I spy with my funny, random eye: The expatriate American writer Robert Littell talks to Peter Guttridge about God, the Cold War and chaos theory
Saturday 04 December 1993
He is a politely friendly man who is also watchful and cautious. Knowing his spy novels, you are tempted to read significance into his impish evasion of the most innocuous questions, and into the fact that this hotel is like a 'safe house', so discreet it has no sign outside to mark its existence. It is also a little disconcerting to know that he is 59 but see a man who looks 20 years younger.
'You should have seen my mother,' he says. 'At the age of 85 she lied about her age and got a job in a New York department store.' Littell, born in Brooklyn, is of Russian descent. His father was a physics teacher. Littell studied literature at university before doing his military service in the navy as a codebreaker and cipher expert, and then went into journalism, ending up as Newsweek's Soviet Union and Eastern European specialist.
In 1971, disillusioned with the Vietnam war and the Nixon era, he quit journalism - and America - to live with his French wife in the Dordogne. Four grown-up children later, they live there still in a 13th- century farmhouse, although he spends much of his time travelling and is a frequent visitor to Russia.
Whether he likes it or not - and he doesn't - he's best known as a spy writer, producing in the past 20 years a string of Cold War novels characterised by wit, intelligence and a knowing use of the genre's conventions. His agent fired him when Littell sent him his first novel, The Defection of A J Lewinter, but it went on to win the Golden Dagger Award for 1972 and was published in 14 countries.
Littell is fond of paradox and his spy novels delight in the 'they don't know that we know that they know we have the key' kind of plotting. In The Once And Future Spy, which, with An Agent In Place, proves there is still life in the spy novel, he pits a man whose article of faith is, 'There is one truth and it is knowable', against another whose refrain is 'Whose truth, which truth?' Littell doesn't think that the end of the Cold War has killed off the spy genre, but in his new novel, The Visiting Professor (Faber), he has moved away from it to present a comic vision of America which makes full use of his fondness for paradox. The main character, Lemuel Falk, is a Russian theoretical chaoticist invited to be a visiting professor at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Chaos-Related Studies in upstate New York.
His friend Vadim, a black- marketeer who has cornered the market in computer mice, persuades him to go because the streets of America are paved with Sony Walkmen. (Littell creates appealing characters - Vadim featured in An Agent In Place with the thankless task of advertising goods in a Russian market where everyone knows that advertised products are by definition bad since good products are snapped up without advertising.)
In America, Falk falls for a girl half his age and learns to speak her 'Yo, dude' brand of American. He puzzles over randomness - and over a billboard sign advertising an airline that flies 'to most Florida cities', wondering how one Florida city can be more Florida than another. It's a very funny novel.
'I began with Falk because I wanted to take him from chaos in Russia to chaos in America. And the science is a wonderful metaphor for the chaos that all over the world marked the end of the Cold War. Randomness too fascinated me, particularly this notion that computers these days are trying to develop randomness. That's a contradiction in terms because as soon as you try to produce randomness, it isn't random. In a way the search for randomness is the search for God and that enthralled me.'
The Visiting Professor is full of quirky, well-drawn characters. 'I used to start with plots then find characters but now I do it the other way around and I think that's better. I would hesitate to define a novel but if I had to, I would say that a novel is character. I wouldn't like to say what kind of novel this is though. It's a post-Cold War story written by a man who followed the Cold War closely. It's a story about America, a story about manners. It's my expatriate vision of America.'
It took Littell two years to finish this relatively short work, but then he is a perfectionist, a constant rewriter who reckons he probably reads his novels a thousand times before he is done with them. 'Writing is a wonderful occupation but it isn't fun. It's tough. You're never sure of yourself, plagued by self- doubt, wondering what kind of egg you're laying. Do you know that quote from Somerset Maugham? 'There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are'.
'My ambition has always been to write good novels about serious things. That's why I used to object strongly to being called a spy writer. Le Carre is a marvellous novelist, not a spy writer. P D James is a marvellous novelist not a crime writer. You might say that they have a narrow range but it's no narrower than, say, Philip Roth, whom I also admire.'
He is about to start research in America on his new novel. He declines to give any details (quoting Hemingway's injunction that there are those who talk about writing and those who write) but you suspect he might be finished with spies. Ironically, spies are not yet done with him, since a new market for his Cold War novels has opened up. In Russia. 'A publishing house in St Petersburg is about to translate An Agent In Place. I never expected that my books would appear in Russia in my lifetime.' He chuckles again. 'Go figure.'
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