within and without: Deciphering John le Carré
Craig D. Wilson
and spying have been around forever. Popular fascination with the
secret trade is equally ancient. Fictionalized spy stories appeal
because they provide an entertaining illusion of explanation by using
readily grasped “good guys vs. bad guys” formulas. In a violent, uncontrollable
world, anxiety fuels our curiosity about spying’s detail, process
and result because now the need for real espionage and its reliable
interpretation has become acute. We ask fiction to interpret and to
reassure because reality is terrifying, irrational and inexplicable.
John le Carré is considered the premier espionage novelist writing
in English. As a masterful storyteller skilled at spinning intricate
tales, he’s set the standard against which other practitioners are
measured. Le Carré uses spy-novel forms to explore profound moral
and ethical issues by showing the human toll on individual lives that
collide with intelligence bureaucracies.
Exploring beyond strategic issues, he probes
the grim personal costs when battles with ruthless adversaries ignore
ethical values. He deftly surveys the soul’s murkier precincts where
spies operate. His artistry lies in compelling readers to consider
dark, troubling and unsavory themes as they follow his characters.
But his best work is so complex, subtle,
understated and nonlinear that it challenges and perplexes as much
as entertains. He assumes a level of knowledge, worldliness, curiosity
and contemplation in his readers. In a career spanning more than four
decades, he’s attracted a huge and appreciative worldwide audience.
But he’s intentionally pushed the “spy story” so far that one can
ask whether what he writes is really “espionage fiction” at all because
he’s turned the genre’s conventions on their head.
More ominously, the world has greatly changed
since le Carré began his career and won acclaim for his taut, somber
Cold War narratives. It’s fair to ask if his work still has relevance
in a time of global terrorism, hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, ideological
extremism and shadowy, non-state paramilitary conspiracies. Today,
the Cold War’s rigid “East-West” conflict seems not only Paleolithic,
but quaint and predictable by comparison.
Now reading itself has been eclipsed by
spectacular multimedia entertainments that offer sensationalism, immediacy
and compelling involvement. Does le Carré’s written
“period” fiction still matter – especially to anyone born after the
Cold War’s end?
Le Carré’s books do reflect a Cold War
sensibility. They are historic artifacts, but in the same way as are
Dickens’ sagas and Shakespeare’s plays, and they endure equally as
vivid chronicles of their era. His finest material transcends not
only genre but time and place as well, for it portrays eternal dilemmas
that perpetually beset us in trying to survive and comprehend our
bewildering and menacing world.
* * *
an “agent-runner spinning a legend,” “John le Carré” is the author’s
creation as much as any of his imaginary characters. John Le Carré
is the pen name of David J. M. Cornwell, who was born in Poole, Dorset,
England, in October 1931, and educated at the University of Berne
and Oxford. Following graduation, he was an instructor at Eton before
joining the British Foreign Service as a German-speaking officer.
The Foreign Service forbade any employee from publishing under his
actual name, so Cornwell adopted “le Carré” as his literary alias
(which translates as “the square”). His third novel, “The Spy Who
Came In From the Cold,” earned international acclaim and a financial
success that freed him to leave the Foreign Service and write full
time. He has penned a total of 19 novels, most of which deal with
“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” is
a gritty, sinister account of double agents and triple crosses. Millions
around the world found the 1963 publication so fascinating that it
forever cemented le Carré’s reputation.
But the book also provoked a raging debate.
During the Cold War, spy novels were enormously popular on both sides
of the Iron Curtain. Throughout that fierce, decades-long rivalry,
both opposed camps used popular literature as propaganda to promote
the “rightness” of us-vs.-them ideologies. Le Carré, however, described
the spy’s secret world unsentimentally. His spies are frequently distasteful:
They regularly coerce betrayal and treason, and coolly employ theft,
blackmail, torture or murder to prevail. Even worse, they become what
they behold. The Cold War’s long run, le Carré forcefully argued,
moved Western intelligence agencies closer in attitude and practice
to the unaccountable, conspiratorial extremes of their totalitarian
adversaries. This was one of le Carré’s most insistent themes, and
it still resonates – do worthy ends justify ugly means? There’s never
been an easy answer.
More dismayingly, instead of a noble band
of right-thinking, courageous and decisive patriots, le Carré cast
all intelligence services as bureaucracies saddled with the petty,
callous rivalries, inertia and institutional myopia of any large organization.
“A committee is a horse with four back legs,” one of his characters
Le Carré’s stories tap deeper reservoirs
of emotion and reflection in his readers than most other espionage
writers, but his refusal to join in promoting spies as attractive
heroes earned him official condemnation. His Cold War books were condemned
by the CIA’s director and by official Soviet literary journals – perverse
Le Carré’s early novels create an elaborate
fictional intelligence service that was based on the actual MI-6 (the
British CIA). His stories seem very real because of a dense and artful
blending of fiction with history, and imaginary settings with actual
places. His fictional service stands in London’s Soho district at
a crossroads named Cambridge Circus; so this agency is always ironically
referred to as “the Circus”. He formulated an entire vocabulary of
code words and phrases to characterize agent running and intelligence
gathering; many of these are now used commonly in describing actual
* * *
Rather amusingly, the foundation of le
Carré’s reputation rests upon the shoulders of his most memorable
character, the redoubtable master spy George Smiley. Smiley’s formidable
intellect, frumpy appearance and very human foibles set him apart
in the annals of espionage literature.
This “old spy in a hurry” appears in eight
of the author’s first 13 books, either as the central figure or a
peripheral observer. He embodies the best qualities of le Carré’s
“Circus.” It is through Smiley’s myopic and care-worn eyes that readers
view the clandestine battles of Cold War spying. Smiley is not only
an unlikely “hero,” he’s an even more unlikely spy: short, fat, bespectacled,
ill-tailored and excessively self-effacing, most frequently an owlish
“desk man” burrowing in files rather than a gun-toting secret field
agent. His dowdy, vulnerable, grandfatherly appearance belies an accomplished
history and truly formidable intellectual skills. He was a clever
and successful behind-the-lines operator in wartime Germany, so he’s
well seasoned in the spy’s traditional “courageously heroic territory.”
But Smiley, unlike most fictional spies, is meditative, profoundly
doubt-wracked and perpetually agonized – a “failed priest” grappling
with his conscience. While he believes passionately in his “mission,”
he must constantly suffer as his values are trampled by his ruthless
secret work. Worse, he bears greater hurt and shame over repeated
betrayals by his elegant but faithless wife. He’s the absolute antithesis
of James Bond – a bumbling cuckold rather than a dashing Casanova.
Assailed constantly by crippling uncertainties, usually answerable
to far lesser men, Smiley still unravels the many espionage riddles
he confronts. Overcoming emotional wounds, personal foibles, bureaucratic
treachery, Smiley’s wisdom, sincerity and determination always shine
through. His very earnest qualities and failings distinguish him.
Smiley has an Everyman quality with which many identify: He remains
le Carré’s most enduringly popular creation, the one character he
constantly utilized in his definitive writings.
Smiley represents the triumph of substance
over style, brain over brawn, and wit over even the most advanced
technological gadgetry. He is very much a Cold Warrior, but like Sherlock
Holmes, he transcends his historic period.
* * *
The Cold War ended and le Carré retired
Smiley, but the author has continued to write provocative books. More
recently, he has shifted his focus away from intelligence services
and assayed broader themes of secrecy, corruption, betrayal and inhumanity
as an expanding global capitalism transforms the planet and a new
ruthlessness challenges individual values. The ominous and amoral
clandestine world of le Carré’s fiction now has infected all our lives.
We all “live our cover” in presenting a social mask to the world.
For the uninitiated, there are two avenues
for sampling le Carré’s work: by reading his books or by watching
films made of those works. Either form tells intricate stories and
explores a complex mental terrain, but while video seems more easily
accessible, the medium is usually less supportive of the author’s
creative message. Film’s essential dynamic is to simplify a story
through its powerful bias toward linear action. Le Carré’s strength
is to illuminate his characters’ cerebral landscapes; such interior
settings translate poorly into moving pictures. His writing style
is oblique and indirect: The stories’ trajectories juxtapose present
and past, disconnect sequences, overlap accounts, and mingle simultaneous
occurrences with intertwined narrative strands; often
it is a character’s interrogations that help reveal events. A reader must reconcile what is learned
auditing those inquisitions with the character’s subjective memories;
comprehension evolves jaggedly. The subtle effect – like an actual
intelligence analyst grappling to interpret welters of partial, contradictory
and indistinct facts – is not one which appeals to everyone.
such styling can perplex a reader, it all but defies emulation
on film. Worse, unworthy cinematic interpretation of le Carré’s books
has diminished the power of the original texts. Although far, far
greater demands are placed upon a reader than a viewer, the intellectual
and emotional rewards are also higher: Curiosity, attention, patience
and reflection are rewarded, and gradually one comes to appreciate
le Carré’s accomplishment. His best books lend themselves to re-reading
because new facets emerge with every fresh passage through the texts,
and the stories reverberate with heightened sensation, even when one
“knows” in advance the ultimate outcome. They are less “page-turners”
or even “thrillers” but rather dark meditations on the human condition.
Each novel is sober and provocative: One is disquieted and provoked
far more often than reassured.
* * *
Le Carré’s 19 books can be divided into
three general categories which correspond with the historical epochs
of the past half-century. The first group includes all the early works
in the traditional Cold War espionage vein. The middle group features
transitional accounts that capture the uncertain tentativeness of
the Glasnost and Perestroika eras (“The Russia House,” “Our Game”
and “The Night Manager” fall into this category). More recently, the
author has examined corporate embrace of espionage’s secrecy and ruthlessness
in furtherance of economic globalization (see “Single and Single,”
“The Constant Gardener” and “Absolute Friends”). Not every book is
a classic, but a number are true masterpieces that will endure as
works of literature, not simply spy stories.
For a novice curious to explore le Carré,
one should first read “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”; it’s relatively
brief, readily comprehensible and lays out the author’s essential
philosophy about espionage, its practitioners and its amorality. Follow
that excursion with the trilogy of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,”
“The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People.” These are far more
complex, ambitious and interwoven works which pit British master spy
George Smiley against his sinister Soviet nemesis, a shadowy, menacing
figure that haunts the works like a specter and is known only by his
It would then be rewarding to read “A Perfect
Spy.” The book not only captures the whole paranoid Cold War espionage
ambiance, but, more importantly, it has been revealed as the most
autobiographical of all le Carré’s novels: Its fatally flawed hero,
British double agent Magnus Pym, is the son of a charming rogue, swindler
and confidence man. The author’s own father is the model for this
sad and petty charlatan. More bleakly, like Pym, his mother abandoned
the family, went into hiding and had no contact with any of them for
decades. Le Carré’s life as a gentleman scholar, artist and literary
light has long concealed this tortured history. Two years ago, David
Cornwell came out from behind the le Carré “legend” to confess this
sordid patrimony and anguished heritage. The revelations (made in
a journal article) shed new light on all the twisted father-son relationships
which figure throughout le Carré’s books. The author also finally
acknowledged in that piece what had been suspected for many years:
He had in fact been a lower-echelon British intelligence operative.
In his spy novels, it is the British secret
service and its agents that are Le Carré’s primary focus. The stunning
exception, “The Little Drummer Girl,” features the Israeli intelligence
service battling Palestinian terrorists. It is a chilling and disturbing
work, particularly for its scrupulousness in showing both Israelis
and Palestinians as equally ruthless, violent and determined adversaries.
That balance angered partisans on both sides of the long, brutal conflict,
but it is quintessentially le Carré – his finest works have embodied
the grisly adage that spies become what they behold.
The one le Carré book that shuns any espionage
context is “The Naive and Sentimental Lover.” It is the least liked
of any of the author’s novels – by both fans and critics – and represents
his only foray into strictly “literary” fiction. It fictionalizes
events that marked the effect of financial success on the author’s
personal life, romantic infatuation with a literary couple who were
his friends, and the breakup of his first marriage. It is a well-crafted
anomaly that never found an appreciative audience.
* * *
If one lacks patience or inclination to
read le Carré, many of the films made from
his books are available on home video. The author confesses to profoundly
mixed feelings (mostly dissatisfaction) about these visualized interpretations,
but he has joined the enemy camp and participated in adapting several
of his works to film.
“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” was
filmed in the mid-1960s and stared Richard Burton as the burnt-out
hero. Like classic film noir,
its black-and-white format is especially suited to the subject, and
while the narrative is faithful to the author’s story, the subtle
nuances evoked by his prose are mostly absent from the movie. Le Carré
thought Burton far too forceful and dynamic a presence to faithfully
capture the title character’s profound world-weariness and despair.
In memorable supporting roles, Oskar Werner and Claire Bloom give
performances much closer to the author’s conceptions.
In the early 1980s, the BBC produced two
wonderfully crafted miniseries that brought “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,
Spy” and “Smiley’s People” to the small screen. Le Carré participated
in both productions (co-authoring the screenplay for “Smiley’s People”),
and Sir Alec Guinness gave the definitive performance as George Smiley
in each series. Both programs are nearly six hours long, and that
extended format allows for fuller airing of many subplots and nuanced
details that make the novels amongst the author’s finest achievements.
Le Carré had originally intended to write more books about Smiley,
but after seeing Guinness in the role, he abandoned that plan, claiming
the actor had “hijacked” the character: He could no longer visualize
him imaginatively other than as Guinness’ interpretation.
The BBC also produced “A Perfect Spy” as
a six-hour TV miniseries (it too is available on video). The production
is not only wonderfully made but quite faithful to the original novel.
The TV production of “A Murder of Quality”
(le Carré’s second novel) cast the late Denholm Elliott as Smiley.
It is a more conventional murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mode
(in the story Smiley was on temporary retirement from the secret intelligence
service), and despite Elliott’s serviceable performance, he couldn’t
match Alec Guinness’s inspired interpretation.
“The Russia House” was made into a feature
film with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as the leads. Connery
does an adequate turn as the sodden hero Barley Blair – recruited
by the Brits to be a reluctant “agent” to a Soviet scientist during
Glasnost – but the original book is not amongst the first rank of
le Carré’s work, and the film is not especially memorable. Cold Warriors
– the author included – were being supplanted as that conflict waned
and they found themselves shorn of their life-long enemies and purpose.
Le Carré assisted in writing and producing
“The Tailor of Panama,” and the work has a morbid satirical quality
(Pierce Brosnan plays an unscrupulous British agent who has been banished
to Panama for his sexual transgressions); the Panamanian scenes and
characters are amusingly arch (although bordering on stereotyped caricatures),
but the original work lacks the moral sharpness of the author’s best
earlier writing. That murky source afflicts the equally muddled screen
Currently “The Constant Gardener” is being
readied for filming.
“The Little Drummer Girl” was also turned
into a movie, but the result was disappointingly disastrous. The naïvely
idealistic and malleable heroine of the novel (a decidedly British actress reminiscent of Vanessa Redgrave in her most stridently
political incarnation) was played onscreen by a woefully miscast Diane
Keaton. Even worse, the filmmakers re-crafted the story to sympathetically
portray the Israeli side while demonizing the Palestinians, thus destroying
the delicate moral balance le Carré captured in his book and making
the film simply propagandistic and polemical. The movie was deservedly
unpopular when released; it is available in VHS format.
* * *
Audiences remain attracted to the excitement
and glamour of spy stories partly because our ordinary lives appear
mostly dull, frustrating, disappointing, imperfect, and we hunger
for the vicarious thrill of overcoming life-menacing risks to defeat
our country’s evil enemies.
Le Carré shows that malevolence is not
exotic but near, close to
home, rather than distant and extraordinary, as we’ve usually preferred
to think. Since Sept. 11, 2001 – and now March 11 – that truth has
become only too evident.
Spy novels feature quests of discovery
and offer entertaining ways to abstractly view a dangerous world.
But the world is dangerous
and not merely a setting for make-believe accounts. The finest spy
stories can help us discipline our imaginations to better assess some
of those hazards, know our capabilities, render sensible judgments
and, ultimately, marshal our wits and courage to face unknown perils.
By carefully weighing potential horrors, we help open our way to counter
and coexist with such lurking risks rather than retreating or cowering
The Cold War has passed, and its specter
of global nuclear conflagration has lessened, but we now face equally
dangerous terror threats almost everywhere. The need for skilled espionage
to counter that menace has only become more critical. Sophisticated
technology alone will never supplant perceptive vigilance and informed
knowledge as the spy trade’s most effective tools. And now it is not
only spies, but all of us for our own safety, who must cultivate that
same discipline. Regardless of the dazzlingly complex machinery available
for intelligence gathering and analysis, it is still the human mind
– whether plotting acts or seeking to uncover and thwart them – that
remains espionage’s ultimate weapon.
To better comprehend action in that “arena,”
readers will continue being drawn to John le Carré’s superbly crafted
novels. His stories touch us more lastingly and meaningfully than
mere factual reportage ever could. The history he depicted remains
fascinating because collectively or individually, the past is never
completely past; it continues to echo in the present. And we will
continue to read these accounts, for words remain the most effective medium to
access the mind of another.
anyone interested in bringing le Carré’s stories to life for themselves,
dozens of George Smiley’s London haunts actually exist and can be
personally explored. Visit www.smileysfootsteps.com.