HONORING BOOK WORLD PASSINGS
This month I’m deviating from my usual book review to honor two special people in the book world who passed away recently. One was a famous author known throughout the world. The other was a bookseller none of us here have heard of, but whose story reflects the courage and commitment sometimes needed in that profession.
John Le Carre
David Cornwell, better known by his pen name John Le Carre, died from pneumonia on December 12, 2020. He was a master of the spy/espionage genre, considered by some of his peers and fans to be the top author in that field.
Le Carre was born in England in 1931. After earning his B.A. at Oxford, he worked for MI5 (Britain’s Security Service) and MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) before he left those services and began his writing career. Writers are encouraged to “write about what you know,” and he did just that, along with a lot of his own imagination. He drew upon his experiences running agents and working in foreign offices.
For someone with his interests and skills, the 1950s and 1960s were an ideal time for him to be alive and writing. The post-WWII period, rise of the Cold War, and threat of communism made those years especially dire. To add spice to the mix, the fear of a mole (deep cover or double agent) embedded in the intelligence service was ever present. They did exist—Kim Philby is probably the most famous and skilled one. In fact, Philby’s betrayal of British agents to the KGB in 1964 ended Le Carre’s real life intelligence career.
Le Carre (“the square,” his pen name chosen because agents were not allowed to publish under their real names) wrote more than two dozen books. His most famous character is George Smiley, whose description pegs him as someone a person wouldn’t notice if they passed on the street—perfect for a spy.
Later books covered a variety of current topics that interested him. The Constant Gardener, for example, explores the pharmaceutical industry’s testing of products in Africa. No matter what topic he covered, it was a guaranteed “good read.”
He “portrayed British intelligence operations as cesspools of ambiguity in which right and wrong are too close to call and in which it is rarely obvious whether the ends, even if the ends are clear, justify the means.” Allan Massie wrote of Mr. Le Carré in The Scotsman, “He remains angered by what should anger us all: duplicity, treachery, the arrogance and indifference of wealth and power, the readiness to use others as mere instruments.” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/13/books/john-le-carre-dead.html]
For me, the most interesting aspect of Le Carre’s books is their cerebral nature. To be a successful spy, one has to compartmentalize one’s life and brain; to be an outstanding actor, essentially. When I think about it, I don’t know how one can keep one’s sanity over time. I know I couldn’t do it.
Oddly, Le Carre’s ability to work in that field and write so well about spying and espionage came out of his unsettled childhood. In the introduction to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he says: “I knew what it was like…to be brought up by a man so oversized that your only resort as his child was to subterfuge and deceit.” [p. xiv]
His father may not have been an ideal parent, but he helped prepare his son for a career that resulted in a body of work giving readers many hours of reading (and re-reading) pleasure. He will be missed.
HELGA WEYHE, German Bookseller
Helga Weyhe was well-known within her profession and in much of Germany. Her bookstore is located west of Berlin in the town of Salzwedel in former East Germany. She was born in 1922, followed her grandfather and father into the business, taking it over in 1965, until her recent death at the age of 98.
It’s important to understand the esteem in which books and bookstores are held in Germany.
“Bookstores hold a special place for many Germans. During the pandemic lockdown, some were classified as “essential” businesses; the country’s 3,500 small, independent booksellers (compared with 2,500 in the United States) have been buoyed by a law that fixes book prices, preventing the small shops from being undercut by large chains and Amazon.”
The bookstore was founded in 1840—that’s BEFORE Germany was united as a country. Weyhe’s grandfather bought the store 31 years later, and it has remained in the family until the present day. Think of the history of Germany in the intervening years: WWI, Weimar Republic, Nazi rule, WWII, division with East Germany under Communist rule.
To me, it’s nothing short of a miracle mixed with a lot of courage that the family was able to keep the store running despite oppressive laws, restrictions, and censorship during those years. Weyhe even stocked religious books under the Communist regime.
Weyhe was the first woman in her family to attend university where she studied German and history. She was unable to finish her studies because of the war, so started working in the bookstore in 1944, then took over running the store in 1965. She was able to travel extensively when East Germans were allowed to travel.
I was so struck by her story, her determination to prevail despite obstacles, that I feel it deserves to be told here. She never married or had a family of her own, but touched the lives of countless people. The mayor of her town said: “She wasn’t just an honorary citizen…She was an institution.” She will be missed.
You can read the entire article complete with photo of her and her bookstore here.
Next month I’ll resume my usual book review.