BOOK CLUB: The Pigeon Tunnel

BILL NASSON is enthralled by the cryptic, shadowy patchwork of memories that form spy novelist John le Carré’s masterful memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel.

The Pigeon Tunnel

In his recent mammoth 652-page biography of John le Carré, one of the world’s major writers, his biographer suggests that the reason that he continues to practise his craft well into his mid-eighties is that ‘writing has become a form of addiction for him’. Or perhaps, as Adam Sisman concludes in his 2017 John le Carré: The Biography, his compulsive book production is ‘his way of ordering an untidy life’. Indeed, his most recent act of psychological settling, published earlier this year at the age of 85, is the novel, A Legacy of Spies.

To read it is to be reminded that Le Carré has lost none of his masterly narrative grip and fondness for edgy metaphors. His casting of the spell of an atmospheric story continues to pull in the reader as if in some modern version of Coleridge’s eighteenth-century Ancient Mariner. Come to that, today John le Carré has become something of an Ancient Mariner himself. And while a famous literary figure, he remains a shadowy, little-known personality. In that sense, he might be seen as the J.M. Coetzee of his artistic genre – the Cold War and post Cold War spy story.

The unusual title of this collection of John le Carré’s non-fiction writings, The Pigeon Tunnel, has a lengthy pedigree. Both the author and his biographer, Adam Sisman, reveal that it was the original working title of virtually every book he has written. It entered Le Carré’s imagination in the early 1950s when he found himself witnessing a pigeon-shoot in front of a fancy casino in Monaco. Cradling shotguns, the beady-eyed rich basked on the seafront lawns while pigeons which were shoved into dark underground tunnels beneath waggled out into the bright Mediterranean sunlight. As the birds fluttered skywards above the sea they were shot by the hotel guests. Pigeons who escaped the cruel fire then did what pigeons tend to do – they flew back to the casino roof where they had been bred, only to be captured and inserted into a tunnel to run the deadly gauntlet once again.

In typically enigmatic fashion, John le Carré informs us that he is unable to provide a personal explanation of why he has been haunted for so long by the memory of the pigeon tunnel, clearly a grotesque image that has lodged in his mind like a limpet. There is, though, no shortage of clues dotted about in the 38 absorbing pieces which make up The Pigeon Tunnel – its writer’s poignant understanding of the pigeons and their world of entrapment – unable to escape through flight, lacking the guile to dodge their awful fate, and doomed to repeat their deadly spiral. That bleak hint at destiny is there, too, in A Destiny of Spies, reportedly meant to be his last book. In it, the padlocked predicament that befalls Peter Guillam, the stalwart MI6 agent sidekick of Le Carré’s greatest character creation, George Smiley, is illuminated nicely by a line from the Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer: ‘We be tied and bound by the chain of our sins’.

Still, don’t be misled into thinking that the spirit of this cooing nest of Stories from My Life is all searing or broodingly melancholic. For it is virtuoso John le Carré, displaying in his autobiographical non-fiction the renowned trademarks of his famous fictional works like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl. This consistently entertaining compilation contains slices of life experience presented in ways that are exhilaratingly inventive and artful, are often cryptic, that reveal a keen ear for the tiny nuances of speech and dialogue, which dabble in fresh turns of the screw, which capture the coded condescension and sarcasm of educated elites, and which switch silkily between credible fact and a fictional re-imagining of some or other incident or person.

Even if there are moments when you may find yourself scratching your head over the depiction of something or other, you are encouraged to suspend any disbelief and to read on. After all, as Le Carré reflects in one of the short essays in this collection, that dealing with the creation of his novel, The Tailor of Panama, he hit on the name, Pendel, for the book’s arch-deceiver and fantasist. Why? Not merely because it was resonant of early immigrant Jewish tailoring families.

More tellingly, it was also after the German word for pendulum, as ‘I liked to think of him swinging back and forth between truth and fiction’. With a shifty Pendel in place, all that remained was to conjure up ‘a decadent, well-born British rascal’ with an eye on the money to recruit him.

Such furtiveness is displayed abundantly in The Pigeon Tunnel, and we know where it comes from. ‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods’, John le Carré writes, ‘are pretty good at inventing themselves’. The story of his life is at one level one of how his boyhood skills at fabrication, concealment and deception went on to become polished professionally in adulthood through work in British intelligence and as a spy, and in his trade as a subtle teller of intricate spy stories.

It is not for nothing that John le Carré is a mask over his real name, David Cornwell. Far more than any commonplace thriller writer’s pseudonym, in the murky world of MI6 espionage it would also serve as a cover name. As the reader is told by this most inscrutable of writers, ‘out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit’. In its Pigeon Tunnel autobiographical creation, Le Carré’s ‘true stories told from memory’ have no pretence at being ‘pure’. For a creative writer in what he calls ‘the evening of his life… real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance’, and that facility, in turn, is the product of ‘a lifetime of blending experience with imagination’.

Thus, whatever the beans which Le Carré spills in this book are of a deliciously calculating sort. Right towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, we are told, ‘I don’t type. I have never typed’. That sense of a hand snaking across a page to compose this or that fluid masterpiece feels right, even oddly reassuring – penmanship is surely something to be expected of an Eton-and Oxford-educated British mandarin, brought up on polished hand-written memos rather than Microsoft Office. But is the claim never to have typed really true? Small wonder that so much of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life drips mystery of a highly intelligent kind.

With Le Carré’s autobiographical stew covered by this cryptic crust, we get meaty slivers which cover almost 350 pages. There are deftly composed snapshots of his personal encounters with secret police interrogators, spies, terrorists, journalists, war correspondents, film directors and actors, politicians (including Margaret Thatcher and Francesco Cossiga, the president of Italy), political prisoners, Cold War political defectors, and diplomats (mostly devious).

Rich in human insight, they are vivid in detail and written with unfailing panache and often a sardonic edge. Take, for instance, his fleeting acquaintance as an Oxford student with one of his undergraduate peers, a man called Reginald Bosanquet. Decades later, he became the television newsreader, Reggie Bosanquet, famous in Britain of the 1960s and 1970s for his tendency to hit the bottle before fumbling his way through the evening news. Even as a young undergraduate, Bosanquet had a swagger and deep pockets, ‘a private income, a sports car, beautiful women and a kind of premature adulthood to go with them’.

As a cash-strapped le Carré recalls, ruefully and candidly, ‘we liked each other, but there is only so much time you can spend with a man who lives the life you dream of and can afford it when you can’t’.

There is much else in this book on those with a stifled yearning for more and a genius for deceit. Perhaps the most powerful – and by far the most poignant – is ‘Son of the author’s father’ – a reflection on ‘Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father’. The author sniffs around him, weaving the strands of his glamorous and grubby worlds together, building up the sense of a disreputable family man whose ‘entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine’. As a haunting memoir, it is masterly.

As I was finishing this review, there was news of the death in London of Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the centre of the 1963 Profumo Scandal which resulted in the fall of Britain’s Conservative government. With the Cold War hot, she was found to be sleeping simultaneously with John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War and with Yevgeny Ivanov, the naval attaché of the Soviet embassy in London. It is worth thinking about this as classic John le Carré territory, and what his hands would have made of it as fiction. Except that he would not have needed to make it up.

The Pigeon Tunnel is published by Penguin. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.

EXTRACT: In Gratitude

An excerpt from the memoir by JENNY DISKI.Jenny-Diski-8-790x430

When she died in November at the age of ninety-four, I’d known Doris for fifty years. In all that time, I’ve never managed to gure out a designation for her that properly and succinctly describes her role in my life, let alone my role in hers. We have the handy set of words to describe our nearest relations: mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, aunt, cousin, although that’s as far as it usually goes in contemporary Western society.

Doris wasn’t my mother. I didn’t meet her until she opened the door of her house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross, after I had knocked on it to be allowed in to live with her. What should I call her to others? For several months I lived with Doris, and worked in the office of a friend of hers. Then, after some effort, she persuaded my father to allow me to go back to school. As a punishment, he had vetoed further schooling after I was expelled – for climbing out of the first-floor bathroom window to go to a party in the town – from the progressive, co-ed boarding school that Camden Council had sent me to some years before. (‘We think you will be better living away from your mother for some of the time. Normally, we would send you to one of our schools for maladjusted children, but because your IQ is so high, we’re going to send you to a private school, St Christopher’s, which takes a few local authority cases like yours,’ the psychologists at University College Hospital had said to me, rather unpsychologically. I was eleven.) My father relented and Doris sent me to a progressive day school.

At the new school, aged 15 as I tried to ease myself back into being a schoolgirl after my adventures in real life (working full time in a shoe shop, a grocery shop, and then being a patient in a psychiatric hospital), I discovered I had to have some way of referring to the person I lived with to my classmates. It turned out that teenagers constantly refer to and complain about their parents and they use the regular handles. Not that I would, under the circumstances, have complained. But could I refer to Doris as my adoptive mother? She hadn’t adopted me, although she’d suggested it. We even went to see a solicitor in the first month, who must have had a wilful teenager of his own, because instead of coolly discussing the legal situation, he turned to me and ranted about the awfulness of teenagers these days, my undeserved good fortune, the selfishness of giving my parents so much worry and his inability to believe I had any psychological problems – I merely wanted special treatment and attention. I stared at him, feeling both slapped and in the middle of someone else’s cartoon, but before he could finish what sounded uncannily like the solicitor’s speech in John Osborne’s play Inadmissible Evidence, a year or so later, Doris grabbed my sleeve and we escaped down the winding wooden staircase, with the sound of his voice echoing behind us. In addition, my mother had one of her screaming fits and threatened to sue Doris for alienation of affection (hilarity ensued) if she tried to adopt me. So that was quietly dropped. I sometimes said ‘adoptive mother’ anyway, as an easy though inexact solution. It wasn’t only for form’s sake that it mattered how I referred to her; whenever I was called on to say ‘Doris, my, er . . . sort of, adoptive mother . . . my, er . . . Doris . . .’ to refer to my adult-in-charge, I was aware of giving the wrong impression.

In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury. Read our review of the book here.

BOOK CLUB: In Gratitude

CHRISTINE EMMETT on Jenny Diski’s extraordinary memoir, which charts the final months of life with cancer.

In Gratitude

I recently heard of someone just outside my social circle who was bullshitting their cancer diagnosis. No one was really clear on what type of cancer he had, but all were clear that it was very serious and that much attention and care, along with furtive glances for text-updates, were required. It was unsettling to find out that it had all been concocted. Even more so because he had kept a blog in which he documented his ostensible battle with cancer. Hearing about this a few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite figure out how all the sympathetic and supportive do-gooders around him had missed the absence of oncology clinics, physical stress and exorbitant financial demands which cancer imposes. But then, perhaps, it also occurs to me that the narrative spin had value beyond the immediate desire to manipulate one’s friends.

There is something sacrosanct about the cancer/death narrative. Even this year, another “exceptional” “life-affirming” and “affecting” cancer biography has topped bestseller lists. That said, neither the bestseller nor the fictitious blog is the subject of this particular review (If this is your kind of thing, though, you can watch the book’s overwrought trailer here; the blog, though, has unfortunately been taken down). But what do these narratives, which we clearly believe to the point of exclusion, contribute to our lives? And why do their subjects continue to write them?

Death (à la Heidegger) is one angle through which to consider the impact of the cancer biography; that living “towards death” may lend authenticity to one’s life, as the phenomenologist claims. Nonetheless, the age-old tendency towards deathbed pronouncements remains the preserve of old guys spewing platitudes about the sanctity of life: magnanimous gestures, the raising and dropping of hands, some forgiveness and much condescension (do see Mr Hitchen’s attempt to subvert this in Mortality [2012], though his ‘intervention’ remains fairly grandiose and histrionic). From an alternative perspective, Siddartha Mukherjee in his masterful book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer suggests that cancer may itself stands as the ultimate figuration of death – the disease that functions as an evasive aporia of medical science, felling and disfiguring people for centuries without any formidable cure in sight.

Otherwise, as the fictitious blog seems to attest, is it not also possible that cancer biographies play into a desire for controlled pity and tragedy? In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), DG Compton presents us with a dystopian future where the bewildered and dying Katherine Mortenhoe is hounded by a reality TV show. You see, in the world of Compton’s novel, medicine has progressed so far that barely anyone dies anymore (except for old people, but then no one seems to care about them), so a reality TV show allows the “pain-starved” public a glimpse into “real life” – an endlessly contradictory commodity. Within this context, though, the camera’s mediation is an absolute necessity – no one really wants to confront the physical messiness of disease and death; the same viewers who will experience these “orgies of compassion”, are those who must be kept at a distance: “It was only face to face that they feared her. It was only face to face that, given a leader, they’d have torn her limb from limb.”

I’m harping on, but it’s into this questionable morass that I’ve chosen Jenny Diski’s memoir/cancer-diary, In Gratitude, as my book of the month. On the most basic level, I’ve chosen it because my partner died of cancer last year, and around the time that his diagnosis became terrifying, Diski went public about hers and started writing monthly instalments on her experiences in the London Review of Books (LRB). This meant that I could read Diski’s ascerbic narration of chemotherapy and radiation (“weekends off, just like a regular job”), concurrent to attending its gruesome effects on my partner. I read her instalments as though they were an act of love, and when she died earlier this year I experienced my loss twice over.

The LRB instalments would later be collected and published as part of the main text of Diski’s book – what she describes as a “cancer memoir”. In keeping with the genre, the first essay/chapter describes Diski receiving her diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer; “So – we’d better get cooking the meth,” she tells her partner. And so Diski starts her treatment – a mixture of chemotherapy and radiation, exploring the muggy space of memory and uncertainty (how long do I have left?) and the last-ditch world of palliative oncology. If anything, rather than focusing on grander aspects of her life, Diski mines the banalities, petty feelings and generally unpleasant matters of her existence; the parts that have been excluded by the standard cancer biography.

On the one hand, to die pushing seventy years of age is not great tragedy, even if my id would like to know what the fuck age has got to do with being rubbed out. Even so, such reasonableness doesn’t take account of the kind of thoughts that run swiftly through my mind. Two to three years. Will the battery on the TV remote run out first? How many inches will the weeping birch grow, the one planted by the Poet for my sixtieth birthday (soppy old radical versifier)?

Alongside this account, she also details her relationship with Nobel prize-winning author Doris Lessing. Lessing took Diski in when she was 15. This act, itself remarkable, seems especially discordant when considered in the context of Lessing’s having left two of her own children in Zimbabwe when she moved to London some two decades before. Diski, in considering this contradiction, highlights both Lessing’s “immense personal bravery” as well as “her ruthlessness in pursuit of her cause,” that is, her writing  – a decision that affects all her children: those abandoned in Zimbabwe, the single child (Peter) taken with to London, and, later, the freshy adopted Diski. Diski may have been ‘rescued’ from her histrionic mother and con-artist father, but the adoption also introduced a profoundly ambiguous and embattled relationship between the two writers; Diski was considered a “waif” on Lessing’s doorstep, with her subsequent behaviour read as a lack of gratitude.

Funnily enough, a lack of conventional gratitude and communal feeling is exactly what has drawn me to Diski’s writing. It’s difficult to think of anyone else who could visit South Africa in the early 2000s, prior to the growing scepticism about “the miracle of truth and reconciliation”, and flatly state that her time in Cape Town was like “being in a wealthy nowhere-in-particular.” (Her essay is aptly titled, “On not liking South Africa”.)

But as she states “I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script.” So given the now well-trodden path of the death/cancer narrative, Diski attempts to write against by emphasizing ‘pettiness’ and peculiarity of mind. For instance, in a few paragraphs she considers her prospective lifeline in terms of who will die first: her or Clive James? The winner, I can now attest, is unquestionably Clive James, who soldiers on, despite his leukaemia (he’s pointed out that he’s “highly embarrassed” to still be alive); while Diski died in April this year.

And this leads me to the creaky title of Diski’s memoir: In Gratitude which recalls the standard magnanimity of cancer memoirs, but also suggests its homophonic pair – ingratitude – a play on the interchangeability of the two feelings.

No one is actively ungrateful to anyone; it’s something of an “Ugly Feeling” in that it reflects a weak intentionality when compared with more directed emotions, like anger. Ingratitude therefore reflects more, perhaps, on the expectations of others – a deficiency of appreciation registered through the subject’s visual or verbal expression. In this way it is a feeling that is diagnosed, rather than experienced. But in this sense gratitude, itself, seems to come into conflict with individuality. And what makes Diski’s writing so piercing is her profound need to assert this individuality, throughout her illness, but also against her family, the beatniks she gets hammered with during the 70s and, most significantly, Doris Lessing.

Thus, if there is a struggle in this book, it is for Diski to retain her own aesthetic in the face of the “preordained banality” of cancer. And indeed, as banality has been read since Hannah Arendt, sickness and death are realms which easily lead to de-individualisation and dehumanisation. To see this in the context of cancer – the concept of palliative care (which we associate with Hospice) only came into being around 1950’s. The scepticism with which it was met meant that only in the 1980s did it come to Southern Africa; prior to which the end of your life was barely life at all. In so much is sickness still a realm apart, as Susan Sontag notes in her Illness as Metaphor (1978), that one is either construed as a suffering martyr, edified by one’s illness, or horrifying, decrepit and pitiable (poor Katherine Mortenhoe). These figurations collapse individuality; it is hard to imagine the desires or fears of the sick and dying, no less that these subjects may feel peevish or even lustful (in the interest of these issues, see Von Trier’s film, Breaking the Waves [1996], or HBO’s series, Getting On [2013]).

Diski’s light-handed humour is gradually weighed down towards the end of her book. The pace of the writing slows, and the text loses its breath. A seemingly endless capacity for mirth and irony in the face of death gives way to circumspection and anger, with much of her anger remaining focused on her relationship with Lessing.

At stake is the ambiguity of the relationship, as well as its potentially destructive effect of Lessing’s son, Peter. Peter was, to most observers “the chosen one”, the child who was actually taken to London. In this sense, Diski, upon her adoption became “a cuckoo in Peter’s nest” (even though he had suggested that they take Diski in). “Peter”, Diski notes, “is the great enigma in the story of Doris. He actually is the story of Doris, both in her youth and in her old age. It’s very hard to know how to present the two of them as the years went by, how to describe the dyad they made and which locked them together more and more grotesquely for the rest of both of their lives.”

Peter Lessing died just a few months before Doris – and when he died, by Diski’s account, he died a prisoner without an autonomous existence: agoraphobic, catatonic, empty and “gross”.

When we die, it seems we become public property. Likewise, grief will not necessarily be a question of just deserts. A manipulative and antagonistic colleague is likely to send out emails announcing their great love for the dearly departed; opportunistic acquaintances step in to fulfil societal roles that are meant for the closest of friends. It’s safe to say, that your narrative slips into the hands of others. In this way, we have yet to witness the rumblings and backlash from Diski’s characterisation of Lessing and her son’s relationship. For one thing, Lessing made Diski promise that she would never write about their relationship. But then Lessing had already used Diski as the subject of one of her novels (Memoirs of a Survivor [1974]). And so here, in this memoir, Diski wrestles the towering dame of letters, to retrieve her own narrative through a subjective, and at times fraught and possibly cruel, recasting of Lessing. What begins as the final stand of Lessing’s “waif” ends as a testament to writing against.

In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury. Read an extract here.


“You don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks”: an interview with Edmund White

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the acclaimed gay author Edmund White.

Edmund White

Before my interview with Edmund White, I walk along the High Line in Chelsea. I do this partly because it is my first time in New York City – and a stroll along the High Line is the kind of thing one does on your first time here. But partly, too, because I’m gnawingly nervous: looming ahead of me is a conversation with one of the greatest gay writers on the planet and I’m not sure I feel up to the task.

I first discovered White in the Cape Town Central Library, when, as an 18-year-old, I was hungrily searching the stacks for gay sex scenes. Some thoughtful (and presumably queer) sod had labelled the spine of every vaguely homoerotic book in the fiction section with a pink triangle – this helped my quest inordinately. Under “W”, there was White’s luminous, exquisite (and incidentally not-very-explicit) novel, A Boy’s Own Story. Much later, I read his personal memoir, My Lives, and what was then his most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Since our chat, an even newer one, Our Young Man, has been published.)

Weaving between the tourist throngs clogging the blustery spring afternoon, I feel woefully underprepared. Because aside from more than a dozen works of fiction, White has written essays, journalism (for American Vogue, Time and plenty of other titles), plays and biographies (including ones about the legendary French writers Genet and Proust). He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was made Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French. Only three books in, I’ve barely scratched his oeuvre’s surface.

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