Monday, March 16, 2015

I am Harry Palmer 1

I love the Harry Palmer novels. His name isn't really Harry Palmer but it may as well be. Len Deighton, the man who wrote them, has admitted that he left the character nameless in his books because he couldn't think of a name for him. By the time he got to the end, he realized that he didn't need a name so he left his hero nameless. When they made movies out of the books, they gave him the name "Harry Palmer".

They aren't really spy novels. What they are is chick lit, sort of. That is, chick lit in which male characters dominate. Why do I say it's sort of chick lit? Because, they share a cluster of values that make chick lit chick lit with one, obvious exception.

For example, the novels have an aspirational hero. Decades before Helen Fielding, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin, Len Deighton picked up the trick of writing about someone who was just like him only more so. "More so" here meaning that Harry Palmer is a Len Deighton whose strengths are magnified so are his faults, who has more sexual partners but who makes bigger mistakes in love, who has a more interesting job but also is at greater risk of being fired or even killed, who is better at fighting but who also gets beat up more often and so on.

I say "picked up" because he obviously didn't invent it. Lots of novels and poems have aspirational characters. There is something about the context, however, that makes Len Deighton and later chick lit worth considering apart from all their precedents.

Why an aspirational hero?

The reason Pride and Prejudice and Emma work in a way that the other Austen novels don't is the outsize heroines are the sort of characters you might dream of being. You might read Mansfield Park and see yourself in Fanny Price, you might read Persuasion and see yourself in Anne Elliot and you might (I do) read Sense and Sensibility and see yourself in Elinor Dashwood. When you do this, you don't imagine you are exactly like the character (I'm a man and Elinor Dashwood isn't). But you see someone who is useful to you because she is sort of like you.

Now, imagine instead a hero who is something like you only she or he did things that you might have done but didn't. In the 20th year of her marriage, Maud wondered how her life might have been different if she'd married another guy. Or maybe she wonders what her life might have been like if she'd been a bad girl at university instead of the good girl she was. Christopher loses a whole lot of weight the year he is 35 and he wonders how his life might have been different if he'd done this at 19. Or he wonders what his life would have been like if he'd kept waiting tables instead of buckling down and becoming the lawyer his mother wanted him to be. He'd gotten a lot more pleasure out of working in restaurants than he has ever gotten out of the law and, while he might not be as rich or secure as he is as a partner now, if he'd skipped university and gone to chef school he might well have his own bistro now.  Or maybe the hero does exactly what you do only they figured out certain things sooner than you did.

That's an aspirational hero.

It's fun to read that sort of story because it allows us to exercise our moral imaginations by vicariously living a hypothetical through an aspirational hero. Critics, dour puritans that they tend to be, sneer at this. They want us to exercise our moral imaginations by reading realistic stories. I think realistic stories have their place but I also think that aspirational heroes have their place.

Rhetorical context

An aspirational hero tends to be limited to a certain cultural context. You could read the Iliad a imagine yourself to be like one of its heroes but you'll find it far easier with a detective story or even Fifty Shades of Grey because these stories share the same narrow and slightly artificial cultural context. That's worth dwelling on because the problem isn't that the Iliad isn't realistic and a spy or detective novel is. The premises and plot are every bit as fantastic and implausible as the Iliad, The Lord of the Rings or Frozen. Your chances of becoming a spy, solving a mystery or owning an Aston Martin are about as slim as your chances of being descended from Greek gods. But it matters that you and I live in a world where Aston Martins not only exist but have real cultural currency in a way that Zeus and Aphrodite do not.

Another thing that Harry Palmer has in common with Chick lit heroines is that he lives in  a consumer context. Harry doesn't just drink sherry, he drinks Tio Pepe and Tio Pepe was a huge branding success in the early 1960s. When he drinks scotch it tends to be Teacher's.

Now, you may think, so much consumerism but consider Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart. Consumerism (we should real say consumerisms because there are many varieties) doesn't just sell products, it sells values and every set of values implies a sociology. The sociology that goes with Ralph and Martha is one in which a certain kind of social mobility is emphasized. To embrace their consumerisms (and it is an "ism" just like liberalism or conservatism) is to desire a society where people like you and me can use the growing wealth that capitalism creates to live like aristocrats. Not to be aristocrats fully and truly but, yew, to be something like an aristocrat. You might say, partisans of this sort of consumerism want an identity based on an aristocratic ideal.

And it has to be an ideal because the vast majority of aristocrats never came close to it. And that shouldn't appall us, although many will be appalled, because the vast majority of Knights were nothing like the ideal, nor were the vast majority of Greek heroes, detectives, crusading attorneys, investigative journalists, pirates or spies. Truth be told, heroes are far more likely to be deranged personalities driven by narcissism, sexual obsession, self-hatred or envy than anything else.

An angry young man

One of the paradoxes of any and all consumerisms is that they have to be both inclusive and exclusive. To buy a product or service is to join a community of shared value. At the same time, the only communities we want to join are ones that are hard to get into because that confirms our belief that they are worth getting into.

In the period following WW2 until the present day, economic growth has made it possible for more and more of us to aspire to live a refined, aristocratic, gourmet, connoisseur, insider or lots of other adjective-defined lifestyle. You can these things if you want but it's good to sit back with a good book and a whiskey, or to linger after a good meal with someone you love and espresso and chilled grappa, to cast a fine fly rod or a vintage fly rod, to drive a sailboat up the beat, to drive a sports car on a winding road or to tie your own bow tie. And none of these experiences are nearly so satisfactory alone as they are when they are shared with others as part of larger cultural experience.

The angry young men novels of the late 1950s played on this new potential for social mobility. Wars always create possibilities for social mobility. Interestingly, though, the novels denied satisfaction to their heroes. In Room at the Top the hero gets to the top but finds it's an empty life and then rapidly crashes. In Lucky Jim the hero finds it's an empty life but gets in by accident anyway and then the novel ends before we find out whether he gets any joy out of it.

Len Deighton was a grammar school boy in a public school world. He has admitted several times that that is what his novels are really about. They don't have the literary pretension of the angry young men novels and they are highly artificial in setting and plot but they are considerably more honest about one thing and that is what it is like to rise in social class.

More to come ...

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