We Haven’t Got Words for the Pain

This essay contains spoilers throughout about John LeCarré’s novel, The Constant Gardener.

He tried to remember the phrases: pain
Audible at noon, pain torturing itself,
Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.
–Wallace Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal.”

When I was a young man, my life’s ambition was to join the U.S. Foreign Service and become a diplomat. Chastened by the first Gulf War (1990-91), which I opposed, I thought the better of my ambitions, and decided instead to become a dull but conscientious academic.

During my third and presumably final marriage (2018-2021), my wife Alison and I bought a small townhouse in rural New Jersey with a little garden plot out front. Alison had great hopes for the garden, and often expressed the wish that I would help her cultivate it. To her great sorrow and eventually mine, I never did. I was too busy being a dull but conscientious academic.

Having sustained a terrible injury during a failed spinal surgery many years before our marriage, Alison was, for the duration of our marriage, physically dependent on opioids for pain relief. Opioids are nowadays widely stigmatized for their supposedly iatrogenic qualities, and widely thought to generate addiction without having any offsetting benefits. They’re also produced by a pharmaceutical industry that’s widely believed to be more interested in profit-maximization than in the preservation or improvement of human life. Alison rejected this whole narrative, swore by her medications, and swore by the virtues of Big Pharma.

Though we owned a home in New Jersey, Alison insisted on being an absentee landlady in New York, renting out an apartment in Washington Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Late in life, she was (not for the first time) drawn into a dispute with one of her tenants, delusionally coming to believe that this particular tenant was part of a group of international gangsters engaged in all manner of nefarious activity across the Americas.

She tried at first to pursue the dispute by legal means, but later resorted to the methods of personal vendetta and quasi-vigilantism, illegally locking the tenant out of the apartment (during the height of the COVID pandemic, no less), rummaging through the tenant’s papers, inserting herself in a legal dispute that the tenant was having with a third party, and “negotiating deals” with various law enforcement agencies in an attempt to give them “incriminating evidence” against the tenant, in exchange for protection through the Witness Protection Program. She negotiated these “deals,” incongruously enough, while taking bubble baths in the exclusive company of our cat, Hugo. I was, alas, neither invited to these bathtub conversations nor welcome at them.


Hugo, April 2020, in-between deals with law enforcement

When I finally discovered what was going on in there, I flew off the handle and gave Alison a husbandly order to cease and desist. Partly in reaction to my temper tantrum, partly out of a general sense of dissatisfaction with our marriage, and partly to escape the “gangsters,” Alison abruptly left our home (with my car) to continue her crusade elsewhere. She first set out for what she called her “mountain retreat” at Camelback Mountain near Tannersville, Pennsylvania, where she took up with a newly-discovered male companion more supportive of her crusade than I had been. In early July 2020, she abruptly left the country for Toronto, Canada, the city of her birth, “declaring independence” from the United States, and forswearing all financial obligations incurred there.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, her delusions were the result of a concealed and untreated bipolar disorder. Nine months after she left, she reached a literal dead end in her inquiries in Canada, and committed suicide. The male companion from Pennsylvania turned out to be gay.

For the last two years, it’s been an obsession of mine to re-trace her steps and discover exactly what happened to her. Given some of the things I’ve discovered, I can’t rule out the possibility that she was, in Canada, either raped or sexually assaulted, and that this had something to do with her suicide. Some days I want to know the truth; others, I don’t. The thought of her alone, in despair, drifting gradually to a self-inflicted death, is a kind of perpetual torment to me. When I think of it, I wish I could forget. When I forget, I focus on other things for awhile. After awhile, I realize that I’ve forgotten. Then I remember, feel guilt, and think of it all over again.

This disjointed set of apparent non-sequiturs is perhaps better brought into focus when considered in relation to the plot of John LeCarré’s 2001 novel, The Constant Gardener, which I happened recently to have read.

The Constant Gardener features a British diplomat, Justin Quayle, posted in Nairobi, and married to the young and beautiful Tessa Quayle. Justin is a dull but conscientious diplomat, in love with only two things: his garden and his wife. He tends his garden with passion, and loves his wife in the same way. Tessa is a lawyer and investigative journalist pursuing a story about the malfeasances of Big Pharma, which she believes, correctly within the context of the novel, to be more interested in profit-maximization than in the preservation or improvement of human life. In pursuing this story, Tessa comes to believe, also correctly within the context of the novel, that Big Pharma is part of a conspiracy involving a group of international gangsters.

Justin, kept in the dark about Tessa’s doings, has no opinion about Big Pharma or its connection to the gangsters. And so he neither restrains nor encourages Tessa. For reasons of her own, Tessa feels the need to conceal her crusade from Justin. So one day, she abruptly leaves home with a close (male) comrade to pursue her investigation more or less behind his back. When she stumbles on conclusive evidence of the connection between Big Pharma and its malfeasances, the gangsters swoop in and kill both Tessa and her comrade. The male comrade who accompanies her turns out to be gay.

Once news of the murder gets out, a campaign is undertaken to discredit Tessa and her investigation: she is widely described in respectable circles as a lunatic with an untreated mental disorder who was probably having an affair with the male comrade. It’s further speculated that she may well have committed suicide. Justin, shattered by her death, sets out to re-trace her steps and figure out exactly what happened to her. Given what he discovers along the way, he can’t rule out the possibility that Tessa was raped or sexually assaulted before she was murdered. He nonetheless bravely pursues the inquiry to its end, experiencing a fair share of misery along the way.

There is, I think you’ll admit, a strange but oblique set of connections between the “plot” of the last few years of my life and the plot of The Constant Gardener. I was in fact drawn to the book by browsing the blurb on its back cover:

A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John LeCarré portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener, he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle–amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat–discovers his natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.

“Aging widower and ineffectual bureaucrat” was the phrase that sold me. I’m not a gardener, alas, whether amateur or otherwise, and at least so far, have not been elevated through tragedy, or discovered any hitherto hidden moral resources within me. But otherwise there’s a close approximation between Justin’s life and mine, which literary theorists, I think, call “ironic parallels.” Though I’m tempted, as the dull but conscientious academic I once was, to spell these parallels all out for you, I’ve decided, as the crassly pragmatic business analyst I currently am, to leave them to implication.

I enjoyed The Constant Gardener. It’s witty, well-written, well-plotted, suspenseful, and passionate. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in LeCarré, or in spy thrillers generally. And yet I came away from it somehow disappointed. Perhaps this was because I read it for all the wrong reasons. I read it, I think, because I thought it would give voice to my own experiences as a widower embarked on a hopeless quest after the tragic and unnecessary death of his wife. But it didn’t. Just the reverse. Despite enjoying the book, I found LeCarré’s renderings of Justin Quayle alien and alienating. You probably have no reason to care why, but like all obsessives, I’m going to tell you anyway.

LeCarré has a real talent for creating heroic anti-heroes at odds with the clichés of the spy thriller genre. If James Bond is the prototype of all spy thriller clichés, LeCarré’s characters are the prototype of all anti-Bond spy heroes. James Bond is a handsome, dashing womanizer who wins the battle against Evil through a combination of masculine derring-do and hi-tech gadgetry. LeCarré’s heroes are usually paunchy, middle aged romantic basket cases (like me) who win morally ambiguous battles through a combination of tragedy-inflected insight and plain dumb luck. It’s often been said, with good justification, that LeCarré’s plots take place, not in car chases or gun fights, but almost entirely within inner space–within the labyrinthine psyches of his anti-heroes. The Constant Gardener doesn’t quite fit this mold, but comes close. Put it this way: it’s not as though you could literally mistake The Constant Gardener for a James Bond novel. Make Bond any race or gender you like. The one thing he could never be is a gardener.

Given that, I suppose my quibble or quarrel with The Constant Gardnener is that it’s too Bond-like for my tastes or expectations, a little too Ian Fleming and not purely enough John LeCarré.* Two things stand out in this regard.

During the course of his quest, Justin Quayle is at one point caught by the bad guys and tortured. Since the scene takes place mid-way through the book, you can guess the role it plays in the plot: Quayle endures the excruciating and seemingly interminable torture that the villains dish out, but eventually makes it out, torn and bloody to the other side, only to redouble his efforts, and persevere in his quest. You’ve probably encountered a dozen scenes like it in any number of spy thrillers or action films you’ve ever read or watched.

I hate torture scenes, and hated this one in particular. I don’t say that to express any moralistic squeamishness about the depiction of blood, gore, or pain in fiction, and hope I’m not thought to be grandstanding to that end. I simply don’t ever find torture scenes credible, and found LeCarré’s rendering of this one particularly lacking in plausibility. The predictable problem is that LeCarré makes physical pain seem easier to endure than it ever is.

Again, the provisos fly out of me: I don’t mean to imply that people never survive torture. Obviously, they do. Nor do I mean to deny that there are people who, having survived torture, re-double their efforts on behalf of some great (or perceivedly great) cause despite the damage done them. There are well-known examples of that phenomenon, both famous and not-so-famous. Think John McCain, Admiral Stockdale, Khader Adnan, and Irom Chanu Sharmila, or in a different sense, Malala Yousufzai or Gabby Giffords. Or, for a more obvious, “pedestrian” example, consider every mother since time immemorial who’s endured childbirth, but decided to have another child anyway.

What I mean is that torture scenes rarely convey what pain–real pain–is really like. Severe physical pain is not a verbal phenomenon. It defies words. It’s not credible to think that torture is accompanied, in the victim’s mind, by an internal monologue of the kind that can be rendered in prose on the pages of a well-written novel. Not that the experience of pain is exactly silent, either, but it’s a wordless rendering-silent of the person undergoing it. Even when one screams out in pain, or maybe just at those moments, one’s mind goes blank, not because things are quiet, but because one has been overcome by something too powerful for words or cognition.

tent of nations

By some inscrutable irony, I happened to spend time on two farms after Alison’s death, where I ended up doing some gardening. This is an almond grove on a farm outside of Bethlehem, Palestine, where I did some volunteer gardening work, March 2023.

To use an example from the novel, no one–no man, anyway–can be kicked in the crotch three times during the course of an “enhanced interrogation” while offering up a mordant internal dialogue on that subject in real time. What actually happens is that such a person feels visceral, cognition-obliterating pain, then throws up and passes out. If he’s lucky, the paramedics take over from there. If not, we’re left with a case study for a medical textbook, not a scene meant for a novel.**

Aristotle gets this just right: the senses are destroyed by over-stimulation.*** And that’s what torture is: the over-stimulation of the body, treated as the receptor for a single physical stimulus, pain. In some ways, the best way of rendering a torture scene in prose would be to leave a few blank pages marking “before” and “after” the event. But even that would be misleading. Torture is a positive reality, not a nullity to be conveyed by a blank space. To render it as a blank space is to solve one problem by creating another: it avoids misdescription of the phenomenon at the price of treating it as non-existent when it’s supposed to be happening. In the end, there’s no good way to depict it. Maybe best to admit the limits of literature and avoid it altogether.

My second complaint about The Constant Gardener is in a way the reverse of the first, but also about LeCarré’s rendering of pain–emotional rather than physical pain in this case. LeCarré is a distinctively English writer, with all of the virtues and vices of one. His prose is quick-paced, witty, and brilliant. But like so many English writers, LeCarré writes with a stiff upper lip, and one thing you can’t convey when you write that way is the experience of unrelieved anguish.

Justin obviously loved Tessa; that much is clear. He then hears that Tessa was brutally murdered. It’s implied that she might have been raped, as well. Justin’s colleagues’ response to Tessa’s death is sickeningly lacking in genuine empathy; they go through the motions of offering condolences, but are obviously insincere about it. The media have an undignified field day with the event; Tessa’s death makes for a juicy, sexy story by any yellow journalistic standard. Justin clearly feels deep grief at Tessa’s death, anguish at its manner, and guilt at the fact that he failed to show the kind of interest in her work that a less cautious or self-involved husband might have shown. I know the feeling. I’ve been there. Dull, conscientious white-collar widowers are all alike.

We get some quick glimpses of the kind of anguish Justin must be suffering, but are only left to infer how bad it is. We never really see it. Because we don’t, it’s easy to conclude, like torture represented by blank pages, that it doesn’t exist. Because the plot proceeds at full tilt, LeCarré turns Justin, for purposes of the plot, into the British Foreign Office equivalent of a Stoic. Anguish and trauma would, after all, have gummed up the works, and made for a different novel. Justin’s Stoicism, then, pushes the plot along, and satisfies the old stereotype of the “stiff upper lip.” English men either don’t cry, or can’t.

It seems churlish to criticize a novel for not being a different novel than the one it is, but that, I suppose, is my criticism. Torture can’t be rendered in words, so I think it was a mistake on LeCarré’s part to try to do so. Bereavement can be rendered in words, but only in the prose equivalent of slow motion, and the book suffers, I think, from LeCarrés failure to do so. This is too fast-paced a book to downshift into slow motion. For that reason, The Constant Gardener comes across as a literary paradox, a book that both is and is not about bereavement. The plot is driven by bereavement, but not about it.

Having said all that, I have to admit that making the book about bereavement in the full-fledged sense might well have wrecked the novel LeCarré was writing, dragging it into an emotional mire that would have drawn attention away from the plot. So in the end, we’re probably better off that LeCarré didn’t take my “advice.” Which is not to say that there’s nothing to my criticism. The book might have been messed up by making it about bereavement, but there’s also something amiss about a book that puts bereavement at its center, only to relegate it to its margins. An ambivalent conclusion, I suppose, but one that would meet the approval of Justin Quayle or George Smiley. The Constant Gardener is after all, a John LeCarré novel. An unambiguous judgment  would probably have been a greater mystery than anything we find in the novels themselves.

*It’s an infernal irony, by the way, that Alison absolutely loved Bond, but was bored by LeCarré, and to my horror, fell asleep in the middle of our watching the 2011 Gary Oldman version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” “I can’t follow this,” she complained. “What the hell is going on?”

**This idea is hardly original to me. For a discussion that anticipates mine by several decades, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1987).

***Aristotle, De Anima, III.2.

13 thoughts on “We Haven’t Got Words for the Pain

  1. A powerful and compelling post.

    It seems rather trivial to raise lesser points, but I raise them anyway:

    a) “Make Bond any race or gender you like. The one thing he could never be is a gardener.”

    In the movie GoldenEye, a character actually asks Bond whether he does any gardening:


    Some theorise that this is intended as an in-joke reference to John Gardner’s Bond novels.

    b) “Camelback Mountain near Tannersville, Pennsylvania”

    Apparently this is said Camelback Mountain (which according to Wikipedia is actually a plateau, not a mountain):

    Having spent an important part of my childhood in the shadow of a Camelback Mountain that actually looks like a Camelback Mountain —

    — I am unimpressed by this Pocono poser.

    c) “If James Bond is the prototype of all spy thriller clichés, LeCarré’s characters are the prototype of all anti-Bond spy heroes.”

    Certainly true in general, but one major exception is The Night Manager, which may be the closest thing to a Bond novel that Le Carré has written. Yes, the hero is literally the night manager at a fancy hotel — a rather un-Bondian profession. But he is also a handsome, charismatic, skillfully violent, romantically seductive, omnicompetent agent very much of the Bond stripe (and the villain is very much a Bond-style villain — a megalomaniac with a secret base in an exotic location). (The novel nevertheless takes place in the same fictional universe as the George Smiley novels. Smiley himself isn’t mentioned, but a couple of other characters from the Smileyverse make an appearance.) The tv miniseries adaptation was likewise Bond-like enough that it led many fans to call for Tom Hiddleston, the series lead, to be cast as the next Bond.

    Even the opening titles are a bit Bondian:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Incidentally, in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royale — written before Fleming’s writing had begun being influenced by the movies based on his books — Bond is tortured mid-story and, at least initially, it completely demoralises him. Rather than redoubling his efforts and persevering in his quest, his initial reaction is to resign from the Secret Service entirely. Of course he gets himself together before the end of the novel — but it’s an example of how the early Bond novels are more nuanced and less romanticised than the movies. (Well, even the later Bond novels are more nuanced and less romanticised than the movies ….)

      Liked by 1 person

      • By the way, Le Carré himself had a cameo in The Night Manager. He’s the older gentleman that Hiddleston apologises to in the following clip. (The context is that the villain’s drunken henchman Corky suspects, correctly, that Hiddleston’s character — Jonathan Pine a.k.a. Andrew Birch — is having an affair with the villain’s girlfriend and may be preparing to betray him in still further ways; but the villain at this point trusts Pine/Birch more than he trusts Corky; these are all rather wood-themed names, aren’t they?)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read Casino Royale. I saw the 2006 film version with Alison, starring Daniel Craig and Eva Green, her two absolute favorites. Bond is tortured in that one, but the depiction is preposterous–reminds me a bit of the John Galt torture scene in Atlas Shrugged.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The torture scene in the movie is very brief. In the book it goes on for quite a while.

          I like that movie, but it doesn’t really capture the feel of the book (except insofar as it features a grimmer, less quippy Bond).


    • You’re absolutely right that “Camelback” is not a mountain. I’m glad you caught that so fast. It was meant to be an inside joke intended only for myself. I didn’t think anyone would notice. There’s a convoluted back story here.

      I went to a wealthy prep school growing up, but was something of an outsider there. Most of the kids went skiing; I never did. They’d come back each weekend, and talk about the great time they had at “Camelback.” At first, I had literally no idea what “Camelback” was. Eventually, I gathered that it was a ski resort, and assumed without much further thought that it must involve a mountain. So, in casual conversation, I once referred to it as “Camelback Mountain,” and was laughed at. You had to be pretty uncool to refer to “Camelback” as “Camelback Mountain.”

      The puzzle was only resolved when I got a car and drove to grad school. I had to drive past Camelback, and having done so, realized that it wasn’t a mountain. There were, properly speaking, no mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. This came as a shock.

      Fast forward to 2020. Alison, in a manic mood, announced that she intended to flee to her “mountain retreat” in the Poconos, and in fact described it this way, without irony, to all of her friends. She wasn’t from New Jersey/Pennsylvania, didn’t know it well, and hadn’t gone to prep school here, so she wasn’t aware of the fact that Camelback was never to be referred to as a “mountain.” I was tempted to tell her that calling it a “mountain retreat” made it sound problematically like Hitler’s Berghof, but at that point, she was not open to criticism. And there was little point in making criticisms of this nature (of any nature) while she was in that mental state. So it remained her “mountain retreat” the whole time she was there.

      When I first wrote this post, I referred generically to her mountain retreat in “Eastern Pennsylvania,” but on reflection, changed it to what you now see. What the change conveys in a super-subtle way is my resigned buy-in to her delusions. If she wanted it to be a mountain, I was willing to turn it into one for her. The time she spent there is my last happy memory of time we spent together. One of my last such memories: she had me over to dinner one night in June 2020, and rhapsodized for hours about her “mountain retreat.” She had somehow tamed a bunch of squirrels there, was ecstatically happy at having done so, and taking that as a harbinger of things to come, daydreamed out loud about how great things would be from now on–about the insight she’d gotten from the time she’d spent at her “mountain retreat,” and so on. After that one evening, everything abruptly changed. I don’t really know why. It’s as though we fell off the mountain.

      In deference to her, and in full consciousness of the falsity of the claim, I call it a “mountain.” Not that she’s around to be deferred to, but I’m not claiming to be reasonable about this.

      Liked by 1 person

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