Novel of the week

Single & Single

John le Carre <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £16.99</em>

Far from being silenced by the end of the cold war between Smiley's Circus and Moscow Centre, John le Carre has never run short of new villains to go after or new wars to fight since 1989. Single & Single is 17th in the line stretching from Call for the Dead (1961) to The Tailor of Panama (1996), and while I don't think it's one of his best, it contains enough good things to remind us how, for much of the 1990s, le Carre has been on terrific form.

In the post-Circus novels the old demarcations between government, City, customs, surveillance, piracy and police are scuffed, and new twilight zones shadow the edges of tired victory and defeat. Nobody speaks the truth any more than they used to, because the secrecy compelled by the war between the rival systems retains its seductiveness in the peace. Is anyone in control? Not even The Night Manager (1993) and Our Game (1995), both marvellous and disconcerting novels, running like video nightmares zapped by an unseen hand, provide an answer.

In Single & Single the collapse of the Soviet empire once again opens a Pandora's box of ruthlessness and greed, to say nothing of increased opportunities for travel. Cocaine, the millennial eldorado, resumes the ancient and medieval trade routes from Asia and crosses the Iron Curtain as though it had never existed (what's a mere 50 years in more than 2,000?); finance for Russian projects is laundered in Istanbul; there are civil wars in Mingrelia, as there were civil wars between Englishmen conferring beside the Thames.

Tiny Tiger Single - 5'3" even in Lobb's raised heels - runs a Mayfair venture-capital house, which bankrolls projects across this flakey world and offers "the best legal loopholes that money can buy". His towering son Oliver is the lawyer learning the loopholes. But Ollie is low on self-esteem and high on confused conscience, and when Tiger does business with Muscovite gangsters who propose to trade with the west in Russian scrap, oil and transfused human blood, he goes to the customs and the police. Customs officer Brock, assigned to a joint team running the war against international crime, gives Ollie a fictional identity and makes him disappear. We discover him as a children's entertainer on the south Devon coast. Good early Hitchcock, this, with lots of unease among the brats and balloons.

Oliver, "the nearly-good soldier", is the latest of le Carre's lost boys to free-fall though the dead morality of the age, taking its sorrows to himself. Such ghosts are themselves haunted by a guilt that their mission in life is unfinished, and so make a soft touch for recruitment to fight the good fight, wherever it turns up next. In all these honourable schoolboys there is the very Greene-ish suggestion of despair as a state of grace.

Lost boys idolise women and suffocate their marriages by neglect. In Single & Single foolish wives with names like Heather and Bunny are only allowed to mock the guilt from the back lumber-room of their husbands' minds, while the children, though loved and sometimes in danger, are scarcely better seen. It now emerges that things are not much different in Moscow or the high Caucasus, except that the women are more tragic, more beautiful, and - unlike posh, adulterous Ann Smiley - shoot to kill.

Despite shrinkage by telecommunications and the Bond-like availability of private transport that makes a crossing of the Black Sea sound like a taxi-ride to Pinner, "abroad", at first, seems to remain dangerously different from England in the new book. But to paranoid Oliver Single, there is no place on earth that is not alarmed - and certainly not Teignmouth or Torquay.

As ever, Switzerland is the most subtly alarmed of all. A landing at Zurich airport, if you are lucky enough to get one, is one of the best moments in a le Carre novel because it is like coming home. The game is immediately raised, the alertness-level shoots up; the narrative takes on a wit that comes from real anger often suppressed elsewhere, and chasms of deception rumble beneath the perfect daily life. In Single & Single, we meet Dr Conrad, a death's-head Swiss banker who dumps Tiger the minute the gangsters turn nasty, executes one of his lawyers in Turkey and sends him a bill for £200 million. Tiger, naturally, has a change of identity himself and, in the last accelerating chase of the book, hidden son attempts to find hidden father while father is still alive. On the way, there is a scene with his mother good enough to make you think of Hamlet.

Le Carre is a history painter in the open air and a miniaturist indoors. He combines a choreographic mastery of the big moment - a revolution, an invasion, a race meeting - with an eye (and ear) for the tiny duplicities of human behaviour in small, secret rooms. Few readers of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) will forget the tarmac-scraping flight from Vientiane or the "Derby Day" crowd at Happy Valley in Hong Kong; no sharper picture of concealing male deviousness exists in modern British fiction than the clashes between rival security services in Our Game. Such things are less evident in the new novel, where Oliver needs a more complex antagonist, Tiger and Brock lack flesh, and the human landscapes of Turkey and Georgia are less exuberantly well imagined than those of the Canal Zone in The Night Manager and The Tailor of Panama. The overall focus is less keen.

As one of our best living novelists, John le Carre should long ago have won the Booker prize, but he is excluded from the field as a writer of genre fiction - ie, "spy novels". In fact, he writes novels about spies, which is not the same thing, and about the way we live today. Well, about the way certain kinds of English men live today; and it is more than enough.

Michael Ratcliffe is a former literary editor of the "Observer"

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide