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John le Carré in Miami

Jeff Leen writes about the late novelist’s uncanny ability to get people to open up
John le Carré in Miami

In 1991, Jeff Leen spent two weeks showing John le Carré around Miami. What he remembers most of all is the late novelist’s elegance and acumen:

‘Jeff?’ The voice was British, upper crust. ‘This is David Cornwell. Do you know who I am?’ I did know the name David Cornwell. I had read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Little Drummer Girl, Smiley’s People, The Honourable Schoolboy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I cannot count how many times I had invoked his nom de plume to describe the Miami drug world. ‘It’s just like a John le Carré novel,’ I would say, over and over again.

David said he wanted to learn about the Miami drug world and had been told I could help. Did I want to meet for lunch? I was out of my seat and on my way before I had hung up the receiver.

We met in the elegant dining room of Coconut Grove’s luxurious Grand Bay Hotel, a monument to ostentatious splendor in the shape of a Mayan pyramid with overhanging bougainvillea. Valet parking cost $13, a fortune back then. I met a New York Times reporter there once who told me that if what we had written in the Herald had appeared in the Times, everybody in the country would know our names.

David was 60, white-haired, distinguished, seemingly at the peak of life. He looked like the most authoritative judge you had ever seen. The British accent. The height of sophistication. He was unfailingly polite, kind and engaging, yet you never forgot the size of his reputation. I fell in love with him immediately.

I knew what he wanted. I had sat across from fellow journalists, magazine writers, book authors, Hollywood screenwriters, directors and producers, congressional investigators, talent bookers, all wanting to extract secrets about the Miami drug world. I was careful with the information. I gave interviews and whatever general insights I had to other reporters and investigators, but the good stuff, the particulars, the real details — I was saving that for my own book. Not Kings of Cocaine, but a novel I intended to write called Highs in the Eighties.

But David wanted the good stuff. And I could not resist him. Partly because he was so charming and so blindingly famous, and I wanted to impress him, to get him to like me as much as I liked him. Partly because he was so indirect about it, so careful to lay the groundwork and prepare me for my confessions. (A good interview is like a seduction, somebody once said.) And, maybe most important of all, because I knew he would understand and appreciate it as much as I did. Being understood is perhaps the ultimate vanity.

So, I told him everything I knew, slowly at first, but with increasing acceleration as time passed.

In other news: Anna Wiener writes about Substack in The New Yorker and gives a short history of modern newsletters: “Newsletters have existed since time immemorial. As Silicon Valley came into being, newsletters were among the earliest trade publications. In 1983, Esther Dyson, a former business reporter and Wall Street securities analyst in her thirties, purchased a nine-year-old newsletter about semiconductors and personal computing, the ‘Rosen Electronics Letter,’ from her boss, Ben Rosen, who was selling it to focus on his work at a venture-capital firm. Dyson, who wrote for the newsletter and had a reputation as a confident, quotable technology expert, renamed the publication ‘Release 1.0.’ The design was unadorned, formatted in a single column, and printed on white paper; an early issue, published that November, offered twenty-nine pages of her research and opinions on hot topics of the day, from end-user training to newly public tech companies. ‘Normally we don’t like to be nasty: we’d rather simply be silent,’ she wrote, in a section on vaporware. ‘But the current rash of purported revolutions, breakthroughs and new generations requires some comment.’ The subscriber base included two thousand people, most of whom paid three hundred and ninety-five dollars a year to receive the newsletter monthly, through the mail. This readership was modest by mass-media standards, but it included an enviable A-list of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and executives, bolstering Dyson’s nascent image as one of the most powerful women in computing.”

Rob Doyle reviews Karl Ove Knausgaard’s essays. He’s not impressed: “A lengthy review here of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission opens with a plodding explanation of why Knausgaard has never before read the author, and labours on under the presumption that we are as interested in the underqualified reviewer as we are in his subject. He’s better on Madame Bovary, and on much surer footing in a long essay on his compatriot Knut Hamsun’s ‘dirty modernism’. A piece about reading Kierkegaard in Beirut also begins with an admission that Knausgaard is a newcomer to the Danish philosopher (presumably a commissioning editor liked the symmetrical headline possibilities – Knausgaard on Kierkegaard). He has little to say on Kierkegaard’s thoughts that can’t easily be found elsewhere – and none of it is as lively as an excruciating anecdote about his reading a passage from My Struggle in which he slashes his face to impress a woman to a war-shocked Middle Eastern festival audience. It’s a reminder that My Struggle’s best episodes worked on the level of scandal and salaciousness – a several-thousand-page slab of Nordic reality TV in gossipy, oversharing prose.”

A previously unknown painting by El Greco has been authenticated: A small-scale painting of Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns and carrying the cross has been authenticated as a work by the Renaissance painter El Greco. According to a report by the Spanish newspaper El País, the work, which is owned by a private collector, was attributed to El Greco after it was studied at the Center d’Art d’Època Moderna (CAEM) at the University of Lleida in Spain.”

A Japanese company and a research group at Kyoto University hope to develop the first wooden satellite by 2023: “Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more satellites are launched into the atmosphere. Wooden satellites would burn up without releasing harmful substances into the atmosphere or raining debris on the ground when they plunge back to Earth.”

The real Henry Adams: “Henry was a man of contradictions. He attacked materialism but collected watercolors by J.M.W. Turner. He lived lavishly, took numerous tours of Europe, and traveled to the Far East and the South Seas. He later owned a Mercedes automobile. He believed in democracy but considered the best government to be one overseen by a small elite. He condemned Wall Street but invested in the stock market. He considered slavery to be wrong, but he disapproved of the Emancipation Proclamation, believing that the U.S. should have gradually sapped the strength of the slaveholders by establishing free colonies in the South. Working for his father in the British Embassy during the Civil War, Adams wrote numerous articles hoping to keep England from siding with the Confederacy . . . In his new biography of Adams, The Last American Aristocrat, David Brown tries to uncover the man behind the memoir. Leaning on Adams’s memoir and letters, as well as Ernest Samuels’s three-volume biography of Adams, which won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, Brown focuses on Adams as the political and social critic. He surveys Adams’s life chronologically, which works, but the book lacks a clear narrative drive and tends to bog down in detail. Adams was, above all, a critic of the materialism of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. He believed that the U.S. was ‘marked by a steady decline of literary and artistic intensity, and especially for the feeling for poetry.’ The country had entered, he believed, into a Faustian bargain with technology.”

Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence at 75: “A little more than two weeks before the first VE Day, on April 21, 1945, Olivier Messiaen’s Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence (Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine) had premiered. In the decades since then it has become difficult to hear this rarely performed work, but new online resources are changing this. Several performances are available on YouTube, including one recorded earlier this year (just prior to the pandemic) with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and women’s chorus. You can also listen to a recording synchronized with the published musical score. Finally, archived online performance notes from the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (2002) put an English translation within easy reach. At age seventy-five, the Three Small Liturgies has never been so readily accessible.”

Photo: Baden-Württemberg

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