The Book Club

Bad Sex Writing and No-Brainer Plots

Dear Chris,

Of all the major literary genres, I always thought that the lyric poem was the most amenable to utopian sentiments and revolutionary politics–think of the early Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake. It’s an argument I’d love to have, but our mandate here is, alas, prose.

You did say that you liked Single & Single better than Archangel , and that the ending was “bang-up,” which sounded pretty complimentary to me. But I was wrong to have inferred from such faint and relative praise that you admired the book. Your account of le Carré’s earlier work and your defense of its aesthetic seriousness seem entirely convincing to me, and I have little to add. You are quite right that Smiley and Karla are both agents of (and also both in their way alienated from) the same status quo, and this points to an interesting and nowadays much neglected fact about the Cold War, namely that while it was on most people imagined it would go on forever. The most astonishing thing about the collapse of Communism was its suddenness. Even well into the Gorbachev era it seemed, if I recall (which is oddly difficult, even though it wasn’t so long ago), that the two systems would continue their pas de deux indefinitely: The imaginable resolution seemed to be either a slow accommodation (via the opening up and reform of the Soviet system) or the end of the world. The books for which le Carré will be remembered capture the boredom, the terror, and the irresolution of that era (also its absurdity and its normalcy) as authentically as any–high-, low-, or middlebrow.

But, as you say, his style–which was, like Henry James’, conceived in direct response to the felt complexity of the reality under examination–has collapsed. I couldn’t tell a “raddled Cassius” from a “fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden” at 20 paces, but I would much rather face incomprehensibility than this:

“You are very beautiful,” Zoya declares, as sadly as if she were reporting a death. “You have the beauty of irregularity. You are a poet?”“Just a lawyer, I’m afraid.”“The law is also a dream. You have come to buy our blood?”

Such talk can lead to only one thing:

It is not clear who strikes first. Perhaps each is the initiator, for their arms collide and must be redirected before they can embrace, and on the bed they fight until they are naked, then take each other like animals until both of them are satisfied. “You must revive what is dead inside you,” she tells him severely as she dresses.

Indeed. I don’t know what made me laugh harder: “must be redirected” or “they fight until they are naked.” I suppose the gender egalitarianism of “take each other like animals” should be applauded. Doesn’t Auberon Waugh or someone like him run a bad sex writing competition in England? I nominate the above.

Mercifully there are no sex scenes in Archangel . The coupling of Stalin and the eager young Komsomol, um, intern, takes place offstage. (“You have the beauty of irregularity. You are a poet?” “Just a murderous tyrant, I’m afraid.”) And while at times it looks as though Kelso and the brooding Zinaida will fight until they are naked, she never comes out of her short black dress and he stays in his filthy corduroy suit.

All bad writing, or course, is bad in its own way. Le Carré envelopes us in miasmas of obscurity and baffles us with capricious changes of verb tense. Harris’s style is clipped and emphatic, and studded with gimmicky effects. Like sentence fragments.

And one-sentence paragraphs.

And dialogue without quotation marks, intrusions into the consciousness of various characters, etc.

Actually, the writing in Archangel is on the whole above average for bestseller prose. The real disaster is the plot. Now, I have to say there were some things I liked about the book. Having grown up around academics, and having spent more of my adulthood than I care to recall in academia, I’m always gratified when members of the professoriat are a) held up to ridicule and b) sent off on exciting adventures. And, as I think I said before, I found some of the descriptions of place–Papu Rapava’s apartment block in Moscow, the old Party headquarters in Archangel–nicely done. Too many birch trees, though. In spy thrillers the appearance of a birch tree says: “You see, reader, I am intimately familiar with this vast and shadowy country. I know the Russian soul because I can recognize a Russian tree.”

But I don’t know how to begin to convey the silliness (and plain technical incompetence) of the plot. Let’s play a game. You be Kelso and I’ll be O’Brian, the insufferable American journalist (we can talk about the tired and offensive stereotypes of Russians, Americans, and historians that permeate this book next time). We’ve just discovered the secret Stalin notebook, which turns out to contain the diary of young Anna Safanova from the year 1951, and it breaks off just on the verge of what seems to be, as we say here in America, improper sexual contact. So what do we do? A no-brainer: We drove 700 miles (or is it versts, and no smoking in my land cruiser, Caldwell!) across the frozen taiga to the snowbound city of Archangel. Why? Why, to look up Ms. Safanova in the local phone directory, of course. Later, after we’ve discovered Stalin junior acting out scenes from Fargo in his cabin, you’ll discover that it was all a setup, because I was working for Mamantov the ex-KGB guy the whole time. Sorry.