John le Carré, better than ever

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John le Carré, as witty as ever

John le Carré, as witty as ever

Every pubisher will tell you : it is the first sentence of a book that counts, in order to keep the reader going. In « The pigeon tunnel », Stories from my life, John Le Carré starts like this : « I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits of « The Spy who came in from the cold » in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern university. »

In these few lines, he summed up his extraordinary life of 84 years, his fluency in German that would determine his career as a spy in Bonn and at the foreign office, his modesty also, his fear of his father and his sense of adventure. The book consists of 38 short chapters, ans as many moments in his life, ranging from his encounter with Yasser Arafat in Beirut (partly thanks to the regretted Patrick Seale), his portrait of his father Ronnie, a con man who spent his life going bankrupt, his estrangement from his mother at an early age, his love for Cornwall where he owns a cottage in St Just near Land’s End, and his attachment to the Swiss Alps and the chalet where Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford sojourned near the Lauberhorn.

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His piece on Bernard Pivot, the celebrated French TV interviewer is fun and charming, including the huge efforts he put on to brush up his French at Alliance française.  His exchange of letters with former hostage journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann, who told him that reading one of his books, over and over again in jail had saved his life. His lunch in Hampstead in 1987, with Joseph Brodsky who learned in the pub that he had won the Nobel prize. Every piece is a chef d’œuvre of writing and sense of humor.

The title of the book, The pigeon tunnel, comes from a shooting range in Monte Carlo where his father used to take him as a teen ager, while he went gambling in the casino. The live pigeons were introduced in the tunnel and when they flew out of it, they were targets for the « sporting gentlemen » who tried out their shotguns. If they escaped, they were returned to the roof of the casino where they were trapped again and sent down the tunnel…

There is an audio version of the book taped by the author and while many of us can hear his voice from the printed lines alone, some of you might enjoy the extra bonus of hearing this amazing writer talk to us on a tape… (Viking in English and Le Seuil in French)

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