This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In our February 10, 2022, issue Laura Marsh reviewed John le Carré’s last novel, Silverview. “Gone was the softly fading, somberly governed Britain of his novels,” she writes, “and in its place was a slick, alienating new order—a shift that le Carré had long seen coming, and fervently disliked.” Marsh fondly details the affecting, gray Britain of lamplighters, scalphunters, spies, and traitors, and, alongside their author, mourns their displacement by a new world of management consultants, PR gurus, careerists, and human resources departments.
Born in England, Marsh moved to the United States ten years ago to pursue a writing and editing career. “I always loved magazines specifically,” she told me in an e-mail this week, “for the feeling of being in a big conversation or argument over a set of ideas.” Marsh has shaped that conversation as the literary editor of The New Republic for seven years. But before that, she got her start as an assistant at The New York Review: “I didn’t know what editing really was until I started working at magazines and got to see other people doing it—especially Bob Silvers.”
Marsh has since written for the magazine on America in the 1990s and Jonathan Franzen (America in the 1970s). But her latest review took her back across the pond.
Daniel Drake: What’s your history with John le Carré, and what made you want to write about him?
Laura Marsh: I started reading a lot of le Carré after I moved to the US and there must have been some element of me that enjoyed the idealized, somber version of England he places us in. When I was reading Adam Sisman’s biography, I kept wondering if le Carré ever met Philip Larkin, because the wistfulness of the Smiley novels reminded me of the elegiac tone of a poem like “Going, Going,” where Larkin talks about “the shadows, the meadows, the lanes” being replaced with “concrete and tyres” in the ugliness of postwar England. In her more maudlin moments, George Smiley’s colleague Connie Sachs sounds like Larkin. But the closest le Carré and Larkin seem to have come to meeting each other is a dinner they were both invited to for Margaret Thatcher. Le Carré didn’t go.
Writing the piece, especially the part about Jerry Westerby’s exclamations of “Gosh, super” and “Terrific,” reminded me of the strangely opaque way that upper-class Englishmen of le Carré’s generation spoke, how much translating they required—and how infuriating I found that when I lived there.
It sounds almost as if le Carré is a kind of bard for English expats: simultaneously taken with Britishness but disgusted by the empire. Do you think in part you were motivated by a similar disillusionment to leave the UK? And does le Carré’s characterization of a sort of brazen, heedless America color your sense of life here, as well?
For me, leaving was less about disillusionment and more of a consequence of austerity. A lot of stuff I might have done just didn’t exist anymore.
I do think le Carré was wrong about Americans, though. His editor, Bob Gottlieb, is supposed to have told him that Grant Lederer in A Perfect Spy sounded like “a parody American.” Le Carré’s ear for British speech patterns and social types came from extensive, direct experience, which he didn’t really have with the US, and some of the more reflexive anti-Americanism you see in some of his novels is quite common in the UK.
What do you imagine accounts for the enduring success—perhaps relevance—of his books about, for example, cold war spies?
I think a lot of the appeal relies on the atmosphere more than on the politics itself. When you go back to a book like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, there isn’t a lot of politics in it. Apart from Haydon’s confession at the end, the characters don’t really talk about the Soviet Union or about what’s at stake politically if their work doesn’t succeed—there’s very little ideology in the books; not much talking about how great capitalism is, either.
As a literary editor, how do you decide what to cover? There are I’m sure all manner of practical concerns, but what would you say your aesthetic or principle, or even style, might be?
There’s a whole genre of essays about what book reviewing should be, usually appearing in the guise of laments about what is wrong with book reviewing. The one I found most exciting when I was starting was Rebecca West’s “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” from 1915, in which she complained that criticism had become “a chorus of weak cheers,” and she argued for “a new and abusive school of criticism.” Over the years, this may have encouraged some reviewers to spend more time tearing down authors than thinking about what they liked and why. But I think it does voice something important about criticism—that good criticism should establish what is at stake in a book, that there is, in fact, something worth arguing about.
I’ve always been most interested in pieces built around a strong argument. By that I don’t necessarily mean a polemic, the kind of argument that can blaze through a subject with a scorched-earth approach, so much as an unusual and convincing thread that runs through it all.
Are there ways you’d like to see the remit of a literary or books section expanded? Are you trying to expand or change the kind of coverage your magazine does?
One of the things that drew me to The New Republic was that it’s inherently political—so editing the books section of a political magazine always created a fairly clear set of interests, as well as a lens that allows you to look at a pretty wide range of stuff from a distinctive point of view. For instance, there are certain kinds of novels or films that we might have a more political reading of, because it’s in The New Republic, and that fits well with the taste for argument.
Are there any “undiscovered” or “unheralded” books out there that you’d love to see get more readers?
Recently, more or less by accident, some friends and I have been reading memoirs that look askance at well-known figures and got a tough hearing when they were first published. Gone by Renata Adler is a book I recommend to pretty much everyone, and I can quote chapter and verse from it. At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard is a great example of a book that never got a fair review—there are still images from the book I think about a lot (like Maynard’s seeing J. D. Salinger’s chest freezer full of fiddlehead ferns and learning that’s all he eats). Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House was an important document for me when I was writing about Philip Roth and realizing that his preferred account of his life didn’t add up. I am fairly sure it’s out of print. The copy I bought secondhand had black mold on it.
How do you like to think of a critic’s contribution to the world, or perhaps just to art? What should the critic do?
I think the best to way to answer this is to think about why anyone looks up reviews or wants to read criticism in the first place. For me, it’s always been the feeling, after finishing a book or a film, of needing to know more and to talk to people about it—to understand why you like something, or why it bothered you.