I’ve been struggling to finish novels this year – and then I decided to give John Le Carré another chance

I had always found Le Carré’s novels to be impenetrable, grey, difficult to follow and boring. I decided they weren’t for me and I never tried again – until now, writes Katy Brand

Tuesday 29 December 2020 08:11 GMT
Author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
Author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (AP)

The presents have all been bought, wrapped, unwrapped, played with and possibly broken. The last helpings of leftovers are making their way into the final sandwiches, and thence to the bin. The new year glimmers on the horizon, peeping and glinting, ready to break. But not yet…

Here we are in “Betwixtmas”, the limbo-land between Christmas and New Year, twiddling our thumbs, as ever. Except that this year, our thumbs have been twiddled into near shavings. What can sometimes be a pleasant period of aimless drifting is now simply the norm, pandemic aside, of course.

As we wait for the vaccine to take effect, perhaps we need distraction of a more robust sort. And having drained Netflix, mopped up BBC iPlayer archives, and rewatched all my favourite 1980s romcoms AGAIN, my brain is crying out for a different nourishment. It wants a good book.

At the start of the first lockdown, back in March, I somewhat pompously thought I would provide a public service via my Twitter account, where I recommended a book I loved every day. I thought I could easily get to the end of this period of staying at home – surely normal life would resume by early summer, right? – and I could feel smug about all my amazing suggestions, and my wide-ranging taste in literature. I could fondly imagine the enrichment I was bringing to literally dozens of my followers as they stumbled with grateful delight across my daily offering. 

I ran out after about the first month. I mean, I ran out of books I truly loved. I recommended some books I really liked, rather than loved, but that felt a bit tawdry. This was meant to be about the passion for reading. If I wanted to just chuck out any old book ideas, I’d apply for a job in the algorithm-building department of Amazon. I realised I needed some new books.

In truth, I was finding it hard to concentrate on reading between all the doom-scrolling, anxious Zooming, and trying to set up a professional-standard home voiceover recording studio in a cupboard in my house.

But which book? I tried a few, and stopped. They were good, they were fresh and new – debut authors with zing and style – but I couldn’t get into them.

The publishing industry’s zeal and desperation for debut authors had seduced me. The Booker Prize panel for 2020, with its huge emphasis on debut authors, had drawn me in. And there was no doubting the brilliance of some of the work, but it wasn’t right for me right now. The tone was too bright, somehow. The words felt too excitable for my brain, which was operating at a slower speed now.

I realised I needed something different – something older, wiser perhaps, with a dash of cynicism, an old hand who had seen the world in all its glory and grisly horror, and come back to tell us a story about it. But I didn’t know what book would give me that.  

And then John Le Carré died. Now, I have tried to read John Le Carré twice in the past, and failed twice. I had managed up to around page 30 on both occasions, different novels, and just given up, lost in this world of deep espionage and Cold War politics I didn’t understand. It was impenetrable, obtuse, grey, difficult to follow, and boring. I decided it wasn’t for me, and I never tried again. Until now.

Well, I was very wrong, let me say that straight away. After some brief research, I decided to begin with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his most famous and successful work. I am tearing through it, gobbling it up, greedy for more. I don’t know what I was thinking when I started and abandoned his books before, but perhaps approaching 42, jaded, tired, slightly frightened, as I am now, is the right state to fully appreciate them.

It turns out John Le Carré is the author I have been looking for since August. I am sorry it took his death to bring me to that conclusion, because, frankly, I’d like to thank him and now I can’t. I shall simply have to join his army of millions of avid fans and admirers. He may not be a new author by any definition, but he’s new to me, and I already know he will be my companion for the rest of this lockdown period.

As former East 17 singer Tony Mortimer delightfully discovered this year, a book gives you a private hinterland, an escape, a place to go when there are only four walls, a wilting Christmas tree, and the last Ferrero Rocher for comfort.  

So, for all my public book-based recommendations back in March, it turned out that I was the one who needed a hint. And it was to put down the thrilling debuts for a moment and return to a master of his craft, his tradecraft perhaps, and see the genius in that. New things are great, especially at this time of year, but let’s not forget the treasures we already have.  

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