It was more than a decade ago that John Le Carré’s memoir of his father appeared in the New Yorker. The piece is revealing of both Le Carré’s father and of the master storyteller himself. It’s a colorful romp that provides an excellent crib sheet for the fiction writer concerned with bringing a complex character to life. Le Carré works into it gradually, using intriguing, concrete descriptive details that cause pin-pricks of recognition. The first example is the most indirect: a catalog of possessions:
. . . a stack of brown boxes that my father always carted around with him when he was on the run . . . sometime around the outbreak of the Second World War, they contained only personal stuff: his Masonic regalia, the barrister’s wig and gown with which he proposed to astonish a waiting world as soon as he got around to studying law, top-secret plans for selling fleets to the Aga Khan. But once war broke out, the brown boxes offered more substantial fare: black-market Mars bars, Benzedrine inhalers for shooting stimulant up your nose, and, after D Day, nylon stockings and ball-point pens.
Notice that although the possessions themselves are the focus of this description, they’re not left to stand on their own. Throughout the piece the reader’s impressions are guided by brief but pithy explanations, “telling” hints of Ronnie’s lifestyle: “when he was on the run”; “as soon as he got around to studying law.” The references are glancing, but together with the catalog they afford us an initial impression, and they pique our interest. Who was this glamorous, slightly shady man? The next level of portrayal is more direct, but still not head on: a description of clothing:
My father, Ronnie Cornwell, is champing in the doorway in a snappy gent’s double-breasted and the brown-and-white brogues he played golf in . . .
Okay, so we know Ronnie is a dandy, a well-outfitted sportsman. That fits with the other cues we have so far, and the hints of nefarious adventure. The lens clicks into clearer focus. Next, we get to hear the man’s voice for the first time. This little snippet carries a good deal of weight, as it is the first dialogue of the piece, the first time we “hear” the subject speak. Le Carré imagines him addressing the author’s mother during childbirth:
“God in Heaven, Wiggly, why can’t you get a move on for once? It’s a damned shame is what it is, and no two ways about it. There’s poor old Humphries catching his death out there and all you do is shilly-shally.”
What’s up with this fellow? Is he as cold as he seems? We get an impression of status from his words—the cute nickname, the posh hyperbole of the English leisure class. This impression is quickly undermined, however, or at least complicated, when the author informs us only a few sentences down:
My father’s voice when I was young was still Dorset, with heavy “r”s and long “a”s.
So Ronnie isn’t really posh. He’s working class, a social climber. And he’s not just attractive and adventurous. He’s also shockingly self-absorbed. On the next level, Le Carré presents us with an archetype, a description of a universally familiar character that speaks volumes, and brings Ronnie even more sharply into focus:
He’s the back-slapping, two-fisted tearaway naughty boy with a touch of the blarney, who throws champagne parties for people who aren’t used to being given champagne, opens his garden to the local Baptists for the fete though he never sets foot inside their church, is the honorary president of the boys’ football team and the men’s cricket team and presents them with silver cups for their championships. Until one day it turns out he hasn’t paid the milkman for a year, or the local garage, or the wine shop . . . [and] he’s been screwing every girl in the neighborhood and has kids he hasn’t mentioned . . . My father was that fellow, no question, all of the above. But that was only the beginning. The difference was in degree, in style, in scale.
The archetype gives us an easily remembered pattern for thinking about Ronnie’s personality. Note that Le Carré caps it off by telling us, now that we see the pattern clearly, to take this archetype and crank it up a few notches. This is no ordinary ne’er-do-well. Another technique Le Carré uses is to present the perspective of others:
Or an old business adversary of Ronnie writes to me, always tenderly, always grateful to have known him, even if the experience proved costly.
The letter ends with the familiar refrain that the writer, like so many before and after him, would not have missed the experience for the world, and thank you.
These sympathetic outside perspectives add balance to Le Carré’s observations, which we know to be colored by the simmering anger he still feels toward his father. They serve to strengthen our impression of Ronnie as an enigma, a destructive, greedy, irresponsible rogue who also happened to be enormously charming. Once the main outlines of his character is established, Le Carré employs a bit of judicious physical description:
Like the Monopoly man, he is clutching the bars with both hands. Women always told him what lovely hands he had and he was forever grooming them with clippers from his jacket pocket. His wide white forehead is pressed against the bars.
This description is revealing, not only because of the visual associations with the imprisoned capitalist of the Monopoly board, but also for the contrast between the fine, admirable hands and the wide, white forehead, which hints of the bovine—Ronnie’s needy self-absorption, and perhaps his working class roots. Like many good novelists, Le Carré shies away from exhaustive head-on descriptions of facial characteristics. He’s stingy with physical details, limiting himself to glancing views of the fine hands, the wide forehead, the short energetic stature, the thick neck. Physical description can be effective, but must be used with subtlety. And it’s rarely the most important arrow in the authorial quiver of character creation.
In some ways the most powerful arrow, and certainly the one employed most extensively by Le Carré in this piece, is anecdote: Ronnie launching an amphibious motorcar in the swollen Rhine; Ronnie in Monte Carlo, gambling away the author’s school tuition in a high-stakes poker game with the representative of Egypt’s King Farouk.
As the essay goes on, Ronnie is revealed in a more and more outrageous light, as a fixer and con man on a heroic scale. He’s also shown in a progressively more sinister light, until the author drops a bombshell: Ronnie was physically abusive, to the author’s mother and to the author himself. Which leads to the next major category of character sketching methodology: summary judgment. While all of the above methods can fairly be described as “showing,” summary judgement is clearly “telling:”
Ronnie was a five-star con man endowed with the unfortunate gift of awakening love in men and women equally without feeling the smallest obligation to return it . . . And, like a lot of born con men, he was a sucker, as gullible as those he conned and, after the event, as shocked as were his own victims by the baseness of his deceivers.
Summary judgement is useful for establishing a character’s central dramatic need:
Respect, not money, was what he cared for above everything.
It’s also useful for reconciling conflicting impressions:
Ronnie wrecked as he created. Every time I am moved to admire him, I remember his victims.
But as a technique, such telling is only effective after we’ve been shown; Le Carré uses it only after he has portrayed his father in all that man’s rivetingly enigmatic complexity.
To summarize, Le Carré begins gradually, starting with small, concrete, mostly oblique, easy-to-swallow details such as descriptions of his subject’s possessions and clothing, and snippets of spoken word. Our initial impression of Ronnie is that he’s eccentric, possibly immoral, but utterly charming. Gradually, through the use of more direct and in-depth techniques such as archetype, anecdote, the viewpoints of others, and eventually direct summary judgment, Le Carré reveals his character as ever more outrageous, corrupt, and sinister.
By front-loading Ronnie’s sympathetic side, and by giving us reason to question his own reliability, Le Carré causes us to wonder if he is not judging his father too harshly. In a neat trick, the story thus enacts the author’s betrayal. The reader is hoodwinked by Ronnie’s charm, and doesn’t recognize the character’s ugly underside until it is unequivocally revealed.