Sunday, January 9, 2022

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is the author of Emergence, Resistance, Ascendance, After America, Without Warning, Final Impact, Designated Targets, Weapons of Choice, and other novels, as well as Leviathan, which won the National Award for Nonfiction at Australia’s Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and the novella Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Playboy, and numerous other magazines.

Birmingham's new novel is The Shattered Skies, the sequel to The Cruel Stars.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Birmingham's reply:
When John le Carré died last year I realised that I’d never read any of his novels. A bit of an oversight, really, because I quite like spy novels, and le Carré was undoubtedly the foremost author of literature set in that shadow world. I seem to recall, and I'm not even going to check Google here, that he passed away around about the time his penultimate novel Agent Running In The Field was released. I had a free Audible credit at the time so I grabbed it up.

The first surprise was that the author read his own work. To be honest, that was a bit hard to get past, because when he recorded the book le Carré was a very old man, close to his own death, and his voice although beautifully modulated did not match the narrator of the story, a washed up agent in his mid 50s. Nonetheless, I got past it because the writing was just so good.

I remember reading somewhere that le Carré books were not just the greatest spy novels of the last 100 years, they were among the finest works of literature, and thus some of the most exquisite observations of the human condition. It was not an exaggeration.

Agent Running In The Field was possessed of all of his usual, exacting detail about life as a spy, amazing really when you think about it, because he had been out of the game for nearly sixty years by that point. But it was also a master class in the use of the English language to reveal deeper and deeper layers of human frailty.

I read it at first simply because it felt like the right thing to do given that the man had passed away and would write no more. (As it turned out, he published another title posthumously). Having finished the novel, however, I was so impressed I decided to spend the rest of the year reading his famous ‘Karla’ trilogy, the triptych detailing the decades-long battle between the British spymaster George Smiley and his Russian counterpart, known simply as Karla. The first of these, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has long since entered the canon of modern literature – probably because it seemed to so accurately capture the reality of the Soviet’s penetration of British intelligence in the 1950s and 60s before we understood just how complete that penetration was.

A number of things struck me when reading the novel, foremost among them the squalid reality of life in the early 1970s. There was no James Bond glamour in these books, even though some of the spies do spend their professional lives jetting around the world, staying in nice hotels, and hooking up with early 1970s hotties. Mostly everything is grimy, low tech, squalid and demeaning. The past is another country, and it really sucks back there.

Ah, but the certainty. Even when the protagonists, particularly the Englishmen, have good reason to question the morality and efficacy of their work, they’re never allowed to lose sight of the fact that their enemy is monstrous. And in a way they are trapped by this, because they can see no way to defeat the monster that doesn't lead to them becoming monstrous themselves. It is a wonderful meditation on the sorrows of a politically engaged life that you can probably trace all the way back to the first Greek tragedies.

Reading the trilogy, which continued with The Honourable Schoolboy and concluded in Smiley’s People, it was possible and sort of wonderful to watch le Carré’s talents develop over a decade or so. He proved himself a writer of the first order in 1963 with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But by the time we get to Smiley's People he's just handing out master class lessons like M&M's. I was highlighting certain passages as I went through the book, mostly to do with tradecraft so that I could go back and study them for my own spy novels at some point in the future. But in the end, I was so completely swept away by his skill that I gave up on trying to learn anything in the moment and just gave myself over to the pleasure of reading a grand story told by one of the great artists of the written word.
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My Book, The Movie: The Cruel Stars.

--Marshal Zeringue