Vol. 2 No. 11 · 5 June 1980

Search by issue:

Speaking up for Le Carré

SIR: The first two paragraphs of Ian Hamilton’s review of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People (LRB, 20 March) are devoted largely to a presentation of subtle but peevish ad hominem arguments. We are told that Le Carré can’t ‘really write’, and then Mr Hamilton attempts to justify this conclusion by chiding Le Carré for having said testing things about so-called ‘highbrow’ critics. How are the two related? The only thing apparent to the careful reader at this point in the review is that the author is clearly adopting a convenient double standard. It is somehow unacceptable to Mr Hamilton that Le Carré could ever be justifiably testy, but, of course, the reader is being asked to overlook the fact that the review is characterised by something considerably more malicious than mere testiness. Obviously, one can safely discard the possibility that Mr Hamilton’s tactics will ever be misconstrued as highbrow.

A half page later Mr Hamilton finally tells us just what it is that bad writers do. Apparently, bad writers produce books that are highly incident-prone and these books don’t often reveal a great deal of human understanding. This is generally quite true. However, it isn’t always true. Certain professions in life are highly incident-prone. We need only ask a policeman, an attorney, or even a spy, if we knew one. It would seem only reasonable to conclude that the topic chosen by a novelist will determine, to a large extent, how incident-prone his novel will become. A man who consciously chooses to write a spy novel cannot avoid devoting considerable attention to plot. Mr Hamilton appears to be angry with Le Carré for having bothered to do precisely what he had to do.

Three themes or concerns recur in Le Carré’s books. These are betrayal, alienation and loss. His competence in dealing with them is sufficient to convince a reasonably open-minded reader that he loves his characters a great deal and is sincerely attempting to give them dimension. We are usually entertained. We are sometimes moved. Le Carré knows in the bone just how easy it is for people to destroy those who rely upon them the most. If this does not constitute human understanding, perhaps Mr Hamilton would care to submit a dissertation on the subject to your periodical.

Near the end of his article Mr Hamilton expresses dismay at having discovered that Karla did not ask Moscow Centre to set up a ‘legend’ for his daughter. Instead he chose to delegate this task to outsiders. Mr Hamilton would have the reader believe that this constitutes a serious flaw in the novel’s plot and he assumes that Le Carré sloppily permitted it to get past him. This, however, is not the case. If Mr Hamilton had indulged in a little more deduction he would have noticed that Karla had absolutely no other choice. If Moscow Centre had even suspected the daughter’s condition and her father’s fear for her, they would not have sanctioned the implementation of a legend without also acknowledging Karla’s permanent vulnerability. No matter how greatly they might trust their own procedures, they would be forced to live with the real possibility that Karla could still be manipulated if the legend was ever unearthed. Consequently, if Karla had attempted to use his own people to protect his daughter it would only have been a matter of time until his superiors either eliminated the daughter to protect Karla from future blackmail or forced Karla to resign. Assuming that he wanted to keep his daughter and his job, his only other recourse was to deal with outside help.

Raymond Daoust
Montreal, Canada

John Layard’s Life and Work

SIR: John Layard’s version of his attempted suicide, as reported by Peter Redgrove (Letters, 15 May), differs considerably from the account Auden recorded in his private journal at the time, and also conflicts with the independent account of the circumstances leading up to the incident written by Margaret Gardiner for the New Review.

Layard had been contemplating suicide for some time before he attempted it. The cause was not a boyfriend Auden had ‘stolen’, but a woman who had refused to see Layard since before he and Auden met, and who had stopped answering his letters. She, like Layard, had been a patient of the psychologist Homer Lane, who had died around three years earlier. Layard, who had worshipped Lane, now decided (in what Margaret Gardiner calls a fit of jealousy) that Lane had set the woman against him. The psychological loss of his sense of Lane’s excellence seems to have been the event that drove him to suicide.

What Layard seems to have been referring to in telling Mr Redgrove about a stolen boyfriend was a very different incident that occurred the day before he tried to kill himself. Layard had been immobilised with depression for many days, when Auden, hoping to give him some pleasure, brought around a boy he had recently picked up (whom Layard had never seen before) and encouraged Layard to share the boy’s favours. Quite possibly Auden’s departure with the boy a few hours later deepened the jealous misery Layard already felt. When he told the story many years afterwards, he may have convinced himself that his jealousy had a more rational cause.

As Margaret Gardiner reports, Auden had been insisting that if Layard wanted to kill himself he should not be prevented from doing so. Auden (then 22 years old) was simply following Layard’s own doctrine at the time, that one must obey one’s inner impulses. This is why Layard, when his own shot failed to kill him, hoped Auden might be willing to finish him off, and went to Auden’s flat to beg that he do so. Far from shutting the door in Layard’s face, Auden took him in and, as he recorded in his journal, ‘had to kiss him and disliked it’. He also summoned an ambulance and accompanied Layard to the hospital.

Auden and Layard remained friends in the years after the incident. A paper Layard published the following year became the basis of The Orators. Mr Redgrove’s suggestion that Auden may have been jealous of Layard’s vigour and achievements sounds highly implausible. In fact, Auden spoke admiringly of him in later years, as did everyone who knew Layard and his work.

Edward Mendelson
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, New York

Public Poems

SIR: ‘If poetry is a public matter it is not the place for private revelations, and if it is not a public matter it has no place in a published book’ (LRB, 15 May). The Book of Psalms? Sappho? Catullus? La Vita Nuova?

Francis Landy

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences