Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Dresden Group

For obvious reasons, I've been drawn to what I call "comfort culture" in the past few months, things I already know and love. That's why I listened to nothing but Pavement's "hits" compilation Quarantine the Past for two weeks. It's why I'm looking forward to Sunday's screening of Diva at The Loft with extra enthusiasm. It's why I bought a collection of Walter Benjamin pieces that I already had, in both English and German, when I was in Seattle. And it's why I've been on a serious John Le Carré kick over the past month.

First I watched the mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for what must have been the seventh or eighth time. Then I did the same with Smiley's People, which I had somehow only managed to see once previously. And now I've commenced rereading my favorite books of his. Or, rather, I set out to do so and felt obligated to begin with one that isn't exactly on the top of my list, but is so crucial to the novels I adore that I needed to refresh my memory of its contents.

I mean Call For the Dead, his first book, which is written far less subtly than his other novels involving the incomparable character of George Smiley and is plagued at times by surprisingly mechanical prose. That said, just as seeing the two mini-series again made me see Smiley in a new lights, so did rereading the novel. In the former case, I found the heroic conception of him that I had formed as a teenager called radically into question. And in the latter, I realized that Le Carré actually does a pretty good job of explaining why Smiley can't and won't play the role of "hero."

Also, since I have returned to a project I abandoned years ago, only this time with a more focused approach, I couldn't help but read Call For the Dead through the lens of my research. More specifically -- the project concerns the depiction of libertarian and anarchist ideas in California literature -- I made close attention to passages discussing the individual's relationship to the state, whether in the form of concrete engagement with bureaucracy or the ideological position that conditions that interaction.

Elsa Fennan, the melancholy woman who survived a concentration camp, responds to Smiley's first visit to inquire about her husband's death with a speech which, even if it turns out to have been an attempt to deceive, still resonates throughout the rest of the novel:
"It's an old illness you suffer from, Mr. Smiley," she continued, taking a cigarette from the box; "and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that's a terrible moment, isn't it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. When that happens I am sorry for you." She paused for a moment, then continued.

"It's like the State and the People. The State is a dream, too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky. But States make war, don't they, and imprison people? To dream in doctrines -- how tidy! My husband and I have both been tidied now, haven't we?" She was looking at him steadily. Her accent was more noticeable now.

"You call yourself the State, Mr. Smiley; you have no place among real people. You dropped a bomb from the sky: don't come down here and look at the blood or hear the scream." [John Le Carré, Call For the Dead (New York: Walker and Company, 1962), p. 19
Because it turns out that Elsa, like another important character in the book, is from Dresden, the reference to bombing proves more specific than it initially seems.

Smiley often visited Dresden during his years as an undercover agent in Nazi Germany prior to the Second World War. And, as we learn from one of the streams of consciousness Le Carré permits us to see, it was a special place for him. Having just returned to his home on Bywater Street after a long hospitalization, he examines his possessions. Two of them, wedding gifts that he spared from the housecleaning he undertook when his wife Ann left him, inspire him to reflect, "a Watteau sketch from Peter Guillam, a Dresden Group from Steed-Asprey:
He got up from his chair and went over to the corner cupboard where the group stood. He loved to admire the beauty of those figures, the tiny rococo courtesan in shepherd's costume, her hands outstretched to one adoring lover, her little face bestowing glances on another. He felt inadequate before their fragile perfection, as had felt before Ann when he first began the conquest which had amazed society. Somehow those little figures comforted him: it was as useless to expect fidelity of Ann as of the tiny shepherdess in her glass case. Steed-Asprey had bought the group in Dresden before the war, it had been the prize of his collection and he had given it to them. Perhaps he had guessed that one day Smiley might have need of the simple philosophy it propounded.

Dresden: of all German cities, Smiley's favorite. He had loved its architecture, its odd jumble of medieval and classical buildings, sometimes reminiscent of Oxford, its cupolas, towers and spires, its copper-green roofs shimmering under a hot sun. It's name meant "town of the forest dwellers" and it was there that Wenceslas of Bohemia had favoured the minstrel poets with gifts and privilege. [Ibid., 97]
At the end of this chapter, after Smiley has pondered the Dresden connection in the case he is trying to solve, he opens a letter Ann has sent him from the Continent in which she tells him she wants to return to him. Although the bitterness in his heart is great, he cannot help but consider the possibility. Even when he analyzes the language of her letter with a disenchanted eye, his thoughts end up drifting back to what he loved about her:
That was Ann: Let me know. Redeem your life, see whether it can be lived again and let me know. I have wearied my lover, my lover has wearied me, let me shatter your world again: my own bores me. I want to come back to you. . . I want, I want. . .

Smiley got up, the letter still in his hand and stood again before the porcelain group. He remained there several minutes, gazing at the little shepherdess. She was so beautiful. [Ibid., 102]
At first glance, the parallel drawn between Ann and the pastoral figurine seems almost too tendentious to be of literary value. But what makes its obviousness resonate is the fact that Smiley is clearly thinking about a Dresden which he knows has been obliterated. There is no reference to the terrible bombing raid that Kurt Vonnegut would later place at the center of Slaughterhouse Five. Nevertheless, anyone with a decent grasp of history will recognize that the fragility of Smiley's Dresden Group serves as a reminder of how easily and completely traces of the past and, more specifically, the early modern period that he studies as a hobby can be destroyed.

Towards the end of the book, Dieter Frey, the other character from Dresden, commits a murder. Once Smiley's protegé helping to fight the Nazis and now an East German agent conspiring against him, Frey serves as the perfect foil for the outwardly stolid, unattractive Englishman:
He had not changed. He was the same improbable romantic with the the magic of a charlatan; the same unforgettable figure which had struggled over the ruins of Germany, implacable of purpose, satanic in fulfilment, dark and swift like the Gods of the North. Smiley had lied to them that night in his club; Dieter was out of proportion, his cunning, his conceit, his strength and his dream -- all were larger than life, undiminished by the moderating influence of experience. He was a man who thought and acted in absolute terms, without patience or compromise. [Ibid., 106]
Frey stands out from the crowd. He is an individual in the most radical sense. And that is what makes him both attractive and dangerous.

Curiously, though, when Smiley's thoughts later return to Frey, the German's presumed hostility to individuality is what comes to the fore:
It was long after midnight when Smiley's telephone range. He got up from the armchair in front of the gas fire and plodded upstairs to his bedroom, his right hand gripping the banisters tightly as he went. It was Peter, no doubt, or the police, and he would have to make a statement. Or even the Press. The murder had taken place just in time to catch today's papers and mercifully too late for last night's news broadcast. What would this be? "Maniac killer in theater"? "Death-lock murder -- woman named"? He hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. That was why he hated Dieter now, hated what he stood for more strongly than ever before: it was the fabulous impertinence of renouncing the individual in favour of the mass. When had mass philosophies ever brought benefit or wisdom? Dieter cared nothing for human life: dreamed only of armies of faceless men bound by their lowest common denominators; he wanted to shape the world as if it were a tree, cutting off what did not fit the regular image; for this he fashioned blank, soulless automatons like Mundt. Mundt was faceless like Dieter's army, a trained killer born of the finest killer breed. [Ibid., 112]
Even though Smiley knows Elsa lied to him more than once, he channels her speech from early in the book in his critique of Frey. At this juncture, he doesn't seem to have fully entertained the possibility that arguments against the individuality-crushing mechanism of the State can be every bit as dangerous as their overtly ideological counterparts on both the far Right and Left. The specter of Dresden can be mobilized for pernicious ends too.
Tags: commonplace book, everyday, literature, state and anarchy

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