The attraction of David Cornwell

I went to see the recently released film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman, and while he was perfect, Colin Firth was very disappointing. For me Bill Haydon was always Julian Sands or Ralph Fiennes. Colin Firth is too heavy set, and even though he is described as “jolly” in the book, Firth has none of the mad romantic that I saw as Haydon’s chief quality (and of course flaw). A shame, but Tom Hardy (who plays Ricky Tarr) makes the cinema ticket worthwhile, and of course Benedict Cumberbatch is accomplished as ever.

It took me some time to read a John le Carre novel; the first one I picked up was, as it probably is for most people, the eponymous film and TV series – and I couldn’t get past the first densely written description of a grim but typical day in London. Perhaps I was too young at 17.

So the first of his books that I read was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, when I was 25, and I was mesmerised.  After that, I read virtually everything he wrote. I keep changing my mind about which one was my favourite; perhaps his autobiographical A Perfect Spy, or the apparently overlooked second instalment in the Smiley trilogy, An Honourable Schoolboy. Since I spent my teenage years in Heidelberg, I also had quite an affinity with Absolute Friends.

As an author, he does what all good authors do, and allows the reader to believe that they are somehow simultaneously the author and the protagonist. The books seemed to speak to me, to my slightly jaded but nonetheless optimistic view of human nature. The main subject of his books is the disappointments of life, which everyone has in common. Some people address those disappointments with pragmatism and resolve, others are easily persuaded that they deserve more, and can be ruthless in obtaining it. In some novels, the pragmatist is the hero; in others, the reckless dreamer is the hapless victim of a far more disappointed man. It is a conflict I enjoyed reading about, and his writing is full of passion and life. I was for a long time completely intrigued, and wanted to somehow find out who David Cornwell actually was, and whether his reason for assuming a pseudonym was a way of distancing the personalities that are so closely described, or whether conversely it was hinting at his own “square” character that could also describe Smiley.

But then I bought the TV series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the character was not at all as I had imagined him. The pace seemed so slow, everything so real and ironically more one-dimensional than a page of the book could ever be. It made me wonder if I had seen something in the character that was not there for anyone else. At any rate, I read The Little Drummer Girl shortly before I went on holiday to Greece (where I read Marian Keyes on the beach and Tolstoy on a boat) in 2008, and came back full of ideas for my own novel about betrayal and double agents.

It was a vague plot I hatched off the back of an amusing incident involving a German tourist whom we sat opposite on a day-long cruise around the volcanoes of Santorini. The German spent the entire day watching my sister and I, and talking to his wife about every aspect of our appearance, about his very dim view of English customs, food, clothing, education system and of course weather. It was rather stupid of him not to even suspect that two blonde girls reading Russian classics might in fact speak more than one language. His face was a picture when, after eight hours, we got up and said in entirely native German, “Thank you and goodbye”. The plot I had in mind was him telling his wife a story about the war, which by coincidence involved our English grandfather and the Dresden campaign. It would transpire from this conversation that our grandfather was in fact German as well, but had betrayed his German friend and changed sides, as a result of which his friend’s parents were killed.

I never did get started writing it, because betrayal ended up seeming like such a trite theme on its own. I suppose it gets written about so often because it happens so often.

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