Friday, January 28

The spy writer who held a grudge against Le Carré comes out of the cold | Books

After The spy who came on from cold It was published in 1963 and became John le Carré’s most acclaimed book, winning multiple awards, being adapted for a feature film directed by Richard Burton, and becoming one of the most respected novels of the cold war era.

A year earlier, another spy book had been published in Britain: the English translation of a work by Willem Frederik Hermans, one of the greatest Dutch authors of the 20th century. The book, Damocles’ dark room, it was an immediate success when it was published in the Netherlands, earning acclaim and also being adapted for the cinema.

Pushkin Press will publish the first English translation of A Guardian Angel Recalls in October.
Pushkin Press will publish the first English translation of A Guardian Angel Recalls in October. Photograph: Pushkin Press

But while Le Carré admitted to being a fan of Hermans, and in particular of Damocles’ dark room, the feeling was far from mutual. According to an interview that has come to light on the eve of the British publication of another of the Dutch author’s books, Hermans considered Le Carré an inferior novelist and someone who had plagiarized his work.

“I have the impression that he [Le Carré] based his To spy largely in my book, ”said Hermans, whose novel tells the story of a man who carried out dangerous missions with British agents during the German occupation of the Netherlands. “The similarities stand out too much. Examples? The main character who reaches the stage of not knowing who he works for. The love affair with a girl who disappears without a trace. The shooting at the end “.

Le Carré, who died last year, became one of the world’s most revered masters of spy fiction, but this did little to impress Hermans. “A man like that has a very different success than mine,” he said. Write entertaining literature. I write serious literature disguised as entertaining literature. “

Now, it seems Hermans may be about to have his moment in the sun, thanks to a resurgence of interest in his work in Britain. Last year Pushkin Press published Damocles’ dark room in a more recent English translation and in 2016 published A virgin house, on the savagery of war, for rave reviews, with the guardian describing it as a “book that will stay with you forever.”

Willem Frederik Hermans, author of Memories of a Guardian Angel.
Willem Frederik Hermans, author of Memories of a Guardian Angel.

The British publisher has commissioned his own translator, David Colmer, to translate a 1971 Hermans war thriller which he describes as “an all-black war novel to rival 22 captures”.

On October 28 publishes A guardian angel remembers about prosecutor Simon Alberegt, who, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, is so devastated that his Jewish girlfriend has fled to England, accidentally collides with a girl and kills her. Struck by pain and guilt, he finds himself torn between a guardian angel and a devil, each of whom whispers warnings to him.

Hermans’ criticisms of Le Carré have resurfaced after first appearing in the 1979 Dutch book Creative nihilism. He drew them up in 1985 after a fan wrote to him about a BBC Le Carré interview, saying: “One question was, ‘What authors have influenced your work?’ Le Carré replied: ‘A Dutch writer with a book called Damocles’ room. His name is Verhulst or Van Heulst ‘”.

Hermans replied: “I have received reports from various quarters about John le Carré’s disgusting comment. I think Le Carré misquoted the name of the author who wrote Damocles so it’s hard for your listeners to search for that book. “

Hermans died in 1995. Influenced by Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, he produced some of the most profound reflections in WWII literature.

Daniel Seton, editor-in-charge of Pushkin Press, said: “I was not surprised to hear that Le Carré had been influenced by Hermans. Hermans novels are fiercely literary, but they have brilliant plots, move at a breakneck pace, and contain as many lies, betrayals, and false identities as any Smiley thriller. A guardian angel remembers It is no exception, and it also features a breathtaking and striking opening that no one who has read it will forget. “

John le Carré.
John le Carré. Photograph: Jane Bown / The Observer

Hermans was known to be difficult. Michael Pye, Author of the Acclaimed 2021 Book AntwerpHe said: “The Dutch just call him ‘nasty’: a picky, prickly kind of man who didn’t trust anyone except his cat Sebastian. He continued to proofread his books for a decade after their publication. But his world is bleak, straightforward, and murderous, and at times hilarious, which is kind of a haunting genius. He was convinced that the translators betrayed him and resisted having it published outside the Netherlands in case his Dutch enemies laughed at the sales figures. He was a wonderful writer with little talent for life. ”

Victor Schiferli, fiction specialist at the Dutch Literature Foundation, said: “If Le Carré wanted the English reading audience to not seek DarknessDamocles room, he would not have mentioned [it]. “

He added: “Hermans was a very suspicious man, not just when it came to translations. However, Jaco Groot [one of Hermans’ publishers] He always said that Hermans was, in fact, the kindest man he had ever known, and that behind the mask of anger and anguish, there was even a shy and sometimes awkward person. “

The sounds of Le Carré Simon and Stephen Cornwell declined to comment.

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