What I’m Reading: John Le Carré – The Looking Glass War

This is the fourth novel by John Le Carré I have read in the space of that many months, and it is starting to look like I might have embarked on a (more or less) chronological reading of his whole oeuvre. Chances do seem good that I will continue as The Looking Glass War is the novel I liked best so far, even better than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I suspect I will likely be in a minority with this assessment, though, because this is a very strange novel indeed and quite far removed from what one would expect a spy thriller to be – most of its protagonists aren’t even real spies and those that are, are mostly distinguished by their incompetence. Also it has to be said that the novel is not particularly thrilling – tension does rise somewhat towards the end, but overall it is not a page turner but rather a novel that requires the reader’s attention. The basic plot itself is fairly simple, and – thanks to a generous scattering of clues – it becomes clear quite early on where things are going and that they won’t be ending well. However, the ways by which The Looking Glass War actually gets there are not at all predictable, but unexpectedly thorny and twisting. The novel never really does what one would expect it to do, its attention and emphasis ricochet all over the place, it jumps from one irrelevant detail to the next, it shifts points of view erratically, gets distracted by apparently pointless observations, and generally seems doggedly determined to do everything a well-constructed novel, not to mention a supposed thriller, should not be doing. And yet, through all those irritations and omissions, through all the frustrated reader expectations and randomly scattered lacunae, Le Carré somehow still manages to tell a compelling, if extremely bleak, story.

What The Looking Glass War most reminded me of was Jazz music. Now, comparing literature to Jazz has been an old hat ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that does not mean it doesn’t fit occasionally, and this seems to me to be one of those cases. It is not the language – that is Le Carré’s nuanced, highly literary style that readers are familiar with from previous novels, long descriptive periods that bear no trace of the speed and nervosity generally associated with Jazz music. But there is something quite literally offbeat about The Looking Glass War, the way it takes a traditional, well-known theme and proceeds to take it apart, breaks it down into its constituent parts and then puts them together again in an entirely new way, leaving things out we always thought were necessary but now find out aren’t and adding free, sometimes wild improvisations that drive the worn-out theme into entirely unexpected directions. I’m inclined to think it no accident that The Looking Glass War was published in the same year John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was released (1965), and only four years after Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. In its wilful dismissal and gleeful breaking of all rules of “good” novel-writing I found it also a bit reminiscent of Godard’s À bout de souffle, making it very much a product of the period it was written and published in.

However that might be, The Looking Glass War is a highly intriguing read and quite probably unlike any other spy novel you’ve read, and I’m very keen on finding out where Le Carré went from there.

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