At a particular point in my youth, I tried to understand various durations of time by thinking back in history. That point was between about 1955 and 1965. I would think about the Civil War a century before, or fifty years back to before the First World War. I still do it to put perspective into the movement of history.
The Second World War had ended only ten to twenty years earlier. Because that was before my memories began, it seemed like a long time. Now ten to twenty years goes back only to the financial crash, or to 9/11. The end of the Soviet Union, a definitional event in my life, now extends back 30 years. In my earlier calibration, that would be before the Great Depression, which had made a permanent imprint on my parents, which they strove to pass on to their kids.
John le Carré’s acceptance speech for the Olof Palme prize caused me to think about that time perspective again.
The film “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” was in theaters in 1964. I was in graduate school. My husband and I went to see it. Europe had barely recovered from the Second World War, so the gritty look was totally believable, as was the spying. We had been through a decade of arms race, revelation of the spies of the Manhattan Project, the Berlin airlift, the Berlin Wall. Another war, this one with nuclear weapons added in, was easy to imagine.
Here’s a rereading of “Spy” from someone who first read it in 1980. In terms of my time calibrations, that person is thinking of events as far back as before the Second World War; difficult to imagine, in a past with little personal reference.
I don’t read much fiction any more, but le Carré is one of the few I still can read. I’m not fond of spy movies, but I can watch his.
In 1964, I was very naïve. I had put most of my effort into science and education, but both my husband and I were coming to the time when we would have to get jobs. Through my school years, I had read warnings of conformity in books like “The Organization Man.” I had been subjected to much pressure to conform, often from school personnel who wanted me to be properly feminine and subordinate. I was not always kind to my teachers, although I kept it within disciplinary bounds.
So I could identify with Alec Lemas: in a structured setting, with little control over his assignment. The betrayals I had experienced were less devastating, but real to a naïve young woman. The final scene of the movie will be with me the rest of my life.
That’s almost sixty years ago now. From my young calibration, well before the Russian Revolution or the World Wars. In the actual time since the movie, we’ve had nuclear weapons with some attempts at their control, continuing less-than-world-wars including Vietnam, two in Iraq, and the Republic of Congo. But no wars directly between major powers. We’ve had 9/11 and an entanglement in the Middle East that doesn’t stop. North Korea developing nuclear weapons. And the end of the Soviet Union.
And that last scene remains with me.
I suspect that much of the story can be understood by people who were born long after, although much will be missed. But literature is like that and why masterpieces can be read again and again.
There’s a lot more in le Carré’s acceptance speech, including an anguished commentary on Brexit. Read it.