John le Carré died at the age of eighty-nine last December, a good thirty years after the end of the Cold War that his spy novels chronicled. He certainly knew whereof he wrote. As a British intelligence agent stationed in West Germany at the height of the Cold War, he had an insider’s view of two of its key crises: the shocking creation of the Berlin Wall on a single day in August 1961, and the defection to Moscow of Kim Philby in early 1963. Those events provided the raw material for his best books. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) begins and ends with the shooting of agents trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) was the story of a Philby-like “mole” who successfully burrowed himself into the topmost echelons of the secret service.
Despite le Carré’s political turn, which became painfully anti-English and anti-American, I continued to read every new novel the week it came out. What made these and le Carré’s other dozen-odd Cold War novels so remarkable is their distinctive point of view, which is not that of a glamorous jet-setting spy like Ian Fleming’s James Bond (introduced in 1953 with Casino Royale) but that of the colorless bureaucrat working behind a desk. Le Carré’s rejoinder to Bond was the laughably unglamorous George Smiley. Short, pudgy, and nearsighted, he was a devotee of seventeenth-century German poetry and the perpetual dupe of his lovely but straying wife. But he was not lacking in courage, having worked undercover in Nazi Germany. A Murder of Quality, le Carré’s second novel, gives a deft sketch: “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”
Smiley’s bureaucratic world—that of tiresome interviews and equally tiresome debriefings, of battered iron desks and shabby damp raincoats—is essentially that of le Carré himself, who did his spying under diplomatic cover, first in the British embassy in Bonn and later as Consul in Hamburg. He did his writing undercover as well; protocol required him to conceal his real name, David Cornwell, under a penname, for which he chose the French for “the square.” For much of his career he maintained the polite fiction that he had been a minor diplomatic functionary; not until 1993 did he formally concede that he had indeed been an intelligence officer, something that had been obvious to the whole world from the beginning.
His final book, Agent Running in the Field (2019), was his “Brexit novel.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, fans wondered what their favorite author would now do, having lost his subject matter. But the Cold War has been followed by no end of lesser wars, of varying degrees of warmth, and without skipping a beat le Carré began a second literary career writing what might be called novels of globalism. Their subjects were relentlessly topical: money-laundering by Russian gangsters (Single & Single, 1999); “big pharma” and experimental drug testing in Africa (The Constant Gardener, 2001); or the United States’ post–9/11 War on Terror (Absolute Friends, 2003). His final book, Agent Running in the Field (2019), was his “Brexit novel,” its villains comprising that unlikely trio of Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.
These post–Cold War novels sold well and earned respectful reviews; five were made into big-budget films. And yet for those of us who still bought each new novel on sight and began it within the hour, it was with a growing sense of disappointment. Some were affronted by the new and strident note of anti-Americanism of books like Absolute Friends, whose “politicised ranting” startled even the left-wing Guardian: “in the scheme of this novel there is no other villain in the modern world than America.” Others were dismayed by what seemed to be an increasingly flat and schematic characterization. Where le Carré’s secondary characters had once come across as startlingly real—Connie Sachs, the pensioned-off alcoholic researcher who has retained her uncanny memory, or Charlie Marshall, the Chinese-Corsican pilot who cracks morbid jokes non-stop while smuggling opium—the heroes of his later novels blur together and are more or less interchangeable.
Le Carré seemed to have lost what had been his strong suit, his gift for suggesting the unspoken transactions that take place beneath an intimate conversation—the resentments, manipulations, tacit understandings—the conversation that is at once negotiation, interrogation, and seduction. To give the flavor of his understatement and almost unbearable sense of restraint, one could pick nearly any random passage of his classic novels. For example, from The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) comes the conclusion of Smiley’s interview with the parents of the beautiful Lisa Pelling, who has abandoned her husband and child to pursue adventure in the Far East. Her father, nicknamed “Nunc,” has been belligerent and unhelpful throughout, and Smiley contrives to speak to the man’s wife alone:
In the dark corridor the smell of drink was stronger. Smiley had counted nine paces before the door slammed, so it must have been the last door on the left, and the furthest from Mr. Pelling. It might have been the lavatory, except the lavatory was marked with a sign saying “Buckingham Palace Rear Entrance.” He called her name very softly and heard her yell “Get out.” He stepped inside and found himself in her bedroom, and Mrs. Pelling sprawled on the bed with a glass in her hand, riffling through a heap of picture postcards. The room itself, like her husband’s, was fitted up for a separate existence, with a cooker and a sink and a pile of unwashed plates. Round the walls were snapshots of a tall and very pretty girl, some with boy friends, some alone, mainly against oriental backgrounds. The smell was of gin and cat.
“He won’t leave her alone,” Mrs. Pelling said. “Nunc won’t. Never could. He tried but he never could. She’s beautiful, you see,” she explained for the second time, and rolled on to her back while she held a postcard above her head to read it.
“Will he come in here?”
“Not if you dragged him, darling.”
Here in a few brushstrokes is a fully realized portrait of a burned-out marriage, where the battlefield of transgressions has dwindled into a kind of a demilitarized zone. Le Carré’s later books contain passages equal in their literary quality, but they remain strangely forgettable. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”
The truth is that politics began to intrude itself into le Carré’s work more flagrantly. It certainly preoccupied him. The Brexit vote outraged him, and at the end of his life he petitioned for Irish citizenship, so that he might remain a European. “I think my own ties to England were hugely loosened over the last few years,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “And it’s a kind of liberation, if a sad kind.” This growing disenchantment could not help but leave its mark on his work. In his classic novels, politics is the background against which his figures act; in the later ones, politics itself is the subject matter, and his figures become the surrogates who act it out.
One of the reasons that the later books tend to blur together is in the sameness of their plots: an essentially decent but rather dim fellow is complicit in some sort of international conspiracy about which he is ignorant until he is enlightened through his encounter with a clear-eyed idealist, after which he tries to redeem himself with a selfless but typically futile act of heroism. Le Carré’s idealists were sadly generic: all-purpose human-rights lawyers or international doctors—types rather than individuals. This is the tragic irony of his career: having made his mark by introducing moral complexity and ambiguity into the spy novel, he ended by making cardboard cut-outs against whom James Bond seems like Hamlet.
Le Carré loved to explore fraught, painfully intimate relationships—husband and wife, prisoner and interrogator, an agent and his runner, potential victim and bodyguard. In his prime, however, there was one relationship he avoided: that of father and son. And for understandable reasons. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a charming bounder, a confidence man of stupendous personal charisma, who served time in prison for insurance fraud. Cornwell’s wife abandoned the family around 1936, when the future writer was only five, leaving the boy in the hands of a professional fabulist. Here he grew up in a world of false hopes, torn between loyalty and feelings of betrayal. Here was the source of the emotional tension that vibrates through all his writing; all that was needed was to attach it to a subject, and this espionage gave him.
Pym, like le Carré, lost his mother at an early age, acquired German during Swiss schooling, and used it as a British intelligence agent.
So painful was le Carré’s upbringing that he could not bear to write about it until he was well into his fifties, and even then only obliquely. A Perfect Spy (1986) is the story of Magnus Pym, whose con-man father equipped him for a life of dissembling but left him searching for substitute father figures in the world of espionage. Pym, like le Carré, lost his mother at an early age, acquired German during Swiss schooling, and used it as a British intelligence agent attached to an embassy. Unlike le Carré, however, Pym remained in the secret service, eventually betrayed his country’s secrets to the enemy, and finally took his own life.
Having cautiously broken the ice, le Carré decided to find out for once and for all the truth of his childhood, and to sort out his father’s lies from reality. He hired a team of detectives who were to investigate his father, and to give him an unvarnished factual report, of the sort he himself would have written as an intelligence agent. He described the project in a striking New Yorker essay of 2002, entitled “In Ronnie’s Court.” Even though his father had died twenty-seven years earlier, he still found it difficult to deal with him, and the essay darts about nervously, touching briefly on an uneasy memory and then shifting to peripheral matters, like someone trying not to look directly at the sun.
As a child, le Carré couldn’t help but have an ambivalent relationship to his father. He loved, resented, and feared the man, but he could not despise him. Not so for the United States, which for a British intelligence agent at the height of the Cold War was a kind of swaggering, over-promising patriarch. America was a surrogate father that le Carré could hate, passionately and sincerely, and he did so with increasing frankness in each successive book.
Some time ago I chanced upon a German-language interview with le Carré from 1989, and I was impressed at how flawless and accent-free his German was. But I should not have been surprised. Only those who have grown up in an erratic and oppressive household know how liberating it is to immerse yourself completely in a foreign language and emerge out of it another person, an alternative version of yourself. That alternative version will exist along with the original, two halves of a divided self, each watching the other with wary amusement. In le Carré’s case, that unhappy division was the fire of a furious creative imagination. Leaving politics to the side, one wonders if his belated coming to terms with what had been an unbearable past might inadvertently have slaked some of those fires.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 25
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