Thursday, April 5, 2012

Friday Favorites - John Le Carre, Experience, and Tableau Vivant

I always knew I would like John Le Carre's books. But they are dense, and every time I'd dip into one, I'd put it back down thinking "you know, I really think I'm going to like this... but not right now. My brain can't handle this right now."

But now I am just ripping through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And I will certainly be ripping through his other books.

I've learned a couple of things from this. One of them is something I knew when I was young, but didn't really know: Maturity matters.

Before, when I started reading Le Carre, I could understand what he was writing about on a deeper level. I could see the complex motives of his characters. But I hadn't lived in a petty, bureaucratic, paranoid, hostile workplace before. I mean, not long term, not in a culture like that. I understood it, but I didn't connect with it.

But I have lived in a dysfunctional paranoid work situation since. So this time I'm having PTSD flashbacks, as I watch these characters maneuver through life. I utterly connect now, even though these people live lives very different from mine.

Before I made this personal connection I was driven more by curiosity, to see into an alien world. Mere curiosity isn't always enough to get you past density. Le Carre just drops you into a culture, without context, and you have to scramble a little, mentally, to catch up with what's going on. He's a big one for slang, too. Language and slang are the brushes he uses to paint a culture. And it makes the whole thing incredibly rich.

If his prose wasn't so dense, I would have probably read and enjoyed his books without waiting until I had a deeper connection -- but they would have less meaning for me. And probably would have less meaning even now.

Tableau Vivant

But there is something else that makes Le Carre especially interesting to me right now. After last week's post about Hitchcock, I was going to move on to talk about Wes Anderson, another director who uses static settings, but in a very different way .

And as I thought about it, I realized that some of what Le Carre does in fiction is a perfect bridge between the two.

I really love the way Le Carre sometimes builds his scenes like tableaux, or paintings. We have story and action and drama swirling around in the context, but the scene itself is just someone standing and watching, or sitting and talking, or walking down the street.

I used to think this is what people meant by the term "set piece." (Which it isn't -- a set piece is a scene that is whole in itself and can be pulled out and put back in whereever it's convenient for the storyteller to put it -- things like character moments, or which reveal background into. However tableaux can be set pieces too.) But the correct term is tableau.

You know what a tableau is: it's like a diarama. A scene laid out in figures, illustrating something. A battle, a disaster, something historical or famous. Something important enough that you feel the need to see it in three dimensions.

A Tableau Vivant is a special kind of tableau: a living scene -- where actors in costume strike poses to create a 3-D illustration of something. It has a long tradition in performance art. People might still see them in Christmas presentations where people stage live nativity scenes -- and perhaps illustrate several other scenes from the advent.

In Victorian times, people often created tableaux as amateur theatricals -- to illustrate popular books of the day, or reproduce a famous painting. On stage, a narrator might present a story or poem, while actors create a series of tableaux behind him to illustrate.

Interestingly, the popularity of reenacting paintings, including nude models, became a way to get around decency laws, and were used for decades in burlesque and even vaudeville to show nekkid women on stage. (If they don't move, it's not lewd -- it's art!)

You still see some signs of this practice in old movies -- not the nudity, but the "beautiful girls" aspect in the Zeigfeld style shows, where there'd be dancers and a guy singing about glorious women, and then mini-tableaux will be revealed with women in various poses -- standing like statues or illustrations, or fashion magazine covers. (Not nude, of course. You can see an homage in the "Beautiful Girl" number from Singin' in the Rain -- the tableau is about 1 minute in.)

And actually, now that I think about it a tableau vivant plays a major part in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mystery Black Orchids. (An actor is murdered in the middle of a well-watched tableau vivant!)

However, when I'm talking about how Le Carre writes sometimes like a tableau, I'm not talking about a literal one, as in Black Orchids.

When I'm talking about tableau as a fiction technique, I'm talking about those times when nothing much is happening "on screen" -- the characters may be frozen in space, or more likely, just doing something ordinary and mundane -- but the narration or situation causes the scene to be infused with drama.

A great example is a story I read a very long time ago, (and unfortunately can't remember the title). The whole story is a picture of a town on a particular morning -- as though the town were a tableau vivant. We hear from the narrator that it's a town capable of great evil, but never had the chance. The narration zooms in, like a camera, on the town's executioner, who is at breakfast with his family. And there we learn about the man he going to execute as soon as breakfast is over. Eventually we learn why in a stunning twist.

There is no dialog in this story, it's all narration -- like a camera roving around this breakfast table scene, showing us not only the attitudes of the characters but also revealing their inner motives and thoughts. The story never leaves the breakfast table, but there is a lot of drama packed into that scene. Just as there might in a well done painting.

This technique is often used in literary fiction -- especially the way I describe it above. But that's not the only way to use it. It is very well suited to aspects of spy and detective fiction -- any story where the driver of the action is information.

I'm going to pause for a bit of irony: though film and television can make good use of a tableau style, they do a LOUSY job of it with using it as a tool to display information. It has a whole different effect in film. I'll talk about that next week when I get to Wes Anderson.

But for a book, it's ideal, because the action in an intellectual spy story takes place inside, in the head. Especially with the kind of story Le Carre is telling. I remember once reading the mystery defined as a story about "what will have happened." The idea being that that action in a mystery happens all off screen.

And that's exactly what he's doing in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's the story of a retired spy, George Smiley, who is asked to look into an incident that might indicate whether there's a double agent working in the highest echelons of British Intelligence. And he has to do it without letting anyone know he's doing it. And the people he's investigating are not just top professionals who can spot when somebody is up to something -- they are also competitive political beasts who are alert to any possible backstabbing by friends as well.

So everything has to be very very low key. It's all about investigating stories of the past and checking over paperwork. The drama can come from things like the fact that a Russian diplomat wore a uniform with medals to a funeral -- that means something.

What Le Carre does to bring this to life is to leave the scene still -- a child standing at a window observing a new teacher; Smiley sitting still in a chair while reading a report -- while dropping us deeply into the character's experience.

I don't even know how to explain what he does. He doesn't use an authorial voice -- he puts us deeply into the character's point of view -- and yet he is also omniscient, passing us through the scene and the various characters inner passions.

We're inside the heads of these mind-workers, and we see and feel the drama of it all. It's a place where rivalries and self-defense may be all about information and ideas. And yet they're also very visceral -- involving sex and life and death.

So often with fiction, we are taking internal things and illustrating with visceral external symbols. An angry person throws a punch, for instance. Le Carre is successful in doing the opposite, manifesting the visceral and physical in the intellectual level.

Next week I'll be talking about, Wes Anderson, who does amazing things with stillness and quietude in movie form. Although his films are most certainly not like Le Carre novels in subject or tone, his style has a certain similar touch: they both force a certain patience on the audience, and lure the audience into looking rather than just following.

See you in the funny papers.

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