The figurative language of John le Carré

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about similes and metaphors from John le Carré…

I don’t read much “genre” fiction so it might surprise you that I consider myself a John le Carré fan. Although he is famous for his spy writing, I find his skill with the English language transcends the bounds of genre.

His book I read most recently, however, is not a spy novel. The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, apparently, is partly memoir and partly a love story. In it, John le Carré displays his usual flair for figurative language.

Here are my favourite examples:

  • He was traversing a moor. A flimsy ground mist shifted over rhines and willow trees, slipped in little puffs across the glistening hood of his car, but ahead the sky was bright and cloudless and the spring sun made emeralds of the approaching hills.
  • Cassidy’s was a car that conveyed rather than transported; a womb, one might even have thought, from whose padded, lubricated interior the occupant had yet to make his entry into the harder world.
  • They made Shamus talk some more Irish for them, which he did very willingly, and Helen said it was amazing, he’d never even been to Ireland but he could just put on accents like clothes, he had the gift.
  • The impatience sigh begins with a liquid click on the roof of the mouth and is followed by a decision not to breathe, like a hunger strike, in fact, but done on air, not food.
  • From its many large windows, it seemed to Cassidy, he followed his son’s progress through the world as once the eye of God had followed Cain across the desert.
  • Kurt was Swiss, a neutral, kindly man dressed in cautious greys. His tie was dull brown and his hair was dull honey, and he wore a pastel-shaded ruby on his pale, doctor’s hands, but the rest of him was cut from slate, off-season skies, and his shoes were trellised in matt grey leather.
  • Kurt’s frown was a faint as a pencil line after the rubbing out.
  • For a while longer he held her until, gently releasing herself, she walked from the room, drawing her skirts after her like chains.
  • Her hair, which was mainly grey, similarly flourished. Separated rather than parted, it was bonded with flax on either side, like two enormous egg timers made of steel wool.
  • The children had been put at the far end of the table and Hugo was reading the Evening Standard, his thumb wedged into his mouth like a pipe.
  • Once he stumbled, once he heard a dog snap at him, once an old man yelled “Hey watch out” but by then he was inside, the three-shilling ticket lying like a wafer in his palm.
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