It was by happenstance that I watched all six episodes of The Night Manager in the office of Hotel Villa Flora, a modest establishment which contained a touch of Visconti’s memory of elegance. After an impromptu performance by Michael Eisenberg of Chopin and Beethoven on his studio piano in Villa El Rincon, I walked down the narrow stone path toward Via Aurelia, the main road that passes through Nervi (Sholom Aleichem was there on and off over a period of ten years; Marina Tsvetaeva had visited as a child) and ten kilometers on into Genoa. I’d seen Hotel Villa Flora each time I walked into Bogliasco. On travels I keep a notebook of conversations held with night managers — Amsterdam, Paris, Montreal, Honolulu, Halifax, San Francisco, Tokyo. Now in Italy it was about eleven o'clock at night. A full moon silhouetted the cedars, and a Chinese freighter with its constellation of lights floated out on the Ligurian sea. Anchored just off-shore a small fishing boat with a profile of Leonard Cohen and ‘So long Marianne’so recently painted, making its hull a eulogy.
I stepped into the small lobby. There was a glass bowl of chocolates on the registration counter, behind which was an old-fashioned wooden mail-and-key hive. The lobby was unattended. Suddenly along a corridor, four thirty-something women came laughing and chatting in Italian out of a very small bar and lounge. One of the women yelled behind her, “Uncle Stefano!” They brushed past. “Ciao! Have a nice room for the night. Ciao. Ciao.” All but the niece were then gone down Via Aurelia toward Bogliasco, historically a fishing village. Out stepped a man of about sixty-five, so slight in build that it seemed his suspenders held him as well as his trousers up. He was no more than 5’ 7" tall, had a face which in its melancholic intensity resembled Oscar Homolka’s, and thick black hair combed straight back from the forehead. His dark suit was nicely fitted, the somewhat frayed, oyster-white shirt buttoned at the neck, no necktie. He had black laced shoes. The triangle of a monogrammed handkerchief was in his breast pocket. His English was carefully enunciated; after all, he did run a hotel in a very popular tourist region, though this was decidedly off-season.
“I have seen you come out from the foundation gate, my friend. You live there with artists and scholars for a month, no? My brother Biagio is a painter. I am sure he would like to see your paintings. We have met a number of painters, from the foundation.”
“Actually, I’m not a painter,” I said. “But, yes, I am at the Liguria Study Center.”
He stepped close, held my shoulder with his left hand and shook my hand with his right hand, and said, “I should understand by now. What quality of painter would declare he is a painter? I’m sorry. But I can see my niece was mistaken. I can see you have no need of a room. Come and sit with us in the office. My brother is a painter. Maybe not a painter such as yourself, but he’s dedicated.”
“My name is Howard,” I said. “And I just wanted to admire your lobby here.”
“I hope it feels comfortable and that you are happy. After all, it’s the first taste a customer has of Hotel Villa Flora, no? ”
I followed him down the corridor to the small office. There sat his brother. The office had a small desk and two leather chairs. There was an outsized television set and a dvd player attached. Biagio was smoking a Tuscan cigar. The walls of the office were full of his plein air watercolors, each a scene of Bogliasco. I recognized the church, the village square, a sea-view at the far side of town, several villas, a restaurant, and a watercolor of a doorway I had immediately recoginized as that of the jeweler Gualtiero Oppi, at Via Ammiraglio Giovanni Bettolo, 15.
“Biagio,” Stefano said, “— this is Howart. He’s a painter at the foundation.”
“Ah, one of those,” Biagio said. “My own work is not for sale.”
I had been immediately drawn to his painting of Gualtiero Oppi’s doorway. I pointed to it and said, “How much would this painting cost me?”
Biagio stood up. A much more dapper fellow than his brother, he was dressed in a more finely cut suit than his brother. His salt-and-pepper beard was neatly trimmed; his entire countenance was fuller. He saw me observing the difficulty he had standing and said, “You compare me now to my brother, here, you wouldn’t know, as young men I was the more athletic!” Biagio had a big laugh. All seriousness now, he stood inches from the watercolor I had inquired about. “How could you know—you couldn’t know.”
“But this is the doorway of Gualtiero Oppi, a jeweler, a true craftsman. I could arrange an appointment.” I thought it best not to mention that I’d visited Gualtiero Oppi almost daily, that he was designing earrings for my wife, a pendant for my daughter, and that he’d said that his favorite poet was Szymborska. Besides, I was convinced that Biagio would eventually learn this about me, from talking with Gualtiero Oppi. I took great comfort in this. Perhaps it conveniently fit my notion of local business comrades as somehow familial. Perhaps it was because when you are new to a place and don’t know the language, daily visits to a small jewelry shop allow for an illusion of familiarity, even though you yourself are merely another tourist. Biagio turned and looked hard at me. “Mr. Howart,” he said, “since you are a fellow painter—at the foundation—I’ll make an exception. Thirty euros, but I must keep the frame.”
I felt that as straightforward a transaction as possible was called for; I reached into my wallet and took out thirty euros and handed them to Biagio. He sat down with an exhausted sigh, as if the ounce weight of the euros had somehow tipped the scale. He fairly gasped for breath; he lit another cigar. “Stefano, could you get me a sheet of our stationary? Grazie.” Stefano quickly returned with a sheet of Hotel Villa Flora stationary; no logo, just Hotel Villa Flora in flowing cursive at the top. Biagio scribbled out a receipt and handed me the piece of stationary, which I folded into my coat pocket. (The painting was delivered in a mailing tube to the foundation gate the next morning.)
“What are you holding there, may I ask?” Biagio said.
I had retrieved the dvd of The Night Manager from the Bolivian playwrite-actor Fernando Arze, who was sharing Villa El Rincon with Michael Eisenberg. “Oh, this is called The Night Manager,” I said. “It’s based on a novel by a kind of maestro of spy novels, John Le Carre. He’s my favorite living British writer.”
Stefano and Biagio looked at each other and laughed. “My friend, do you think we would not be aware of him?” Stefano said. “Mr. Le Carre has written a novel about our profession, after all!”
I apologized. “Not necessary,” Stefano said. “Every day, we expect Mr. Le Carre to appear in our lobby, you see.” This made them laugh hard again. “And who is to say this won’t happen?” Biagio set out a bottle of grappa and three glasses. One thing in the conversation led to another, and I slipped the first disc into their dvd player. We settled in to watch together. Improbable, maybe, but true.
Subsequent to that evening, I went back after ten o'clock five more times. Some might suggest that the price of my ticket to the makeshift theatre that was the office of Hotel Villa Flora was thirty euros; others might suggest that at any unforeseen moment, a hotel lobby can become a home-away-from home, even when one is staying at a luxurious villa right across the street, in a Tuscan village. On the Emirates Airline flight I’d re-read The Night Manager, a novel replete with Le Carre’s signature symphonic construction of intrigues, violence, political machinations, controlled velocities and deceptive lulls of plot, expert and gratifying character development, on occasion the hint of Somerset Maugham (from his Ashenden spy stories), many hotels, and the eternal jousting of Good and Evil. And yet when it came to screen adapations of fine novels, my experience was that if you lower your expectations, disappointment may be at least negligible. Le Carre has faired far better than most writers living or dead in adaptations of their novels —just consider The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. So, I didn’t have any predisposition; I had read no reviews of the TV series; all I knew was that I had admired previous works by Danish director Susanne Bier, from “Freud’s Leaving Home” and “In a Better World” to the stunning “After The Wedding.” Not everything by this director, but enough to arouse anticipation.
Once the grappa and glasses were set out, I read, at Stefano’s request, the description of episode one: Hotel night manager Jonathan Pine receives a plea for help from a well-connected guest. His actions draw him into the world of Richard Roper, a businessman and arms dealer.
I sat on the desk. The episode begins with a startling visualcontrast: it is January 20, 2011. “Arab Spring” protesters have taken to the streets of Cairo, the city is all cacophony; banners held up waving, close-ups of faces contorted with hope, fear, anguish and anticipation, tear gas, agitated density of soldiers, police, citizens. Isolated by the camera, deftly navigating the scene, is the night manager of the swank Nefertiti Hotel, Jonathan Pine. He is dressed hiply, casusally, his untucked blue shirt gathers all the disparate colors of the background into a coolness and even a sense of physical impunity— it all has a James Bond vibe; we then see that Pine is a man with porfolio, because, when he flashes his ID at the police barricade, he is immediately allowed to pass through.
Stefano’s and Biagio’s niece (their sister’s daughter)—she was introduced as Gabriella—had now joined us; as the opening scene progressed, she said, “Male model uses Arab Spring street protest as catwalk.” This caught it perfectly. It was cold out but Gabriella had no coat; it occurred to me that perhaps she lived in the hotel. Anyway, Jonathan Pine seems from the get-go a kind of white panther amongst Egyptians; he moves in coiled yet graceful strides, upright as his last name, and the blue of his eyes seems drawn from the cloudless sky over the Saharan desert. What propels him is altruistic urgency: he needs to be at the helm of his hotel, at his post, in effect to manage the night; to take care of guests who are panicking, who need guidance and instruction, who instinctually fall back on money; in terms of limousines, taxi cabs, airport, the privilege of escape, clearly the efficiency of his position in part relies on connections that perhaps other night managers in less deluxe hotels do not have. The world is chaos; he is organized.
Gabriella kissed each of her uncles goodnight and was gone. But soon enough, on screen there came a second catwalk sequence. But this one had femme fatale written all over it. I mean the archetypal sort, embodied in a mysterious, seductive woman whose practiced charms ensnare a man or woman into a compromising, dangerous, even deadly situation— all of which proves in this instance to be the case. This is the gorgeous Sophie Alicar, mistress of local psychopath— whose family owns half of Cairo—Freddie Hamid. It is important to note that in our first sighting of her in the lobby, Sophie’s face is flawless. (Because it is soon so horrifically battered and bruised.) She veritably floats to the registration desk. “Make me a coffee, will you, Mr. Pine?” Why, we wonder, ask a night manager this, in a way clearly suggestive of intimate domesticity? He has other things to do. He would otherwise delegate this task. But not if he is a world-class rescuer. This is the fateful moment; it sets the plot in motion, really. Soon she asks him for more —though asking is not exactly what she does, because given her liquid accented tone and direct gaze, her question stands for everything dangerous and exotic in the world, and it is the moment where the first of many erotic triangles is constructed: Sophie, Pine, Hamid. Desperately emboldened and already on sure footing, Sophie now requests that Pine make copies of documents, listing the potential arms sales of the arch villain Richard Roper to Freddie Hamid, and she knows that Pine will read these documents as he makes copies. Doubling, tripling, quadrupling her vulnerability, Sophie then says that if “something should happen to me” perhaps Pine can give the documents to his friend at the British embassy. Sophie may be the quickest study in film history; she has sized Pine up (and down) and has his precise number. It is the the moment where a quotidian act — making copies on a machine — inaugurates a fatal sequence. The next day Pine delivers the damning evidence to the embassy. Through the nocturnal desert he spirits Sophie to a kind of safe house where they sleep together. Eventually, Freddie Hamid discovers Sophie’s betrayal, the arms deal is stalled, and — we find out later — Roper has Sophie brutally murdered; as in several James Bond movies, consorting with the dreamboat hero leads a woman to a ghoulish death. Apparently such women are dispensable, whereas the trope is not.
Stefano remarks, “If a woman asks me for a coffee in that way, I too would not care if I live or die.”
“That is not exactly what my brother means,” Biagio said, “but it is close enough.”
The Night Manager covers a lot of ground. By the time we catch up with Pine, four years later, he is filled with remorse for the death of Sophie and living _ _in an isolated house in Zermatt, Switzerland, working as the night manager of a luxury ski resort.
“Oh, he goes from a warm country to a cold country,” Stefano said. “I’ve been in the Swiss mountains. No woman asked me for coffee there.”
Seeing Pine’s hermetic existence is the first time even a minor emotional chord was struck in me, becauseI saw him as someone who knows how to live alone. Yet aloneness, in so many mythological traditions,is part of the hero’s journey, though here the journey involves others who are by no means standard features of such a journey. At one point it is only Amanda Burr, an operative from M16 (“River House”), who knows who he really is.In my estimation Burr eventually proves to be an especially compelling character; for hauntingly personal reasons, she is the hound on Roper’s trail, and time and again is up against the restrictive hypocrisies of her own government’s intelligence agencies. She is truly alone. As played by Olivia Colman, I absolutely loved her character from the first time I saw her on screen, a touch disheveled, intent on her purposes to the point of obsession, pregnant and world weary, often in a fugue state of moral and philosophical agitation. And definitely not a model.
In a mountain restaurant Burr asks Jonathan Pine why, as a respected hotelier, he would squeal on a hotel guest, this asked with the severest irony, because the guest she refers to is ruthless Richard Roper. Pine says, “Something stirred.” There it is: There is the moment he acknowledges that he desires to be part of something larger than himself. Expertly playing to his patriotism but also to his isolation, Burr is offering a kind of friendship. But having done her research, she also plays to something patriarchal — Pine’s father worked as an undercover cop in northern Ireland where he was killed. Her question, “What are you prepared to do about it?” not only bridges us to the next episode, but it is also the point where I realized that, as a viewer, the sheer seduction of plot began its insistent counterbalancing of plausibility. For here we have Jonathan Pine, a hotel night manager, a stiffly reserved (though erotically smoldering) Englishman whose previous trade craft has merely been hotel decorum, right before our eyes, and about to be recruited as a kind of badass British Intelligenc operative. And this is the exact sort of situation Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene often also explored, each of them able to convince readers that at any given moment in a person’s life, everything that was familiar might become unfamiliar. So that sometimes the only narrative question worth asking is: what can happen next?
But the recruitment episode puts on high exhibit what John LeCarre’s novel succeeds in doing with unsurpassable brilliance: we see how some aspect of Jonathan Pine’s character that hasalways been fully resident —a kind of rapture-in-waiting — given the exact right conditions, has become primary. His work as hotel night manager is over. He can’t go back to that. Night after night after night he had obsequiously ministered to the needs of guests, and now his identity is about to dissolve by perpetual displacement. No address. False passport. Locatable only by cell phone.
“This Jonathan Pine, he should’ve come to work for us, at the Villa Flora,” Biagio said. “Many beautiful women would ask him for a cup of coffee. And he could look out on the mountains without having to live in them.”
The jeweler Gualtiero Oppi joined us one evening. He has a face that, in my estimation, is not of this century; he looks like he could have just had soup with Virgil. He gave me a brief report on the progress made with my wife’s earrings. Stefano read the description of episode two: “On the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, Roper’s life of luxury and calm is shattered. Six months earlier, Burr continues her recruitment of Pine, sending him to Devon to build a cover story.”
The thing about so-called flashbacks is that they serve two purposes: they fold the past into the present, and, in essence, they double the amount of time that a viewer experiences within the overall story. Episode two moves between Mallorca and Zermatt, Switzerland, and the unifying element is the building of Pine’s cover story, with the final ambition of putting him “inside” the dastardly operations of Richard Roper. The building of the cover story — this exact set-piece — is a rather hackneyed invention, and yet it does provide Pine with several aliases (James Bond is always James Bond and no one else) and puts him in the good graces of Richard Roper : a fake kidnapping of Roper’s young son is contrived, and to make it look “real,” Pine is beaten almost senseless and recovers under the care of a grateful Roper. This whole sequence perhaps strains credulity, yet at least the brutality isn’t stylized, is well acted, even riveting. One gets caught up in it. The plan goes almost fatally awry but still meets its goal. Pine is healing in Roper’s villa. The episode ends with Roper at Pine’s bedside as Pine fakes sleep, and says, “You rest now. Tomorrow we’ll find out who you really are.”
In response to the phenomenon of aliases, Stefano says to his brother, “Remember when I was twenty and I demanded that everyone call me Eugenio?"— (He looks at me and says, "Eugenio Montale is a great Italian poet.”) —"because I was writing poetry. So you see I understand the need for a different name.“
"It would have been more successful, had you been able to write a good poem,” Biagio said.
The most effective scene in episode two comes early on when Pine, having fully signed on to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle in the arms trade, is talking with Burr in his Swiss mountain hideway. She has taken a copy of T.E. Lawrence from the shelf, a book Pine says belonged to his father — Burr is testing his sensitivities and, almost snarling, finally issues the irresistible dictate: referring to Roper, she says, “You will nail him for Sophie Alacar, you will nail him for your country, and you will nail him for the man who owned that book.”
Thus begins the composing of Pine’s nefarious bona fides as drug dealer, murderer, thief—as one therefore likely to be trusted by the twisted likes of Richard Roper.
When this episode ended, Stefano said, “My niece had a boyfriend who looked like this Jonathan Pine. Biagio and I had him murdered and taken to the railroad tracks—ha, ha, ha— is a joke I just told— but I do think the boyfriend was from England. My niece traveled over the moon with him but in the end he was nothing.”
Much of the afternoon in a hotel café in Nervi, I read Le Carre’s autobiographical essays, The PigeonTunnel. I showed the book to Stefano who said, “When it comes out in Italian—maybe it has already. I will then
Episode Three: While he continues to recuperate in Roper’s villa, Pine starts to dig up secrets about the other members of the Roper householdwhile working himself into the place of a favorite employee, displacing Corky, and is made to take on yet more aliases to sign contracts for the company’s nefarious business deals.
At this point in the series we can only wonder how Pine can even remember what his own name is. And why doesn’t he have another shirt apart from the blue one we saw in the opening scenes? And thus did I begin to be less engaged with the writing than with the acting and cinematography. And all the more did I then admire the novel of The Night Manager, and though of course I did acknowledge that the translation into the television medium was an impossible task, I couldn’t help feeling that there were important lapses. The way the otherwise paranoid Richard Roper behaves paternally toward Jonathan Pine stretches credulity ; what’s more, for Roper to call his coterie a “family” is to elevate pathological dysfunction to a delusional level of regard. Roper seems more to be adopting Pine than taking him on as a business associate. Strange. Unconvincing, really. So I say to myself, again and again. Even as I realize that I’m more hooked than ever.
My favorite moment in episode three — set design copied out of a David Hockney painting, all shimmering surface and just-short-of gaudy palette — is when Roper’s now displaced adoptee, Corky, a small compact man ironically dwarfed by several phallicly pruned trees, watches Pine swimming with mechanical strokes in the villa’s pool as Jed langorously sunbathes, as if in a photo shoot at the edge. So here is yet another erotic triangle: Jed, Corky, Pine. As Pine towels off, Corky somehow becomes, in his posture and ominous locution, a Shakespearean actor. Pimping out the staff of the villa, Corky delivers a warning, as if born of a rehearsed soliloquy:
Off every tree, you may freely eat –
maid, serving wenches, cooks, typists, masseuses,
even the lady that comes to clip the canary’s claws.
But if you lay one hand on that precious fruit,
then like the Belgians in the Congo
we’ll chop it off, and I don’t mean the hand.
Just a disturbingly perverse moment? Maybe “just” doesn’t quite capture it.
But when the episode ends I’m offered grappa. And then, as if out of nowhere: “I’ve been wondering what your paintings are like,” Biagio says to me.
Perhaps inspired by the intermixed phenomenology of aliases, deception, lies, half-truths (alternative facts), secrets and whatnot, and perhaps because in some ways I had always wished I could be a painter, or perhaps because I liked Biagio’s projection of me far more than I could ever like myself, I reply, “I specialize in hotel lobbies. I seldom have people in my paintings. But when I do, that person has either just come down from an upstairs room, or has just entered a hotel lobby. I don’t know why this is, exactly. I’ve painted hundreds of hotel lobbies.”
“Well, a painter such as yourself,” Biagio said, “much thought goes into it, no?”
Episode Four: Roper welcomes Pine into his inner circle, leaving Corky out in the cold. Meanwhile, Burr has concerns for the safety of her source when she suspects key information has been leaked to The River House.
The original script had two places where the erotic attraction Roper has for Pine was articulated. In the first, Jed says to Pine: “Roper’s got a crush on you.” In the second, Roper whispers in Pine’s ear as they sit alone in Roper’s car surrounded by darkness. There is a strong intimacy to this moment, the two men almost like lovers on a late-night tryst. When in this episode Corky says to Pine, “But you saved his little boy’s life. So you’re Mr. Untouchable,” this puts a finer touch on the paternal dynamic between Roper and Pine. Add to all of this the fact that, on a reckless but inevitable evening, Jed and Pine ravage each other in a love-making scene where they stand against a wall. Though it is over very quickly, there is now unmistakably a love triangle: Jed, Pine, Roper. All along Pine and Jed have seemed to me like mannequins come to life; now the mannequins have entwined.
Roper senses this has happened but his paternal and homoerotic blinders, perhaps, in equal measure, keep him from full comprehension. Corky understands what’s at stake. He warns Pine: “Do you know what he’d do to her if he found out? The great bodily harm that would be inflicted on that beautiful sweet face?
Even Dr. Shimon, Mr. Plastic Fantastic, wouldn’t stand a chance of putting that back together. That’s the fire you’re playing with.”
This episode is a tad soap-operaish, not merely melodramatic, in that the emotional insistences are permitted completely to overtake the brutal realities of the situation. Here again, I have lost a lot of faith in the writing itself, and yet continue to be mesmerized. What is wrong with me? I feel no connection to depicted lives, no sympathy, no empathy with any of these people. Well, except for Amanda Burr — to her assistant, Burr describes the incident that haunts and drives her :
I was in Bagdad. 2003. I was attached to the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. We got these reports of an incident near Rayat, up by the Iranian border. Kurdistan …. When we got there, it was a school sports day. Or it had been. Running races, long jump, picnics. Must have been a lovely day. Until someone dropped two gas shells over the sports field, one containing sulphur mustard, one with Methylphoshonoflouridate. (Sarin) ……And that’s when I first saw Richard Roper in the flesh. …..Roper started selling Sarin after the sports day. He saw what I saw—one hundred and twelve children, fifty-eight adults – and he thought to himself: business.
The next night I went to La Traviata at Teatro Carlo Felice, the beautiful opera house on Piazza De Ferrari in Genoa. I had a front row seat. Wonderful performance. When the final applause ended and people began to file out, I looked up to see Gabriella. “Ah, Mr. Night Manager, who did not take a room at my uncle’s hotel, am I right?” Gabriella was dressed to the nines. “I have a car. Do you need a ride? I studied English in university. I was in Boston for a semester.” In her car, Gabriella said, “I am friends with several women at the institute, and they told me you are not a painter. You are a writer. But you told my uncles you were a painter. Help me to understand this. Did my uncles deserve this?”
“I didn’t tell them I was a painter,” I said. “Your uncles kept referring to my paintings. I decided to go along with it.”
“I see. You liked their good impression of you. The problem will come if Biago asks to see your paintings.”
“Should I tell him I’m not a painter?”
“I judge harshly a man who can live with such deception. And I do care about Biagio’s feelings. But I also know once he makes his mind up about someone, if the actual truth contradicts that, he often prefers his original idea, you see? Well, all of us create our own worlds, yes? Me? I’d love to see your paintings of hotel lobbies!” She laughed for a moment while driving. She dropped me off at the front gate of the institute. “I saw the way you looked at the soprano. I hope you didn’t send the Institute’s gate code backstage to her — ha ha ha.” She drove off.
Before watching Episode Five, I said to Biagio and Stefano, “I’m not a painter, I’m a writer. I tried to tell you this, but you seemed to feel I was a painter. It was a great compliment.”
“So you decided to become the compliment,” Biagio said. “I think this calls for grappa.”
“How old are you, if I may ask?” Stefano said.
“Sixty-seven,” I said.
“Of course, by that age, you would know if you had become a painter or not,” Stefano said.
He poured us each a glass. “Did our niece put you up to this confession, my friend?” Biagio said. “She said she drove you back from the opera last night.”
“Let’s just say she’s honest and persuasive,” I said.
“What did you think of her car?” Biagio said.
“She drove it very well,” I said.
“Her uncles bought it for her – she drives a lot, for her work,” Biagio said.
Episode Five: A Suspicious Roper gathers his entourage around him in an attempt to root out the traitor, forcing Pine to play a dangerous game. In London, Burr faces mounting opposition from the River House.
When the episode ended, Gabriella said, “All the military boys and rich creeps got off together.” She referred to the centerpiece of the episode, which takes place at the cynically named “The Haven,” a privately run refugee camp in an outback of Turkey, which serves as a philanthropic front, but is really the bivouac for Roper’s mercenary army (“the real United Nations”). One Mr. Barghetti, a bigshot in the clandestine arms trade, shows up in a car caravan in the middle of the night. He is about to witness the most obscene —I like Gore Vidal’s phrase, “incendiary onanism” — display of military pyrotechniques imaginable. I said, okay, sure, Roper’s showing off the goods for a wealthy buyer (later he asks Barghetti to join him at the French open tennis match! —really?). At the finale, when a wave of napalm decimates a forcibly vacated Turkish village, Roper paraphrases Robert Duval’s famous line from Apocalypse Now: “Nothing quite as pretty as napalm at night.”
As for those fireworks: To expect that a night manager of a hotel (though he was once a soldier) could in only a few hours do his “homework,” study highly complicated manuals, and not only comprehend but be a kind of expert in perhaps the most sophisticated armaments in the world—well, I fell off the suspension bridge of disbelief right there. But Roper loves watching Pine work his charms, and so that is that. I simply wondered why Roper didn’t give that impresario task to one of the firearms experts in his private army.
This was not a great episode. But at least Pine has told Jed who he really is and who he is employed by, with dialogue that feels wedged in — what’s more, upon hearing that Pine is working for British Intelligence, Jed scarcely winces. She more or less slides along the Teflon surface of ever-shifting recognitions and reality, and knows that she must be really in love. They are 200 miles from the Syrian border. “Get me out of here, Jonathan,” she says. Seen by candlelight in Roper’s tent, both Pine and Jed have a kind of ceramic epicene gorgeousness, and yet I feel no spark.
I travel to deliver a lecture in Bologna, visit Morandi’s house, and on my return the next afternoon stop to see the Chisione Collection of Japanese art in Genoa. Later, while window shopping, I remember something my father-in-law George said. He and my mother-in-law Essie owned an elegant clothing store, Corduroy Village, in North Bergen, New Jersey. On a visit there, I was standing with George watching my wife’s mother and aunt Flossie in conference with a woman needing a dress for a special occasion; her husband stood off to one side. Of the husband, George said, “He dresses off the mannequin.” I loved the phrase and asked what it meant. “It’s an old saying from the Garment District,” he said. It meant that the man had no self-generated, let alone original taste in clothes, but could “see” himself tall and svelt and the clothes perfectly fitting him as they did the mannequin. But “dresses off the mannequin” had another meaning, too. A kind of indictment, and though George was too gentle a soul to put that spin on it, some judgement was implicit: the poor fellow’s imagination of himself in the world was too immediately well met by the gloss and pose of the mannequin (I became whatI beheld) there, in the diarama which was in that case merely some neighborhood men’s store window.
This may seem the odd connection, but dresses off the mannequin, suddenly there in Genoa, defined how I was reacting to the chameleon-like Jonathan Pine. Looking at him was pleasurable, but where were the smarts? Where was any compelling sense of self? The screenwriter had really made Pine an all but completely reactive character, and did not assign him a moment of even inadvertent self-reflection. Even Richard Roper experienced fugue states of agitation that flared indicator lights of intellect. When in Roper’s tent Pine and Jed in an emergency fashion pledge devotion to the idea of a future together, I cringed a little. Because who were they, really? — a lovely, somewhat vacuous woman who for a long time shared Roper’s bed, and even says that she loves Roper. And Jonathan Pine? He has become a man who, in a matter of months, has in essence become a state-sponsored murderer. Again shades of Bond. Merely Bond. And so I would have much preferred that even a little of Pine’s smarts in the novel might have been in play in the series — after all, he did have a small library back at his retreat in Switzerland. He did read books. Unless his library was merely comprised of unread keepsakes. “T.E. Lawrence. Of Arabia. The lonely genius who wished only to be a number,” Angela Burr said in that mountain outpost, a few episodes back. And yet I now wondered if her description of T.E. Lawrence was at the heart of Pine’s desire, except in reverse: that Pine was a number who longed to be, in some heroic way, a modern T.E. Lawrence. Maybe. Possibly. But anyway the more I watched, the more I felt that the most potentially gratifying, sheer, dark, gritty, even memorable elements of adventure were being constantly mediated by beauty and mindlessness.
After episode five ended, Gabriella said of Jonathan Pine: “Eye candy but I wouldn’t personally care to take the wrapper off. No, no, no, not my type. I wouldn’t go over the moon with him.”
In front of the Bibioteca Civica in Nervi, I saw a poster announcing a reading by a Polish scholar of the poems of Wislawa Szymborska. I could make out that someone would be reading the Italian translations, too. The Biblioteca Civica was a fifteen-minute walk from the Liguria Study Center, and at the appointed hour, I sat toward the back of the main reading room. After the visiting scholar read Szymborska’s poems in Polish, the librarian introduced the fellow who would read the poems in Italian: to my surprise, though I quickly realized I should not have been surprised in the least, up stepped the jeweler, Gualtiero Oppi!
When his fine reading was completed, there was a brief reception. We then walked to the Hotel Villa Flora to watch episode six:
Roper and his team return to Cairo for the deal, reuniting Pine with his old enemy Freddie Hamid. Pine risks it all to put his plan in motion. A discredited Angela Burr makes one last stand.
Episode six almost but not quite redeems the project. Gabriella had prepared penne with thinly sliced potato, pesto, diced tomato. She had brought two fold-up chairs, too. Wine this time, not grappa. Much of this episode takes place where the whole story began, the Nefertiti Hotel. Things are coming round full circle.
It turns out that Gabrielle has decided to write an essay about The Night Manager for a correspondence course (“Popular Media” ) she is enrolled in toward earning a university degree. She says, “Later I want to have a serious conversation about it.” Basically she does not admire the series very much at all, but needs to find a way to write about her discontent.
Not to give everything away, but: back in the series, Roper is closing in on the big arms deal, and all the parties are meeting in Cairo. At a casino, Pine meets up again with the drug-addled sleazeball, Freddie Hamid. Once Hamid is liquored and cocained up, Pine takes him to one of his luxurious villas, where he further drugs Freddie, asks him if he killed Sophie, and finds out it was Roper who had her murdered—after which Pine strangles and for good measure drowns Hamid. Somehow by the time he returns to the Nefertiti Hotel, his clothes are dry. He’s become rather adept at murder, this time avenging the death of Sophie Alicar; remember, back in Switzerland Angela Burr had said, “you’ll do it for Sophie.”
Entrusted by Roper with all the secret codes and numbers, Pine now begins his private strategy to bring Roper down. At one point along the wild plot trajectory, Burr says to Pine, “I can get you out.” It is then that Pine actually offers something personal: “I was living half a life when you met me,” implying that all that has happened between then and now has somehow completed him. In front of the Nefertiti Hotel, Roper is kidnapped by Barghatti’s men, taken off to die a death by torture, one imagines. But he survives. Cut to a night scene: Jonathan Pine and Jed are entwined under sheets (which seem painted by Lucian Freud). The pathological narcissist Roper is doomed. Oddly, the last scene has Pine standing in front of the Nefertiti Hotel, wearing the untucked blue shirt. He’s the same but not the same. For one thing, he is 300 million dollars richer. At least his room is paid for.
This episode had enough action to make it seem almost autonomous, if it weren’t for the fact that there were so many dialogue references to past incidents and relationships. Considering that things had to be wrapped up, its concision was impressive. Some bad guys got their due; some rather dubious characters – Pine and Jed—got a future. Angela Burr is vindicated, not necessarily in ways that settle well with her. I am not certain she would feel she is bringing her child into a better world, even with Roper disappeared from it.
In Italy, as the writer Giorgio Bassani put it, “I daily experienced the depths of my happiness and unhappiness, in order to feel utterly alive.” Eventually, Gualtiero Oppi’s earrings for my wife proved, in her opinion, to be exquisite. On a warm November afternoon, I’d sat typing letters on the roof of the Hotel Villa Flora; management didn’t mind at all, even though I wasn’t a patron. In one letter I described my visit to The English Cemetery in San Remo, where one of my eccentric heroes, Edward Lear, is buried. Lear was a great friend of Tennyson’s. Here are Tennyson’s lines on Edward Lear’s gravestone:
‘…all things fair,
With such a pencil such a pen,
You shadow’d forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.
I cannot but think that most writers wouldn’t mind having their works so remembered, maybe even John Le Carre. Gabriella’s essay turned out pretty well. She translated it for me from Italian. It had a quite intimate tone. She used the sentence, “I am not over the moon about this Jonathan Pine.”