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John Le Carre is good at integrating thought and action

I was reading a couple old Le Carre spy novels. They have their strong points and their weak points; I’m not gonna claim that Le Carre is a great writer. He’s no George Orwell or Graham Greene. (This review by the great Clive James nails Le Carre perfectly.)

But I did notice one thing Le Carre does very well, something that I haven’t seen discussed before in his writing, which is the way he integrates thought and action. A character will be walking down the street, or having a conversation, or searching someone’s apartment, and will be going through a series of thoughts while doing things. The thoughts and actions go together.

Ummm, here’s an example:

It’s not that the above passage by itself is particularly impressive; it’s more that Le Carre does this consistently. So he’s not just writing an action novel with occasional ruminations; rather, the thoughts are part of the action.

Writing this, it strikes me that this is commonplace, almost necessary, in a bande desinnée, but much more rare in a novel.

Also it’s important when we are teaching and when we are writing technical articles and textbooks: we’re doing something and explaining our motivation and what we’re learning, all at once.

15 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Also it’s important when we are teaching and when we are writing technical articles and textbooks: we’re doing something and explaining our motivation and what we’re learning, all at once.”

    I don’t know if the following makes sense, but i have been annoyed with what i feel is a lack of training, and ability, of reasoning in psychological science. I think this might be relevant for writing as well.

    I think (valid) reasoning structures thoughts, and makes it easier to separate parts of the thoughts so they can be more easily be checked for accuracy, validity, etc.

    I was not taught anything about (logical) reasoning at university, which is still incomprehensible to me. I also can’t point to any recent papers about the importance of (logical) reasoning for (improving) science, which is also very strange to me.

    I view (logical) reasoning as being highly important for science. For instance, for forming hypotheses, writing papers, debating stuff, making valid conclusions, etc.

    I also think that the possible lack of ability in, training of, and perhaps even an acknowledgement of, (logical) reasoning might be related to the possible low level of psychological science, and scientists, during the last decades.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “I also think that the possible lack of ability in, training of, and perhaps even an acknowledgement of, (logical) reasoning might be related to the possible low level of psychological science, and scientists, during the last decades.”

      My impression is that psychological science attracts a lot of people who put more emphasis on their own intuition than on logical reasoning — so I suspect the attraction may be precisely because such people turn away from fields that put more emphasis on logical reasoning, and where their intuition can in fact lead them astray.

      • Anonymous says:

        I have turned away from psychological science because i feel solid reasoning, facts, etc. don’t even matter anymore, and/or are only selectively used and demanded (depending on the person). I actually feel it might be beyond saving at this point, partly because possibly crucial aspects of it (e.g. acknowledgement and prioritizing of sound reasoning) are not even taught, adhered to, and perhaps even realized.

        It’s quite interesting, and sad, in a way. I have thought about it from time to time, and i think when certain basic scientific things are not being taught, adhered to, and realized, by a significant percentage of people everything goes to sh@t. I think that’s what happened to psychological science, and perhaps even more in other social studies.

        If you can’t even agree on the rules of debate, the rules of science, the importance of (logical) reasoning, etc. you have no basis to work from. What you get then is “scientists” writing and saying the most absurd things, a “science” that gets more absurder by the decade, “scientists” who feel that they can just say that “they are experts” and that “they should be listened to”, and great difficulty of fixing all these possible problematic issues via careful thought, reasoning, and other scientific things because these things are not even acknowledged.

        • Bob says:

          Certain fields attract people who already know the answer. They’re not investigating, they’re advocating.

          • Anonymous says:

            “Certain fields attract people who already know the answer. They’re not investigating, they’re advocating.”

            Yes, i think this could be a big part of the problems (also possibly see the recent discussion on this blog https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2019/05/03/olivia-goldhill-reports-implicit-association-test/)

            As i said, i have been thinking about this from time to time and i also wonder if how academia is currently set up helps this possible process of things keep getting worse. For instance, in psychology:

            * there seems to be a gender-, and age-, and power-difference between students and professors,
            * there seems to be a prerequisite for most faculty members to teach AND do research,
            * everyone working at a university seems to have their own “lab” and research topic(s),

            I have often wondered what kind of scientists enjoy, or put up with, teaching the same stuff over and over again every year to a new batch of students…

            I have often wondered whether excellent researchers can teach excellently, and whether excellent teachers can do research excellently…

            I have often wondered if everyone at a university having their own “lab” and research topics might enhance the chances of there being no real form of internal control, or no real possibility of being challenged by others…

            I think many of the possibly problematic issues, like the ones mentioned in the comment section here, may all have worked together, and have reinforced eachother, to produce the current state of psychological science.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “But I did notice one thing Le Carre does very well, something that I haven’t seen discussed before in his writing, which is the way he integrates thought and action. A character will be walking down the street, or having a conversation, or searching someone’s apartment, and will be going through a series of thoughts while doing things. The thoughts and actions go together.”

    I don’t like reading novels and stuff like that, and i know nothing about writing styles and terms so i am not sure if there is a specific term for what i thought about as a result of the quote above and reading the text. I note that some of the sentences that relate to thoughts are written in what i believe is called “the 1st person” – perspective (e.g. “They suspect me of being a terrorist” & “Perhaps it’s on my face as well”).

    These thoughts-sentences written in this way sort of “stand out”, and makes me as a reader “switch” between the perspective of the character that has these thoughts, and the more “bigger picture” narrator point of view.

    I wonder if noticing that thoughts and action go together in the writing has a lot to do with, and/or is emphasized by, the “switch” of perspective. This can perhaps be examined when writing the thought-sentences from the narrator perspective, and not the 1st person character perspective. For instance:

    1) The original text containing thoughts from a 1st person perspective:

    “The conductor helped himself, not speaking. Clumsily, the boy groped his way between the seats, making for the stern. The jetty was moving away. They suspect me of beig a terrorist, thought the boy. There was engine oil on his hands and he wished he washed it off. Perhaps it’s on my face as well.”

    2) Adapted text containing thoughts from a narrative perspective:

    “The conductor helped himself, not speaking. Clumsily, the boy groped his way between the seats, making for the stern. The jetty was moving away. The boy thought they suspected him of beig a terrorist. There was engine oil on his hands and he wished he washed it off. He thought that it could perhaps be on his face as well.”

  3. Anon2 says:

    Lee Child (Jack Reacher) does this all the time too. The passage in his latest book about finding a file in a windows PC at a New Hampshire library is a tour de force. You can’t look away. I think that is one of the two main reasons the books sell well. (The other reason is the implicit wanderlust.)

    • someone says:

      I don’t think I can get past the fact Lee Child plagiarized a witty four-word description — by coincidence from Clive James — even if it’s not so clear when it’s permissible to borrow a phrase from someone else.

  4. Bill says:

    Your excerpt demonstrates why Le Carre is every bit as good a writer as Orwell or Greene. He unfairly suffers from having been pigeonholed as a “genre” writer.

  5. W says:

    Andrew, as for BD I recommend Blake & Mortimer. Most recent (part 1 of series): https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Vallée_des_Immortels

  6. Charlie says:

    Le Carre might have been pigeonholed as a genre writer early on but these days I think his books are acknowledged to be serious novels, not just “good spy thrillers.” (For the record, I read all kinds of books and if I enjoy a book I never call it a guilty pleasure or mind candy.)

  7. Morris39 says:

    Raynond Chandler even more so. The writing is very good, too bad the subject matter quickly exhausts itself.

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