Wednesday 4 October 2023

The nature of "the Normans": Binge-watching/ listening to John Le Carre adaptations

My spontaneous aversion to England's Norman ruling class goes back a long way; and used to be so strong (in some respects) that until last week I had never been able to get myself to read (or watch an adaptation of) John Le Carre's famously excellent Cold War spy stories; often concerning the classic fictional character of George Smiley - and taking place in the world of the Normans.   

Having found the 1965 movie of The spy who came in from the cold to be thought-provoking and resonant; I then watched another movie, and the BBC TV series of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People - starring Alec Guinness; and also listened to some more radio play adaptations. A real binge...

I enjoyed a lot about these works, and have found myself stimulated in several directions. 

Yet at bottom I find the whole atmosphere of the social world depicted as alien. I dislike all of the characters - even Smiley -  who all seem to have blunted humanity and zero metaphysical depth. I've had enough for now!

Even the undeniable courage of these Normans, seems to be tainted with a suspicion that it comes from insensibility combined with sensation-seeking (e.g. through sex, drink, violence, sadism, self-humiliation, infighting, betrayal, snobbery etc - anything that rings your bell, to pass the time). 

Underpinning which is a weird sense of Norman tribalism - rooted in their assumed superiority to laws and rules intended for the little people - that destroys any possibility of genuine justice: and indeed any possibility of being personally affiliated to the cause of Good.  

(This combination is seen very early in Norman-English history, for example The Anarchy.)  

In other words; Le Carre's world (at least in these versions) is nihilistic and futile, and is inhabited by men and women who strike me as nihilistic at their very core. 

I assume this reflects Le Carre's own (considerable) strengths, and limitations, as a Man. In an interview I watched he was extremely intelligent, insightful and interesting - yet underneath I sensed... nothing. 

What I am talking about is something missing - something human that is missing*. 

It's as if, for Normans life is a game - but nothing more than a game. The game is arbitrary (war, seduction, snobbery, diplomacy, sport, literature, careerism - it doesn't matter) - but the game has neither meaning nor purpose; because for Normans there is none to be had. 

Each Norman plays a part, tries to play it well (or, at least, to sabotage the others) because that is the best way to fill-in time - but it is nothing more than a part which is played; and ultimately the game doesn't really matter, because nothing ultimately matters... 

*I assume that this deficiency, and the consequent blankness, is what David Icke et al are getting at when they call these people (and some other social groups as well - Normans are not the only ones) reptilians, lizard-people, or actual extra-terrestrials. I would assume, rather, that it is some mixture of an innate deficiency in the capacity for love; with varying degrees of demonic influence and control. 


william arthurs said...

I recently rewatched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on DVD. I loved the way the unrestored video-tape from which this series was transferred had deteriorated, making the 70s seem even more dingy and seedy than they actually were. I have never read the novel on which it was based, but I had been lucky enough to participate, at school, in the first year of "each school chooses its own set texts" for English Literature O-level, in which The Spy who came in from the Cold rubbed shoulders with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad. I remember my brief review of le Carre's book: "I have read only half of this boring book. I lost interest in the plot because the characters are all one-dimensional. It can only be intended as an intellectual puzzle. To imagine the dialogue spoken in real life is impossible!" I would now revise this opinion only slightly, to add a comment that if dramatised, you would need exceptionally good actors to make it at all credible.

It was a few years later that I had dinner with le Carre. He was precisely as described above!

William Wildblood said...

Funnily enough, just yesterday I was talking to a colleague at work who had recently read a review of a new biography of Le Carré which said he had had countless extra-marital affairs. She said 57 which I find hard to believe. But that backs up your feeling that there was nothing of substance behind the sophisticated exterior.

No Longer Reading said...

I feel similarly.

Spy stories can be suspenseful for their plot and I enjoyed the George Smiley adaptations when I watched them some time ago.

It wasn't just Le Carre's stories, but after a while I noticed that spy stories often end up with people morally corrupting themselves and others and taking enormous efforts often involving much destruction of various kinds to achieve objectives that often are ultimately unimportant.

Such as some minor point in a war or diplomatic struggle that will be forgotten when other events take place.

The only really good spy story I have read is Rudyard Kipling's Kim. But that doesn't have the moral corruption and spies are only part of it.

Karl said...

Peter Hitchens had a very interesting, depressing and pretty damning review of Le Carre's letters recently:

"He has of late become a sort of liberal hero, fashionably attacking arms dealers and the pharmaceutical companies and even adopting the cause of Chechen nationalism. Well, all right, but I sometimes wonder if the people and reviewers who now fuss over him so much ever actually read his early books with much attention. I think they reveal Cornwell as above all disillusioned, in that special way which only affects those who have had very strong illusions in the first place. The early works are full of despair about the great power fantasies of his fellow countrymen, especially their absurd belief that Britain is still a great nation which “won the war.”é

Bruce Charlton said...

@william arthurs - I feel as if you should have been the one writing the blog post! But I'm glad to have my rather impressionistic hunches confirmed.

@William W - It fits with the behaviour of many characters JLC writes about, and the authorial indifference or sense of its being normal and unremarkable. He also gave an account of having (as a pretty elderly man) commiserated with a neighbour over bereavement, during which he drank a whole bottle of whisky (about 17 doubles) and then walked home (again presented as quite normal behaviour); which probably implied JLC was a chronically heavy drinker - again commonly depicted in Smiley's world.

@NLR - I certainly agree about the moral corruption inherent in almost all spying. Even during wartime (when it is most excusable), spying takes advantage of ignoring the 'rules of war' by which combatants ought to be uniformed and part of the military - and it is this 'deal' which enables the civilians of conquered countries to avoid being slaughtered wholesale. A spy is a disguised combatant (which is why caught spies are executed) - and by breaking the rules of war endangers all other civilians.

But the rotten morals of spy stories is one factor that means they can never rise to greatness; and why the genre tends rather towards subversion of values. By contrast, plenty of murder mysteries are highly moral overall; and contain admirable characters as their detectives.

One thing I took away from the cold war spy stuff; is that it would have been better for the British to have no secret service at all; than the actual situation - which was the MI6 etc was largely run and substantially staffed by communist 'moles'.

This happened substantially because most English communists came from exactly the same Norman class (the same people) who were those recruited as spooks from public schools and Oxbridge.

There was not the same problem with the spies for the German National Socialists, because the upper classes (except a handful such as King Edward VIII*) saw the Nazis as despicable because anti-communist, and lower class.

*Edward was known, at the time, to have leaked military secrets to the German Ambassador via Mrs Simpson. This could have been a capital crime for one of the little people; but, in this case, it was routinely covered-up; although it led indirectly to Edward's abdication and demotion to merely' a Duke. Again, the Norman indifference to justice, when it comes to themselves.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - (BTW That linked article is not accessible to me.)

We need to bear in mind that - although Peter Hitchens is solid on some of the Litmus Test issues; nonetheless, he seems to be essentially a Norman himself, a (fringe) member of the Establishment, and a journalist in the mainstream mass media - and so I would regard him as *fundamentally* unsound.

WJT said...

It’s been ages since I’ve read Le Carre, but what stuck with me from the novel I read (I think it was The Spy Who Came In from the Cold) was the British spy’s slow realization that the Communist spy was actually driven by a sincere belief in and commitment to the Communist cause, while he himself had no corresponding feelings for his own supposed cause. His adversary’s conviction was so alien to him that he could never quite understand it or believe it was real. From what others have said here about the author, this seems to have been autobiographical.

william arthurs said...

Went to the cinema on Monday evening and saw Errol Morris's documentary "The Pigeon Tunnel" about the life and times of John le Carre, based around a lengthy interview with him soon before he died. Perhaps of most interest if one wants to explain the oddness of his fictional characters and how they might relate to his strange childhood. I will give him credit for some self-knowledge.

Last night, watched "The Constant Gardener" where the Ralph Fiennes character is on the run from rascally agents of an evil pharmaceutical company. You need very strong actors to make the best of not-very-good dialogue (derived from the novel). It reminded me of Leavis's comment on C P Snow's novels: "He can tell you the characters are falling in love, but he can't show it happening."

Bruce Charlton said...

@william a - I have a soft spot for CP Snow, perhaps because I first read him in my teens (The Search). Leavis was a very narrow critic, and there are innumerable kinds of fiction that were outside the range of his comprehension and yet first rate (in my view). Snow is not first rate, but he is worthwhile - offering something I have not found elsewhere. ( . His dialogue may seem a bit stilted, but when I was at Durham University in the middle 1980s I met several academics of the old school who were very similar to CP Snow characters, and talked like that - more or less!

I suppose much the same could probably be said for Le Carre at his best (I haven't yet read any of the full novels, only seen and heard some supposedly 'faithful' adaptations) - like Snow, LC gives a convincing and absorbing insight into a world now gone but once of great influence.