Thursday, 17 May 2001

John le Carré: The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971)

Edition: Pan, 1972 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 822

The Naive and Sentimental Lover is unique in le Carré's outpur. It is not a thriller, but a serious novel; its subject is an obsessive relationship. Aldo Cassidy is a self made man, a magnate in the pram accessory business. He goes to Somerset to view a country house he is thinking of purchasing, and there meets a couple, squatting. Aldo falls for them both; Shamus turns out to be a famous novelist, and Helen is extremely beautiful.

Some people think this is one of the best things le Carré has done; other that it is the worst. This is probably decided by their response to the character of Shamus. He is clearly intended to be charming, but to me he comes across as one of the most selfish and obnoxious characters in any novel. (No prizes for guessing what I think of The Naive and Sentimental Lover!) I hate embarrassing behaviour, to the extent of frequently turning off TV comedy, and Shamus is to me the epitome of loud and embarrassing. Le Carré is ambivalent about Shamus himself, and by the end of the novel, Aldo has come to hate him, but my problem is that it is difficult to see why he every thought otherwise.

I have read somewhere that The Naive and Sentimental Lover is to some extent autobiographical, though Shamus is so over the top that this is hard to believe. Some parts of it are clearly not from life; both Helen and Aldo's wife Sandra are typical of le Carré's female characters in that they are ciphers by comparison with the men.

Another way to look at this novel is to see Shamus as the reflection of the unexpressed side of Aldo's personality. This makes the novel between the repressed, successful businessman and the wild artist. This idea makes the novel much more interesting, though it hardly provides much evidence to support this interpretation. The title is one part of it; from Romantic philosophy, where Schiller divided people into the naive, who live the natural life, and the sentimental, who do not but who long to. Shamus, it is explained in the novel, is naive, while Aldo is sentimental. This basically means that Aldo's life, until he meets Helen and Shamus, is ruled by civilised convention, while Shamus is out to shock and outrage, and defy convention at every opportunity. This is not an unreasonable thing to do (and probably seems less outrageous in today's post-punk world than it did when the novel was first published), but defying normal rules for the sake of it makes Shamus extremely tiresome. The title, to return to what I was saying, implies that Aldo is both naive and sentimental, so supporting the idea that Shamus is an aspect of his own personality.

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