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Espying A Distracted Reviewer

July 02, 1989

I suspect you're going to be getting some flak over Elliott Roosevelt's review of the new John le Carre novel (Book Review, June 18), and I'd like the opportunity to get off a few rounds myself. It was a review I was looking forward to reading; I think a great deal of Le Carre (despite the unevenness of his last few books), especially as a writer who consistently manages to be popular and excellent at the same time. "The Russia House" is not a perfect novel, but as a spy novel it is an extraordinarily interesting one in its evocation of a set of political circumstances that could conceivably render the existence of spy novels obsolete; it also contains some of the most beautiful sentences one is likely to find in English fiction today. I would want a reviewer to be sensitive to these things, and to the general significance of this novel.

Now I defer to no one in my admiration for Elliott Roosevelt's parents, particularly his mother. But after the first paragraph of the review, in which Roosevelt confesses that he has not read the book very carefully (imagine your response when you hear your cardiologist tell you he's had a lot of distractions lately so this by-pass surgery might "suffer somewhat"), we know we're in trouble. And unfortunately for the Book Review, the inanities and banalities don't end there.

The review is completely unclear in its attempt to paraphrase the plot of the novel, and obtuse in its description of the novel's meaning. But most conspicuous, perhaps, are the stylistic infelicities, such as redundancies ("a very popular best selling author") and diction errors (Goethe is not Barley's "counterpart," and "counter-intrigue" cannot possibly mean anything). Perhaps this stylistic muddlement is what we can expect from a reviewer who thinks Le Carre's first important book is titled "The Spy Who Came In Out of the Cold."

AREND FLICK

PASADENA

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