Thursday, March 19, 2015

I am Harry Palmer 2

We need to face up to the worst moments in the Harry Palmer novels. I've admitted I like them but they have flaws and the Bernard Samson novels that Len Deighton wrote later in his career are much better novels.

One thing that, as a writer, I really have to admire about Deighton is that he just sat down and bashed them out. He just wrote The Ipcress File. He didn't sit around for days, weeks, months or years wondering what he should write. He just did it. And when he'd done it, he set about figuring out how to do it better the next time. And he succeeded.

It wasn't an even climb. His third novel, Funeral in Berlin, was a bit of a peak and it took him several others to get to that height again. But the long term trend is better and better and Mexico Set, a novel that revisits some of the themes of Funeral in Berlin some twenty years later in Deighton's career, is not only a better novel but a much better novel.

In the introduction to a reissue of The Icpress File Deighton wonders if the nameless hero of these books is just him. He allows that, in some ways, it is. In other ways, however it is not him. The nameless hero is a northerner and Deighton is not. The nameless hero is also Harry Palmer, which is to say Michael Caine.

The Harry Palmer movies were never the market success that the Bond movies were. They didn't have the same cultural impact either. But they had one huge advantage over the Bond movies and that was Michael Caine. Even the best Bonds couldn't hold a candle to Caine as an actor. And Caine left an indelible mark on Deighton's spies. There is a great audio version of Berlin Game read by James Lalley. The hero is Bernard Samson, a character Caine never played, and Lalley gives Samson intonations taken from Michael Caine. And it is absolutely perfect that he does so.

The other huge advantage the novels, but not the movies, have is that Deighton is critical of his aspirational hero. James Bond never changes. He's the same guy with the same, unexamined flaws. Sexually, for example, Bond is a buffoon with strong streak of masochism in him. It's there but never faced by Fleming or any of the actors who play Bond so much as face this aspect of the hero.

The great embarrassment

With that background, let's have a look at what I think is the most cringe worthy thing about the Harry Palmer novels. Here is just one example. In The Billion Dollar Brain, our hero is arguing about the arms race with a an eccentric right-wing billionaire named General Midwinter. Midwinter is a crackpot and Deighton has gone to great lengths to make him so. Let's pick the discussion right where Midwinter has argued for a huge increase in US military spending.
'I get you,' I said. 'It's that same America that broke away from George the Third because sixty thousand pounds was too much to pay towards the cost of the military. But even if what you suggest is a good idea, won't the USSR just go ahead and double her arms budget too?' 
Midwinter patted me on the arm. 'Maybe. But we spend ten percent of our gross national product at present. We could double that without suffering; but the USSR already spends twenty percent of her gross national product. If she doubles that, boy, she will crack. Get me: she'll crack.
It goes on with Harry arguing that this approach is dangerous and that intelligence is better than an approach based on brute facts and Midwinter saying that the west refusing to stand up to the USSR was only emboldening it. The problem, as I'm sure you've figured out, is that history vindicated Midwinter.

And that is worse than if Harry had simply been wrong about things. The problem is that Midwinter is a right-wing crackpot running a privately financed extreme right wing organization. He is a character Deighton created to be a nutjob and he has more real insight than his hero! The bugaboo in all the early novels is some weird right wing amateur with aristocratic pretensions.

In a sense, that's not surprising. Liberals of the time were obsessed with the notion that dark right-wing haters were a threat to civilization. Decades of wacky JFK assassination conspiracy theories came about because liberals of that era simply could not face the fact that a hate-filled, left-wing nutcase had shot Kennedy and not a conspiracy of right wingers funded by shadowy Texas millionaires.

It's also embarrassing that Deighton and Harry were on the wrong side of the computer revolution. It's embarrassing but not surprising. Cool liberals of that era were terrified of computers. Computers were a force for depersonalization—"They've given you a number and taken away your name"—and only big corporations could afford to buy them.  In the advertising and graphic arts industries, where Deighton worked at the time he began to write, electronic technology and computers were already starting to eliminate thousands of jobs. Computers looked like they could be use to analyze and influence the buying decisions of millions of hapless consumers. Neither Harry nor Len could see the day when the personal computer would empower millions of young men like them.

Now, I point these things out as if they were obvious but the truth is that they should be obvious. Cool liberals have only partly accepted these things. The reason why Salon is mostly raving lunacy is that the kids who write for it, people who weren't even born when Harry Palmer walked the earth, are still trapped in the "new" left of their grandparents. Their paranoid fantasies are still Harry's paranoid fantasies.

Deighton, to his credit, moved on. Colonel Stok, the KGB agent in Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain is an almost loveable character. He gets all the best lines. More importantly, he, like Harry represents the efficient technocrat who will replace the bungling amateur of the noblesse oblige era. By the time of Berlin Game Deighton clearly realizes that the situation is more complicated. There is a lovely moment where Giles Trent, an upper-class nimrod who sold out to the KGB, said that his KGB controller suggested that he has secrets that might embarrass the KGB. This sets Bernard Samson on a magnificent rant.

'Embarrass the KGB! Is that the word he used? They put sane dissidents into lunatic asylums, consign thousands to their labour camps, they assassinate exiles and blackmail opponents. They must surely be the most ruthless, the most unscrupulous and the most powerful instrument of tyranny that the world has ever known. But dear old Khlestakov is frightened you might embarrass them.'
Listening to it as narrated by James Lalley, that feels like it is said by Harry Palmer because he reads the way Michael Caine would have said it. The thing to grasp is that there is no reason Harry Palmer should not have made the same rant. He doesn't because cool guys in that era didn't like to look the truth about the USSR in the face. There isn't a single fact about that evil empire in Samson's rant above that wasn't known to Harry Palmer. The difference is that Harry was the sort of guy who'd rather not have known.

And that is different from his attitudes toward right-wing nutbars and the computer industry. There really were (and are) right-wing nutbars out there and some aspects of technology really were (and are) a depersonalizing force. We can forgive Harry Palmer for failing to realize that hate-filled, left-wing amateurs would be far more of a problem in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s than the right-wing groups that so troubled his imagination. We can forgive him for failing to see the enormous possibilities for personal liberation that information technology would ultimately give us. We can't forgive him for being willfully blind to the horrors of socialism.

That said, we can look past it now. This is a deep and serious flaw but we can accept it and move on just as we accept the flaws of Sherlock Holmes. And there is something about Harry Palmer worth emulating.

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