administered” by a group of men with common assumptions, education, and skills. The men in Carré’s department still live by such assumptions because they seek “shelter from the complexities of modern life.” He represents the hopeless retraining of Leiser as “carefree, exciting days…days of honest labor and cautious but deepening attachment as the skills of boyhood became once more the weapons of war.” It is the world of Stalky & Co. all over again—the love of conspiracy and ritual, the atmosphere of the public school, the conversion of boyhood skills into adult devices of manipulation and coercion. But—like the Empire it served and the class system it embodied—it has all gone to pot; it is irrelevant to the contemporary world. This sour vision of things sets the prevailing tone of Carré’s works and accounts as much as anything else, I believe, for their success.

Carré’s other theme is nostalgia. His characters, like the England he describes, are tired, seedy, and middle-aged. World War II was the era of their youth, the time of heroism and daring, when fighting for values really mattered. Now, however, there is no heroism—“nobody wins this one, do they?” complains one character—but they go on living within the shadow cast by their heroic young manhood. Fading photographs of RAF squadrons hang on their walls; they belong to clubs made up exclusively of old World War II types; even their language evokes that long-since-canceled past—“Good Hunting” is the way they close a message. Indeed it is precisely their yearning to reinstate that past which prevents them from dealing with the present. Their blundering nostalgia for World War II and its values leads to the ruination of their plot. Yet, Carré is saying, it is also true that their blindness and foolishness contain a note of truth, that the War was, by comparison with the present, a time of meaning and of heroic possibilities. Nevertheless, it is courting disaster to live by such assumptions today.

Carré’s talents are admirably fitted to his subject and its themes. He has learned from Greene how to take shabby, incompetent, squalid persons and make them interesting by virtue of the pathos of their unattractiveness.

He had that kind of crumpled, worried face which is only a hairs-breadth from the music halls and yet is infinitely sad; a face in which the eyes are paler than their environment, and the contours converge upon the nostrils. Aware of this, perhaps, Taylor had grown a trivial moustache, like a scrawl on a photograph, which made a muddle of his face without concealing its shortcoming. The effect was to inspire disbelief, not because he was a rogue but because he had no talent for deception. Similarly he had tricks of movement crudely copied from some lost original…Yet the whole was dignified by pain, as if he were holding his little body stiff against a cruel wind.

His characters commit themselves to one another by creating “that strong love which only exists between the weak; each became the stage to which the other related his actions.”

Moreover Carré’s England is the outward counterpart of the souls of these characters.

They passed down Lambeth Road where the God of Battles presides; the Imperial War Museum at one end, schools the other, hospitals in-between; a cemetery wired off like a tennis court. You cannot tell who lives there. The houses are too many for the people, the schools too large for the children. The hospitals may be full, but the blinds are drawn. Dust hangs everywhere, like the dust of war. It hangs over the hollow façades, chokes the grass in the graveyards; it has driven away the people…

Such passages lead one to suggest that Carré’s novels—all differences in talent and seriousness being allowed for—are in their way the opposite of Ian Fleming’s, and his agents the opposite of James Bond. Bond emerges omnipotent; they are hopeless incompetents; he luxuriates in affluence, they grub along in minginess; he is in touch with all the powers of the world; they are sunk in bureaucratic miasma. Ian Fleming was a fantasist of England in the post-war period: Carré is a novelist. He is a novelist of small defeats and large disillusions, a novelist, in other words, of the periods we are living in. One is almost tempted to say that he is the first novelist of the Cold War, and in this novel he has read the Cold War in the light of World War II—which is, incidentally, a more sensible undertaking than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which represented World War II as if it were already the Cold War.

Carré has all those gifts of acute observation and crisp yet flat economical prose that characterize the tradition of the minor English novel in which he is working.

He was sleek, small and very bland; a precise cat of a man, clean-shaven and groomed. His stiff collars were cut away; he favored ties of one color, knowing perhaps that a weak claim was worse than none. His eyes were dark and quick; he smiled as he spoke, yet conveyed no pleasure. His jackets had twin vents, he kept his handkerchief in his sleeve. On Fridays he wore suede shoes, and they said he was going to the country. No one seemed to know where he lived. The room was in half darkness.

Such passages are a pleasure to read, and my principal criticism of this novel is that it does not contain enough of them. Inspired perhaps by the great success of his last novel, Carré seems to have written this new one with a movie script half in mind: some of the scenes read like scenarios rather than sections of a novel. In addition, passages which represent the inner workings of the minds of his characters are all too infrequent, and as a result considerable patches of the novel are thinner than they have any right to be. This is not the direction which a novelist of genuine talents should permit himself to take.

Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis has been widely praised in Europe. It too is an exercise in nostalgia, but of a direct and unironic kind. It celebrates and memorializes the small community of Ferrarese Jews, a large number of whom were wiped out during the War. It brings at once to mind Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, but Bassani’s work is smaller in scope and gentler in tone. The novel is told in the first person, and is an account of the narrator’s encounters with the members of the Finzi-Contini family from about 1926 to 1939. The narrative itself hangs on the long-drawn-out and finally abortive relation between the narrator and Micol, the daughter of the Finzi-Continis, but the novel’s interest and appeal are not to be found in that rather conventional though delicately handled situation.

The Finzi-Continis were the richest and most important Jews in Ferrara. Owners of vast landed estates—the founder of the line was known in the nineteenth century as “the reformer of Ferrarese agriculture”—they live in a great house, named Barchetto del Duca, which was originally owned by the “family of marchese Avogli,” who had “the bluest possible blood in their veins.” The house itself is surrounded by a large park and gardens, and the members of the family customarily marry into the Jewish patriciate of Europe. The novel undertakes to describe and celebrate the way of life that was led by that family on its estate.

These Italian Jews, while never repudiating their religion, were altogether assimilated into Italian society—indeed many of them were members of the Fascist party and remained so until they were thrown out. Their style of life was indistinguishable from the style of late nineteenth-century rich bourgeois Europeans—which is to say that it was luxurious, relaxed, extremely comfortable, materialistic,, and with-al cultivated and allowing of genuine cultivation among those of its members who chose such a way. Bassani devotes a large part of his novel to reconstructing this world and its furnishings—its food, furniture, appointments; its trees, flowers, cars, and carriages; its servants and its tennis courts. And we soon come to see that in his eyes the garden of the Finzi-Continis is an enchanted garden, that its walls enclosed and protected a whole culture. This was the culture of nineteenth-century liberal European society, a way of life that continued to exist until the beginning of the second War.

Characteristically, the Jews of Ferrara first feel the pinch of the racial laws of 1938 when they are banned from playing at the Eleonora d’Este Tennis Club. And in fact a large part of the novel takes place on and about the private tennis court of the Finzi-Continis—which sometimes made me feel as if I were reading the Italian Good-bye, Columbus. The narrator’s description of Micol is also enough to make one blink:

I saw her suddenly come out of the synagogue door and stop, alone, on the threshold. She was wearing a short leopard-skin coat drawn in at the waist with a leather belt, and, her blond hair gleaming in the light of the shop windows, looked about as if in search of someone.

One recalls that one could very likely see the same thing any Saturday in Scarsdale. Yet the people—including the young people—in this novel talk in a way that has never been heard in Scarsdale. They speak of themselves with a luxury of self-cherishing, with a resonant self-regard, a grave respect for what they have and what they have inherited. They consider themselves almost as objects to be nurtured, and their aim in existence is the pleasure of self-cultivation. They think of themselves as honored guests at the feast of life.

No such existence is possible today, and Bassani’s work is a graceful and charming elegy upon this vanished life. The novel records the de-assimilation of these thoroughly assimilated Jews, and ends at the beginning of the War. The Finzi-Continis, we learn, were later taken to concentration camps and then to Germany; they perished there, and throughout most of the rest of Europe the kind of world they represented perished as well.

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