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The Russia House: Literature or pop?
by Nate Hagerty
The making of an American bestseller is an often unpredictable business. The whims of the public en masse and the dictates of the supremely capitalist market can be the epitome of fickle, while still appearing simple. That is why it is difficult t
o say what makes a book emerge from the ranks of obscurity and into the realm of the magazine lists. It sometimes seems as random as rolling the dice. However, just as the experienced gambler employs certain techniques to improve the chances of a positive
outcome, there are certain ways that writers can appeal to larger audiences and ways that publishers can more safely anticipate a popular book. The element of randomness still plays an important part, but in today's world/market of overwhelming commercia
lism proven formulae usually dictate sales.
In John le Carre's The Russia House, there are a variety of factors which may have contributed to the book's success. Clearly, as a product from an established, popular author, the book was bound for success initially. For example, any book which
might now emerge from John Grisham, or Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele would be an instant winner. The same principle holds true in markets such as food, music, movies, and other entertainment industries. However, the longevity of this book's success (19 w
eeks as #1 on Publisher's Weekly Top Ten list) cannot be accounted for merely from momentum due to the name brand appeal of the writer. Word of mouth resulting from a "bad" book would eventually deflate any initial surge in sales. There must be other reas
ons for such clear success.
In many ways, it is difficult to quantify reasons for ?s success. The best way, I think, is to consult the experts, and see what they had to say about what they liked it. Indeed, in a broad survey of critics, most all of them had litt
le that was bad to say about the book. For the most part, they enjoyed the book enough to write superlative-laced reviews suitable to include in subsequent editions designed to attract the reader who places great weight in what the "experts" have to say.
The Wall Street Journal's book reviewer wrote, "What distinguishes Mr. le Carre from so many popular novelists is the precision with which he dramatizes not only the cloak and dagger business (at which he is unmatched), but also the particular huma
n beings who carry it out or run afoul of it"(May 30, 1989, p.A20). Indeed, this human quality which the book takes on seems to be the most distinguishing characteristic that the various reviewers highlight in their praise of the book. The critic for T
he Washington Times writes, "[Le Carre] has progressed to new heights...blending passion, healthy cynicism, and philosophy into his descriptions of actions and feelings of the members of the world's second-oldest profession people who are as often adm
ired as they are despised." This characteristic of the book lends a quality which some reviewers even go so far as to label "literary," quite an uncommon remark to be made about a bestseller now or ten years ago.
This praise is most likely due to the element of character development which becomes evident as the story progresses. For example, the protagonist, a drunk publisher named Barley Blair, at first reluctantly agrees to be used by British Intelligence to obt
ain pertinent information which only he can obtain, but soon throws himself into the work, taking to the mechanics of the spy trade as if he was made for it. But this too does not last, and Barley very humanly falls for a beautiful Russian woman in which
he has contact and is forced to choose between the relationships which he now holds dear, and his country. At the point of this conflict, Blair is inspired by events and undergoes quite a significant sense of clarity.
"I have joined the tiny ranks of people who know what they will do first if the ship catches fire in the middle of the night, he thought; and what they will do last, or not do at all. He knew in ordered detail what he considered worth saving and what Part of what makes this description so interesting is the characteristic le Carre technique of not revealing important details until they have already played themselves out. For instance, in this ex
was unimportant to him. And what was to be shoved aside, stepped over and left for dead. A great house cleaning had taken place inside his mind, comprising quite humble details as well as grand themes. Because, as Barley had recently observed, it was in h
umble detail that grand themes wrought their havoc."
ample the reader is not certain what action Barley favors as a result of this new clarity of vision until he has actually done it, and the other characters themselves are even more in the dark. The plot unfolds in a subtle, unpredictable manner
A second aspect of this book which the critics and the public reacted well to is the way in which the story is appropriate for the times in which it is set. The crumbling of the Soviet Union sparked a momentary crisis for novelists who had previously thri
ved on the tensions from that conflict. As relations between the East and West improved, the idea of an easily discernible bad guy became less and less plausible. In 1989, the year in which the book was published, the USSR faced a major coup d'etat and it
s leadership swiftly changed hands. The ideas of capitalism became more and more dominant and the perception of Russia as a vast, evil monolith slowly began to disappear. This was bad news for most writers, but for le Carre, this only offered more possibi
lities for interesting situations and characters. Indeed, the world of moral ambiguity and questionable bureaucratic leadership is the world in which le Carre had lived for most of his writing career. This is another characteristic le Carre trait; calling
into question the assumed roles of good and bad which Western and Eastern governments take on in the imaginations of the mass public. His characters are often forces to decide between their own needs or their or of their loved ones and the "mission" or m
other country(usually England). It is a particularly modern dilemma, and one which had so often previously led to success.
So as real, current events caught up to the fictional world and style of le Carre, it would seem that 1989 would be a particularly fine year for a writer such as he to emerge as highly successful and a book such as The Russia House to emerge as one
of his most popular thus far. The critics also recognized how the book had so successfully adapted to the new Russia. "The Russia House is a novel about love, moral decision, loyalty, and courage. It is also a novel about bureaucracy, betrayal, de
spair, and terror. What happens to Barley and Katya reveals better than a Kissinger brief what glasnost and perestroika are about in terms of human suffering, triumph, loss, and survival"(San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner). In a Ju
ne 5, 1989 Newsweek article, le Carre is quoted as saying, "We in the West have not considered on what terms the Cold War might end," he says. "A second cold war might break out among those who see no advantage in lifting our fabled enemy off the f
loor." And about the disarray of NATO: "The problem is how to keep marching in step without constantly harping on the external enemy." The book itself reflects both sides of the anxiety over a world without a monolithic "enemy" to occupy the military stra
tegists' attention. Answering a Blair query about whether the Cold War was really over, a British intelligence officer, Walter, replies,
"Cheap political theatricals and feigned friendships!" he snorted. "Here we are locked into the biggest ideological face-off in history, and you tell me it's all over because a handful of statesmen find it convenient to hold hands in public and scrap This response typ
a few obsolete toys. The evil empire's on its knees, oh yes! Their economy's a disaster, their ideology's up the spout and their backyard's blowing up in their faces. Just don't tell me that's a reason for unbuckling our guns, because I won't believe a wo
rd of you. It's a reason for spying the living daylights out of them twenty-five hours a day and kicking them in the balls every time they try to get off the floor. God knows what they won't think they are ten years from now!"
ifies opposition to restrained defense build-up, which, in various ways, the novel goes on to call into doubt. In this way le Carre is almost ahead of times in revealing the emptiness in the need for increased or maintained military pressure. Time will st
ill yet tell whether relations between East and West will be fully repaired, but the West has "unbuckled its guns" and cut back on opposition to the "Soviet knight."
A third reason which can account for the relative staying power of the popularity of this book is the movie adaptation which starred two top-profile actors in Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeifer, as well as a host of recognizable actors in smaller roles. Th
e movie remains mostly faithful to the book, differing in some minor details, but in some significant ones, as well. Mostly, as would be expected, the movie production focuses more on the romantic relationship between Blair(Connery) and Katya(Pfeifer) and
introduces it earlier in the plot. Indeed, this may be accounted for as an effort to make the plot more suitable for Hollywood, because, according to the Newsweek cover story, studio boss after studio boss told operatives attempting to sell it to the mov
iemakers, "Sorry. First this is a story about a disloyal man. Second, there is no hero in it." The increased emphasis on the Barley-Katya plot may have been a way to more clearly market and categorize the movie as a spy romance.
Additionally, the limitations of the medium also play a part in shaping the movie, in that the plot must be condensed and interior dialogue becomes much trickier to portray and much more dependent on the proficiency of the particular actor. This is a sign
ificant loss as the novel depends so much on the narration of the inner thoughts of the characters.
And a major difference between the book and movie is that in the movie, the narrator himself, a minor character who acts as legal consultant to British intelligence and gains a particular affinity for Blair, is eliminated altogether, being replaced by ext
ending the roles of other minor characters. This removes a perspective which was fresh in its indirectness and important in its independent and cohesive development. Describing a day of inactivity, the narrator reveals bits of himself, as he does througho
ut the book:
The whole next day nothing. a space. Spying is waiting. Spying is worrying yourself sick while you watch Ned sink into a decline. Spying is taking Hannah[his ex-wife] to your flat in Pimlico between the hour of four and six when she is supposed to be This element of passive, yet discernible narration provides the reader with quite an interesting perspective, more full
having a German lesson, God knows why. Spying is imitating love, and making sure she's home in time to give dear Derek his dinner."
y fleshing out the human consequences of events in the world of secrecy. For these reasons, I thought the movie less impressive than the novel, although I am not prone to knee-jerk anti-movie sentiments like some. The movie was simply good, not excellent
as it might have been. And it performed moderately well in the box office, but not enough to carry the book back into the top ten lists of most publishing magazines, but enough to keep the book on the public consciousness, and thereby temporarily burgeon
Perhaps if the movie had become an instant classic the book may have as well, but unfortunately this is not the case. For whatever reason, the book has mostly fallen off the map in terms of public awareness and consumption. The movie remains more recogniz
able because of Connery, but not so much because of its exceptional quality. It is unfortunate that only through a mildly successful movie that a great book remains to be known. Perhaps because novels which explore the human side of these sort of topics h
ave become more common, or interest in a Russia which is no longer a clear adversary has declined, or perhaps it has become lost in the spectrum of le Carre novels, or maybe for other, unexplored reasons, but the book is no longer a current "bestseller."
However, for a period in 1989, John le Carre and his American publisher, Knopf, gambled and scored, thereby cracking the market and producing one of the 80's most popular books.