Reviewed: A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

Secrets and lies.

A Delicate Truth
John le Carré
Viking, 336pp, £18.99

Behind the conspiracy that drives John le Carré’s new novel is an American private defence company that calls itself “Ethical Outcomes”. It might more accurately have called itself “Unethical Incomes”. Like all of his novels, A Delicate Truth asks how to create ethical outcomes in an increasingly venal society. In the cold war thrillers that established his reputation, le Carré followed the effects of the conflict between the ideologies of east and west, “communism” v“freedom”. Over the past decade or so, his books have increasingly focused on the moral vacuum that has emerged from the hollow triumph of capitalism, as we all discover that there is nothing free about a world in which anything is potentially for sale – on the contrary, it is proving very costly indeed.

If 2001’s The Constant Gardener was le Carré’s attack on Big Pharma, A Delicate Truth is an attack on what he calls “Big Greed” – the transformation of a market economy into a market society. Big Greed is ruining le Carré’s Britain, which is becoming less great by the day: there are no George Smileys left in this atomised society. Instead, a toxic individualism holds sway, which can only be answered by the increasingly rare consciences of honest men fighting their way through a dishonourable world.

The novel opens with American mercenaries in 2008 engaged in a bit of extraordinary rendition in Gibraltar, using a British diplomat named Kit Probyn as a “fig leaf” to cover their illegal operation on foreign soil. Probyn has been ordered by the minister of defence, one Fergus Quinn, to come to the aid of Queen and country, believing that the objective of “Operation Wildlife” is counter - terrorism. Eventually, Probyn learns that he was unwitting in more ways than one: told that the top-secret operation had been an unqualified success, he was shipped off to a plum post in the Caribbean and knighted, when, in reality, the operation – unethical on the face of it –was far more immoral than he knew and a fiasco to boot.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s secretary, Toby Bell, who has refused to countenance what he suspects is his minister’s hand in the nation’s till, becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with the mysterious J Crispin. The name is presumably a deeply ironic reference to Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech, for this Crispin is busily selling arms, honour and country to the highest bidder. (The literary allusions don’t end there: Quinn calls Toby “old sport” – the italics are le Carré’s and irritating – and, two pages later, Toby wonders whether the J Crispin of whom he has heard might be named “Jay like Jay Gatsby”. Whether this is an allusion to Crispin’s criminal allegiances or his fraudulence or a wry undermining of the way that people like him are destroying American and British dreams of equality and meritocracy is impossible to say, because le Carré abandons the comparison, never to return to it.)

Toby acquires incriminating evidence about Operation Wildlife and joins forces with Probyn to expose the nefarious plot of Crispin and Quinn. The problem is that no one in their government wants it exposed. Faced with a secret state relying on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, Toby and Kit must search for a way to hold power accountable.

At the heart of the story is a Hitchcockian McGuffin: Toby has a recording of a secret meeting, in the comically low-tech form of reel-to-reel tapes, relics of the cold war era that no one has remembered to remove from ministerial offices. As the questions mount, so does the suspense: what really happened on the night of Operation Wildlife? What are Crispin’s real plans and who does he work for? What was the operation’s objective, behind the cover-up, and how did it go so spectacularly awry? The problem with A Delicate Truth is that the McGuffin is just that – a device so uninteresting that le Carré doesn’t even bother to answer all of these questions. He has planted the device purely for the purposes of denouncing the duplicity and hyp - ocrisy of the new secret state.

At his best, le Carré parses the workings of conflicted loyalties, the balancing of one value against another, of moral idealism against political realism. Lately, his novels have traded less in moral ambiguity and more in the certainties of heroes and villains. The book vibrates with le Carré’s patent indignation at the sense that our politicians are betraying all of us and the values they are meant to uphold. Instead of asking difficult questions about whether unethical means can justify ethical ends, however, A Delicate Truth pits the ethical against the unethical, good guys against bad, the moral against the amoral, honest British soldiers against dishonest American mercenaries.

At almost the dead centre of the novel, Kit Probyn, who has retired with his wife to a picturesque village in Cornwall, attends the local “annual fayre”, over which he has been asked to preside as the lord of misrule. “It’s here and now, Kit thinks, as the elation rises in him,” Le Carré writes.

The jostling crowds, the palominos cavorting in the meadows, the sheep safely grazing on the hillside, even the new bungalows that deface the lower slopes of Bailey’s Hill: if this isn’t the land they have loved and served for so long, where is? And all right, it’s Merrie bloody England, it’s Laura bloody Ashley, it’s ale and pasties and yo-ho for Cornwall, and tomorrow morning all these nice, sweet people will be back at each other’s throats, screwing each other’s wives and doing all the stuff the rest of the world does. But right now it’s their National Day, and who’s an ex-diplomat of all people to
complain if the wrapping is prettier than what’s inside?

Yet his recognition that this is sentimental nonsense does not make it less sentimental or less nonsensical. Le Carré once told an interviewer that his style developed from his training as a young intelligence officer writing reports: “We went for a bald style . . . profound suspicion of adjectives, and making the verb do the work.” A Delicate Truth continues to follow this stylistic principle but he should be more suspicious of this adjectival scene. It is disconcerting, to say the least, to read a writer of le Carré’s acuity defending the pretty wrapper of heritage tourism and superficial patriotism. This scene undermines everything that the novel ought to be about: defending the heart of the nation, not its selfdeceiving trappings.

As if to compensate for the degradation of the world he portrays, le Carré has responded with fictions that are increasingly consoling and heroes who are rewarded with upright women who stiffen their moral backbones. These women may be more admirable than the serially unfaithful Ann Smiley of earlier books but they are no less one-dimensional. If they are not quite cardboard characters, there is certainly no George Smiley here, either. And the plot proves to be as under - developed as the characters, the conspiracy so gestural, that it is hard to remember that the author is the man who gave us the intricate, internecine plots of Smiley’s world.

In the end, the question of what happens to the whistle-blower is at the heart of the story and the best thing about this book is its final paragraph, in which le Carré gives his deeply sinister answer to that question. That paragraph alone makes A Delicate Truth worth reading, not only for the obvious pleasures to be offered by a master of suspense but for the brutal truth he forces us to confront at the story’s end.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby” will be published in June by Little, Brown

John le Carré at home in Cornwall in 2010. Photograph: Paul Calver

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain