John Le Carre

This short book is instructive and a delight to read. 

1. For writers who have wondered about the differences between detective stories and espionage tales, this story, having both, is an example.

2.  For writing wondering how much dialogue to put into a story and where, this story    presents  dialogue judiciously well. There are no frills. The dialogue advances the story.

3.  Writers wondering about description by using adjectives, a phrase or a prepositional phrase, the scenery and the characters are further developed by description.

This writing advances each story well until the stories break into their constituent parts. It seems like a free for all, except bad guys (or spies) are identified or caught and the success of the espionage is identified and analyzed. 

The story revolves around the death of a British civil servant who is identified as a possible security risk. An interview with George Smiley causes his East German handlers to kill the civil servant and everyone else associated with him. Murder is committed to insure security (espionage) but some of the acts are unnecessary and criminal. Not much is investigated about each course. Smiley predicts who will be the next victims. I suppose the story does not need Smiley’s report to his superiors in the last chapter: It is a reminder that espionage is a dangerous business.   


In literature this voice is not used often; there are good reasons why. Having “I” tell the story greatly limits the options a writer has available in any writing. The reader and world already know whose point of view is being presented: I, and to be consistent I must fill in all the action and description. A derivation into description present in a third party tale is noticeable and a flaw.

It may seem that dialogue can be accurately reported by using I. Indeed, some of the sentences may have been previously uttered, but there is not enough paper in the world to record every conversation completely. In all literature conversations reported in dialogue are edited and representative. That selection process picks the jewels coming from the human brain through the mouth rather than a jumbo mix of participles, prepositional phrases and adverbs. Someone writing dialogue I, the first person narration needs to tone down and eliminate as many words as possible: First, the words come from I, a person the reader is familiar with. Second, unless the dialogue drives the story forward, it should be dropped. In a first person narration I is the primary mover of the story. If points in dialogue have not been made, they may have already been implied, or they are not important and possibly conflicting. An author cutting his dialogue – this is my styleHORRORS! It is an impossible task.
Writing a novel is the first person narrative and having flashbacks seems an impossibility. I have tried reading such a novel. The author tried to clarify by dating each chapter of the multi-decade story: Chapter 1, Winter 2008; Chapter 2, Autumn, 1982, etc. Embracing I along with keeping track of incidences in I’s life over the decades is more than a reader should endure: Chapter 3, Winter, 1983; Chapter 4, Spring 1984; Chapter 5, Summer 2008.

The author jumped relying on dates and seasons and dialogue from those times, but I wondered, why bother. The author supposedly wanted to tell a first person narrative about a police investigation of a local heroin distribution ring. It seems a timely subject beset by the awkward telling.

So I put the book down. There are others to read, one by Joseph Conrad.


The the Lighthouse            Virginia Woolf

A current fad among those promoting the conventional wisdom is to embrace Virginia Woolf as an excellent, significant writer. Trying to read this novel and stopping, I know anyone with intelligence and reading comprehension knows it is a shame they let Virginia die a natural death.

The writing in To the Lighthouse is very undisciplined. Voices of the author and Mrs. Ramsey mix; the characters are not well presented. The novel is in need of severe editing. Virginia needs to learn English punctuation and grammar and avoiding using parentheses.

I finished the first chapter of To the Lighthouse. I had bought the paperback for a buck. I got to the end and saw that Chapter 2 was six (6) lines long. Chapter 3 hard at the writing was longer. To learn whether the novel involved alternating long/short chapters, I went through Chapter 3 and discovered another discontented reader. The corner of the first page of Chapter 4 had been turned down, to serve as a bookmark. From the condition of the remaining pages and the binding, the reader who owned the book before me had stopped reading at the end of Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 is impossible. Mrs. Ramsey says to her son: “Yes, of course, if it is fine tomorrow.” The kid wants to go outside and play.

Rather than stick to the weather, the author prefers whether and evaluates the boy’s reaction:

“Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn of the wheel of sensation has the power to crystalize and transfix the movement upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the pictures of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.”

This is a hell of a sentence, but other than letting her son go outside tomorrow, Mrs. Ramsey said nothing. She did not speak – there are no quotation marks, a sure sign. I don’t know where the “heavenly bliss” came from, but I know no one said anything approaching that description. Inside the writing of the sentence are disjointed, unconnected clauses and phrases tossed together to extend its length but detracting from its meaning and impact. In fact incomprehensibility seems to be the purpose of the sentence: The longer it is the more meaningless it becomes, and the more profound critics of FOV (Friends of Virginia) can claim it to be. Thereby a novel of such sentences is a work of genius. HOWEVER, beneath all the words from the sentence are two thoughts: The boy is excited and delighted; he can go outside tomorrow. And, Mrs. Ramsey is mentally ill.

Mr. Ramsey speaks next: “It won’t be fine [tomorrow].” Summarizing from there to the end of that paragraph: Mrs. Ramsey wants to kill Mrs. Ramsey. He is forcefully opinionated. He has crossed her, albeit about tomorrow’s weather. But what he said was true. The children detest him after Mrs. Ramsey’s input.

The next paragraph Mrs. Ramsey sticks to her guns: “But it may be fine – I expect it will be fine.” This paragraph next dwells partially on “…how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask, and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody, if you were married…”etc., etc., etecera! 

I note this paragraph uses no quotation marks, as well a few periods. Perhaps the author needed a typewriter in good repair, one that had the keys controlling periods and quotation marks in good working order.

From a blurb on the back of the book, I gather this story takes place during the summer. A month or longer in the house – NONSENSE! Most of this wandering paragraph is immaterial, irrelevant and incompetent; it is filled with invented fears and other mysteries haunting Mrs. Ramsey. BEFORE SUBMITTING, EDIT THE DAMN STORY, VIRGINIA!

A house guest pipes up in the next paragraph, reporting the wind is “due west.” Mrs. Ramsey is egregiously upset about this observation, but either she [or the author] denigrate him: Tansley is “an atheist.”

Finally the atheist clarifies the point a few paragraphs later: “There will be no landings at the Lighthouse tomorrow.” This is a grave insult to Mrs. Ramsey. In one of her [or the author’s] paragraphs, it says, atheist “was such a miserable person…He couldn’t play cricket…” Obviously, this house guest is completely unstable and totally unreliable.

Mrs. Ramsey rejoins the God-gainsayer: “Nonsense.” Not only does Mrs. Ramsey want to kill her husband because he disagrees with her about tomorrow’s weather, but she can’t tell which way the wind is blowing. “Indeed,” [the author or Mrs. Ramsey]

“she had the whole of the other sex sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valor, for the act that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude toward herself which no woman could fail to feel or find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman would take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”

In the paragraphs that follow Mrs. Ramsey and the author restate their opinions of life in the house, the Bank of England and the Indian Empire. Admittedly, Mrs. Ramsey states that she cares for her daughter, but whether the weather be fine or foul, the son can play outside, come hell or high water. Mrs. Ramsey’s attitude toward her son appears to be: (1) Tomorrow, you can play on the freeway. (2) What about traffic? Tomorrow you can play on the freeway if there is no traffic. (3) There is always traffic. Tomorrow you can play on the freeway if there is northbound traffic in the southbound lanes.

I know from the blurb on the back of the book proclaims, “Mrs. Ramsey is beautiful, dominate and generous. Her power is gentle but irresistible.” I don’t see these qualities except as they are firmly imbedded in Mrs. Ramsey’s own mind but not in her speech, her behaviors, her thoughts or her attitudes.

I admit I cannot play cricket, and I see no lure in those matches. To the Lighthouse may be a distinctly British book about a peculiar woman, a very eccentric woman, am extremely odd woman. But To the Lighthouse carried the connotation that the lights are out and a shipwreck is inevitable.

In the end I believe I wrote a better description of the first few pages of To the Lighthouse than Virginia wrote in the first place.



Since blogging in August 2013, I’ve read novels and put forth my comments. I’ve been direct – complementary or derogatory. It something is unreadable, I’ll say that.

But this morning I put down a novel (more than 500 pages), and I am reminded of Mark Twains purported evaluation of Henry James’s novels: Once you’ve put down one of his novels, you can’t pick it up.

I won’t identify the novelist or her first novel. The subject matter is something I’ve thoroughly versed with – a student going to college in a strange place. Chapter One is long and slow. Ten pages into it I realized it was common stuff. Not a lot happened – dialogue, descriptions, action – by page 20. But I recognized the source. It was obvious that this author had kept a journal in college and had devoted pages to the mundane as most journals and diaries are. This author had replicated in the book the journal conversations she had tediously recorded as a fresh student. 

If an author will write about a character who is boring, dull, mundane and ordinary, the author ought not to show those traits by being prosaic with the writing. It must be poetry (Lennie, Of Mice and Men). It is entirely possible that this author did not fully understand how the traits of the character might be perceived. That is a failure of the author’s, of editors and of the publisher; it should be noted in criticism. Stumbling along writing characters in common, everyday speech is not the way to do it. Fiction does partly reflect reality, but an author has to make up the language as she proceeds. The author does not get to literature by inserting every sentence ever uttered, remembered for a journal and put into a novel. However, that’s what this author seems to have done, and she should have been more wary. She states a fact that reveals the character is a moron. In the first 20 pages she mentions that the character took Geometry during his senior year of high school. Geometry is a high school freshman or sophomore course.

So I quit this novel before being insulted more. I had to put it down and quit it forever. I’ll be suspicious of anything more from this author. Fortunately there was no expense. I borrowed it from a library where I gladly returned it.