Sep 15, 2009

Appreciation of David Cornwell

John le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell, a writer who is often not given his due. His genre is the spy or espionage novel. The Guardian actually labelled him Graham Greene-Light. I have read a lot of Graham Greene and all of David Cornwell’s novels (he uses the word “lugubrious” exactly once in each of his twenty-one novels). Mr. Cornwell’s novels stack up at least as well as Greene’s, if not better. If you want to see the difference, compare le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Both are beautifully written examples of the genre, but there is a deftness to Cornwell’s narrative, to his characterization, to how he unfolds the story that Graham is lacking. To be fair, Graham’s weary self-confident style of writing suits his protagonist perfectly.

Cornwell is like Hitchcock in that he is often dismissed as not serious because of the genre in which he works. In his one non-spy novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, you can see how the absence of an espionage backdrop loosens his writing. I heard an interview in which Cornwell said he realized after The Naïve and Sentimental Lover that readers did not want those kinds of novels from him. The implication is that he turned back to genre for money. Who can blame him?

It took François Truffaut to isolate Hitchcock’s technique and make the world see that Hitchcock was a master filmmaker not just a circus performer. I wonder when the literati will discover the depth of David Cornwell. He is an exquisite writer.