Le Carré is a master of his craft and brings back fascinating glimpses of George Smiley in A Legacy of Spies [London: Viking, 2017], narrated by his loyal lieutenant, Peter Guillam, now retired and living in his native Brittany but summoned, as only members of the Secret Intelligence Service can be, to answer for innocent blood spilt in that classic Cold War thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
I liked it so much that I sat down and straightaway reread Autumn by Ali Smith [London: Penguin, 2017]. Short-listed for this year’s Man Booker, what’s not to like about it? Apart from Smith’s gift for language, patterning, sound games, literary allusions (two in the first two lines) and alliterations, reminding and moving to and fro with such a light touch, the front cover of my copy has a wonderful David Hockney and the inside back cover is illustrated by that fascinating yet too little known female British Pop artist, Pauline Boty. If the Tate do a Boty retrospective I hope Ali Smith will be invited to open it. She also deserves credit for the first ‘Brexit’ novel and, had I been revising my dissertation on the influence of Margaret Thatcher on contemporary fiction, I would need to include this quotation.
The short list has been announced and it is the usual mixture of old hands and debut writers. I find it harder this year to pick the winner.
The first of the post-war World Fairs was held in Brussels in 1958: I remember it well. Jonathan Coe captures the flavour of it in his recent Expo 58 [London: Viking, 2014]. One of my own tweed designs was on show in the British Pavilion and for no better reason than that I travelled over to see it and to gaze in awe at the many international stands dominated by those of the USA and the USSR, rivals in everything from industry to ideology. What did Britain hope to gain from its participation? Coe sums up where Britain was starting from.
Howard Jacobson is a writer of consummate skill and his most recent novel with its shortest of all possible title J [London: Jonathan Cape, 2014] was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He won that prize in 2010 with the extremely witty and wonderfully funny The Finkler Question. Jacobson is very much a Jewish writer with Jewish characters, often it seems doppelgänger for the author, and Jewish themes and problems as the main strands of their narratives. However, he writes from a cultural rather than a religious perspective. So; what to make of J which one could say conforms to this pattern? That is a harder than usual question.