The Pity of Shadows: John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies

Le Carré, John. A Legacy of Spies.Viking, 2017.

 A lot of us would agree, no doubt, that John Le Carré’s novels set in the cold war are some of his best, and, perhaps, you are like me in regretting the fact that at least in fiction the shift in international politics and the accompanying espionage has left us without the world of the Circus as created for us by Le Carré. We may even some of us share a kind of nostalgia for the apparent certainties of the cold war years of our childhood, youth, and early adulthood.

In this latest novel, Le Carré returns to that world and to characters first created several decades ago, and while A Legacy of Spies stands perfectly independent of its forebears, you will probably find it has greater resonance if you have read its predecessors, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Peter Guillam, you will remember him particularly from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and Smiley’s People is summoned back from his retirement on his French farm to London to account for his actions during the cold war. What was acceptable all those years ago is no longer acceptable especially when it comes to deaths resulting from covert actions, and when descendants of the dead are “demanding full disclosure, punitive damages, and a public apology” (36).

The story unfolds as a somewhat fragmented first-person narrative. Guillam records what happens to him in his dealings with the service from which he has long retired. He is required to work through old files from when he was young and explain himself and his so long ago actions. With Guillam, we read the old memos and documents relating particularly to operation Windfall that resulted in the death of an agent and of an “innocent woman” (1). What the files record and what Guillam affirms to his interrogators do not always match with Guillam’s own memories.

In many ways, the action of the novel lies primarily in the past, and through this device Le Carré is able, to a certain extent, to carry us back to the mood evoked in his earlier novels with their settings behind the wall in the DDR or in the rain soaked streets of an Eastern European capital.

However, while much of the action may lie in the past, in many ways the concerns of the novel are more recent, focusing as they do on changing attitudes, changing contexts, on a changing world, a world that asks the question: “Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?” (31). A very contemporary question indeed, and one senses that Le Carré is arguing that the present cannot understand the past.

One of the constants of Le Carré’s work is his skill in understanding the conflicts between idealism and realpolitik. His novels convey the kind of world-weariness that results in pity rather than cynicism. An angry Smiley tells Guillam, “‘We were never pitiless. We had a larger pity. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then’” (261). Are these words of regret or acceptance? Or both?

In A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré takes us once again into the world of generational distrust, the grey, shadowed world of moral ambiguity, conflicting loyalties, and misunderstood idealism that lasts despite all. I found it a not optimistic but melancholically hopeful book.


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Casting for the Rainbow: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel

Wilson, Ethel. Swamp Angel. Harper & Bros., 1954. Ed. George Bowering. UBC Library-Macmillan, 1990. E-book.

If you had taken a Canadian literature course in the late sixties and early seventies, you would probably remember that much of the focus of what was included in reading lists then—a time when Canadianists were fighting English Departments to have their specialty recognised as something worthy of attention—how much of what we read seemed to focus on surviving geography. A few years later, I was assigned to teach an introduction to Canadian literature, and at the end of the thirteen-week semester I asked my students what sense they had of what made literature Canadian: they said, “snow.” I was beset by something like a cross between amusement and a total sense of failure.

Oddly enough, perhaps, despite my long ago experience with Canadian Literature in the classroom, I had neither been required to read Swamp Angel nor had I assigned it to others. Therefore, I read it for the first time a couple of months ago. I knew it was regarded as probably Wilson’s best novel, and if I had any preconceptions about the work they were that its setting would be important.

This I found to be the case. If you want, you can map Maggie Lloyd’s journey, though some of my fellow reading group members rather disagreed about Wilson’s complete accuracy.

However, while Wilson does indeed celebrate the physical landscape of British Columbia, the more important aspect of the novel lies in Wilson’s empathic delineating and understanding of her characters’ personal navigations of their own inner geography. The novel follows Maggie Lloyd as she walks out on her second husband Edward Vardoe and finds work in a fishing lodge in BC’s interior. Much bereaved, her first husband Tom Lloyd having been killed in action during the war, and both her son and her father, who had taught her to fish and to tie flies, also dead, Maggie, “with no-one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity” and “married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes” (ch. 1).

Notice that juxtaposition of “compassion and fatal stupidity.” It’s just one example of Wilson’s tone in the novel. Yes, Wilson is very understanding of her characters, but she isn’t saccharine. Her vision is sharp and appraising, as is that of one of the major characters in the novel Mrs. Severence, the owner of the gun that gives the novel its name: the swamp angel. Mrs. Severence, who was once a juggler, might now be described as a puppeteer pulling the strings of those around her. A benevolent and manipulative ogress, in many ways, she is, to my mind, a far more interesting character than Maggie Lloyd, and her function in the novel though supporting is definitely not secondary.

Two other characters whose own stories act as foils to Maggie’s are Vera Gunnarson, wife of Haldar Gunnarson who owns the fishing resort where Maggie finds sanctuary and Hilda Severence who marries Albert Cousins. Swamp Angel is very much an examination of women’s lives, and I found this aspect of the novel of far more interest than its being Canadian.

In his Afterword, Bowering recalls early critics of Wilson’s work who saw her as “an unambitious chronicler, innocent of intellectual and moral matters but somehow gifted in limning character.” He takes the rest of his essay to show just how untrue that is and concludes that “Wilson’s feigned simplicity is the most complicated trick of all.”

Where I might disagree with Bowering is in his use of the word “feigned,” a word that suggests an intent to deceive the reader. I would argue there is no authorial deception in Swamp Angel. Wilson tells it as it is in a style that is simple because it is acerbic. A sharp razor blade is a simple thing, but it is also deadly. What is fascinating about this novel is Wilson’s ability to balance this kind of duality underscoring that life is part of what Nell Severence calls “the miraculous interweaving of creation” (ch. 46).

Earlier, I commented that Nell Severence is more interesting than Maggie Lloyd and called her a “puppeteer.” There is, of course, another puppeteer at work, the author herself. Any work of fiction is itself an “interweaving of creation.”  When we consider Wilson’s sensitivity to image and use of metaphor, her ongoing motifs of fishing, of birds, her presentation of the tension between the elements of earth, water, and air, and the way she ensures that these facets of her work support and illustrate her plot and characters, we realise her threads are woven silky fine.

Her vision is neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic; rather, it looks at the world’s apparent randomness and sees cohesion and acceptance that “we have no immunity” (ch. 46) from life because “we are all in it together” (ch. 46).

I finished this novel aware of a faint sense of melancholy but aware I had been engaged with a very finely crafted work.




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Traveller’s Tales Four: Returned

It’s nearly a month since my last post, but a quick review of my Currently Reading page will reveal that I have several books awaiting review. I am catching up. In fact, the first review since my return follows this post.

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Traveller’s Tales 3

The past two weeks have flown by. I have begun reading Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy, and I have read John LeCarré ‘s latest A Legacy of Spies, but you will have to wait until I return to Canada for the reviews. It is hard to imagine that this time next week I will be looking at Vancouver’s probably rainy streets.

I will need time to process what I’ve seen and heard on my travels here in a land where perhaps more than in any other the long distant past informs the present. I have looked down onto the patchwork quilted fields of a land at war against its own people and heard the sound of distant artillery fire, while behind me the rusting detritus of an earlier war has been transformed into strangely amusing monsters and is available for purchase.

This is a place of faiths and faithlessness, of realpolitik and optimism, rooted in a landscape both physical and intellectually challenging: an old new land indeed.


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The Personal View: Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself and The Road Ahead

I found this draft post unposted earlier today. I wrote it just before I left home and didn’t put it on line. 

Bielenberg, Christabel. The Past is Myself. Chatto, 1968. Corgi, 1984 and The Road Ahead. Bantam 1992. Corgi, 1993.

A few posts ago, I discussed David Gillham’s City of Women. Reading that novel made me want to revisit Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself, a memoir of her life in Germany during the Second World War, and reading The Past is Myself made me want to revisit her later book about the Bielenbergs’ life after the war.

In her introduction to The Past is Myself, Bielenberg tells us she thinks her effort “will have been worthwhile if it helps to throw new light on what … [she believes] to be for the Germans [in 1968] a still undigested past, and for the English an incomprehensible one” (Forward). Since Bielenberg wrote those words, much has changed in Europe and even more information is available about Hitler’s Germany and the background that made it possible. However, what makes Bielenberg’s work still relevant is the fact that it is a personal record of life lived under the Nazis both before and during the war. It also underscores the fact that there was an opposition to Hitler. Many of the people who enjoyed themselves at the Bielenbergs’ parties in their house in Dahlem, Berlin, did not survive the Gestapo.

Bielenberg’s memories also throw a light on how one learns to survive and raises that moral question faced by all those who live under a tyranny: at what point does surviving evil necessitate collaboration with it?

On one level, I actually found the first part of The Road Ahead more interesting than The Past is Myself because it allows a glimpse into what daily life was like for Germans immediately after the war ended. Then, too, I, in common with some four thousand letter writers (Road 9), wanted to know what happened to the family after the war ended. Bielenberg dedicates The Road Ahead to the villagers of Rohbach in the Black Forest where she and her three sons lived for the latter part of the war and where Peter joined them on his release from Ravensbruck.

Her descriptions of Rohbach and its people and later of Ireland reveal her as an empathetic, warm hearted, humorous person. Some have criticised her (check out both her and Peter’s obituaries in the Guardian) for being wealthy and privileged. Perhaps her connections with both Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere were helpful. It’s true that not everyone would have the connections with David Astor that she did to enable her to return to Germany for The Observer as a journalist, but perhaps it’s best to judge people on how they use whatever their privilege is rather than condemning them merely for an accident of birth. Enough. As I said, her writing suggests a warm-hearted, keenly observant, and morally thoughtful person, whose insights into some of the most troubling times of the twentieth century may not be those of a trained historian but are records of lived experience, and it is sometimes those personal records that bring the reality of the past more immediately into focus than any amount of academic discussion.

I am glad I  reread these two works.




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Traveller’s Tales II

Ten days since my last post. No time for reading other than reading landscape and reconstructing the past. I’ve somehow been unable to find a post office that’s open, and I did promise some people some snail mail. Broadband is not always broad or particularly secure. I have learnt how to make orange olive oil cake and pondered the passing of civilizations.  I have looked at the faces of the past and confronted mortality.

Two thousand years from now, what will a traveller find of us? We build, nostalgic for pasts we don’t always understand and with faith in futures we understand possibly less. What will shards of plastic say about us? Will our current technology render us as inaccessible to the future as Linear A is to us?

I move from broken monument to broken monument, surrounded at times by contemporary graffiti, testament to a discontent rooted firmly in contemporary malaise. The sun shines on the wine dark sea breaking against rocks older even than time. The oracle remains silent.


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Traveller’s Tales I

Those of you who follow my posts regularly may have been wondering if I’ve given up reading. Far from it, but I am travelling and will be back reviewing books in November. Meanwhile, here are a few photographs that will give you an idea of where my journeys are taking me .

And then I took a flight.

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