Ever since learning of the passing of John le Carre, the celebrated British author, and creator of fictional characters like George Smiley, I have been in a shroud of sadness. After tossing and turning last night, I woke up early and went for a walk. It was very cold in San Francisco (by San Francisco standards, at least), and I wanted the chilled sea air to wash out my melancholy brain. I hoped that the morning sun would head-butt the shadows of gloom that enveloped me. As the day broke, and I began to see more clearly, I realized that the person at the center of this misery was me. My mood was not about le Carre’s passing, but rather it was me mourning for myself.
I started reading le Carre’s books when I was a wee lad. I rented a well-thumbed copy of The Spy Who Came in From The Cold from my local lending library. It cost 20 paisa a day — a lot of money for a kid who received just one rupee a week as pocket money. I rented it three times before I could finish reading it. I was 13 years old at that time. It was fun to learn a lot of words and to read about the Cold War. I learned about the reality of the Soviet Union, which was very different from what Indian papers told me. It would take me another ten years to really understand the book.
I haven’t just read le Carre’s stories — the George Smiley series, The Little Drummer Girl, The Tailor of Panama, and so many more — I have grown up with them. They provided me with a frame for understanding the shifting reality of geo-politics. After I caught up with the archives, I read most of his books within a few weeks of their being made available. Each one has metadata of memories attached to it. The Night Manager, for example, kept me going during a difficult phase of my life as a new immigrant. (And perhaps that is why I didn’t care to have the memory tampered with by the TV series, no matter how brilliant Hugh Laurie was as a baddie.)
“John le Carré was a towering writer whose books are a teeming Dickensian guide to the bleak Machiavellian underworld beneath the international power struggles of the last 70 years,” Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and other classics, wrote in her tribute to le Carre. Another British author, Ian Rankin, agreed, “le Carré was our great chronicler of the geopolitical made personal. He shaped our understanding of a shadow world, one we are not supposed to know exists.”
More than any other medium, books have defined life. They have helped me imagine. They have helped me escape. And they have educated me and shown me a better version of myself. Perhaps, that is why books and those who write them are such a presence in my life. You can imagine the impact of le Carre’s words on a young, impressionable boy who didn’t know much about geopolitics. He isn’t the first author whose passing has left me maudlin. I also felt a strange sense of loss when Lawrence Sanders died. It was the same for a few others. In reality, I wasn’t mourning the writers. After all, their words are with us for eternity. Instead, what I was grieving the passage of time was realizing how much of my own life is now in the past. These deaths dredge up the detritus of memories, which suddenly measure the distance of life lived.
The mortality of these towering figures, who created whole worlds through which we could discover our reality, is a reminder of loves lost, dreams unfulfilled, destinations that one time defined the future. The idea that there won’t be another book by le Carre or any of my other favorite late authors stirs a feeling of sadness that I won’t get to enjoy their work anew ever again. It is not so much that they aren’t alive anymore. Honestly, the sadness I feel is so very selfish.
- Coming in from the cold: N Plus One Magazine.
- Paris Review interview of John le Carre
- Re-Reading John le Carre, an essay by Mick Herron, a fantastic, Le Carre-inspired writer, is spectacular.
- John le Carre missed nothing.