Between the lines

October 2006 / Prospect

Robert Harris may be one of Britain’s best rewarded popular novelists, but he remains a victim of literary snobbery, or so he thinks. Interviewed recently in the Observer, he complained that the kind of novels shortlisted for the Booker prize were as much works of genre as any other. Harris is considered to be a genre writer: a writer of the airport thriller and historical saga. As such, he is never in contention for the main prizes, and his latest novel, Imperium, was predictably not among the 19 titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist-although no one complained about this.

Elsewhere, there was much chatter about those writers who had been overlooked, unfairly or otherwise. Why no Ballard or Boyd? it was asked when the longlist was announced in mid-August. What about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, the 900-page experimental crime novel set in Mumbai for which Faber, improbably, paid more than £200,000, or Gautam Malkani’s debut Londonstani, written entirely in street vernacular, and for which 4th Estate paid as much as £300,000?

Another writer missing from the longlist was John le Carré, whose new novel, The Mission Song, has just been published. What is not widely known is that le Carré has long refused to allow his novels to be entered for literary prizes. Is this because he fears rejection? This is unlikely, because the remarkable success of his early thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) long ago freed him to live and work exactly as he wishes, without the need to play the literary game: the readings and festivals, the signings and award ceremonies.

Yet he remains one of the most consistently underrated of all postwar British writers. Le Carré‘s high-profile disparagers, who include Salman Rushdie and the critic James Wood, like to portray him as a mere baggage-handler of literature. Wood, reviewing Absolute Friends (2003) in the New Republic, spent more than 5,000 words arguing that le Carré was not a “literary novelist,” as if anyone should care about such classifications.

Le Carré is certainly a writer more interested in character, plot and agency than in the literary high style. His prose is never charged. But from the beginning, he had an urgent subject-the cold war-and a compelling preoccupation-secrecy. What Wood neglected to consider was how well le Carré documented the detail and absurdities of the cold war and how, with the help of BBC adaptations of his work, he created characters that would live long after most literary novels are forgotten. He created his own idiom and vocabulary-the Circus, lamplighters, scalphunters, Moscow Centre-which, in time, would become part of the wider discourse of espionage.

With the end of the cold war, there was a sense that le Carré had reached a terminus. There was nowhere else for him to go. His subject had been taken from him. But this was not the case. He has continued to publish prolifically, moving the settings of his novels to Latin America and Africa as he monitors the corruption and arrogance, as he sees it, of the west. His politics are cruder now than when he was writing with such understanding about the compromises and betrayals of the clandestine world; much of Absolute Friends was given over to denouncing George Bush and Tony Blair, and the invasion of Iraq. The Mission Song is set in and around the Congo and, like The Constant Gardener, returns to the theme of how the west has been complicit in the failures of postcolonial African states.

David Cornwell (le Carré was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover) is now 75 and, according to Roland Philipps, his long-time editor at Hodder Headline, is in “robust health and starting work on a new book.” As a young man, Cornwell taught at Eton and later worked for MI6. He was in flight from a tormented childhood and a huckster father who was as monstrous as he could be charming. He fictionalised his father in A Perfect Spy (1986), which Philip Roth believes to be the best British novel published since the war.

There are many more secrets in Cornwell’s life. When a proposal for an unauthorised biography of him by the journalist Graham Lord was circulated among publishers, Cornwell responded by issuing a writ for libel against Lord. The official biography is in good hands - those of Robert Harris. “I signed the contract to write David’s biography [with Hutchinson] before I began to write novels myself,” Harris told me. “We signed a legal agreement stating that I could not publish the book until he died and that he would not collaborate with another biographer. Do I still want to write the book? Oh yes. I admire him enormously.”

Le Carré fans will hope that the biography remains on hold for a long time.

Malkovich in Disgrace

John Malkovich is to play David Lurie in the film of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, one of the great novels of the last 25 years. Shooting will begin in South Africa later this year, but Malkovich will play Lurie-the despairing and isolated academic who is forced to leave his university post following an affair with a student-not as a South African, but, oddly, as a Brit. Disgrace is an austere and unsentimental examination of the racial tensions and cultural mediocrity of post-apartheid South Africa; it was denounced by senior ANC politicians as racist when it won the Booker prize in 1999. Coetzee emigrated to Australia in 2002. Other contenders for the role of Lurie were Ralph Fiennes and, inevitably, Jeremy Irons, a specialist in elegant misanthropy.