From cold war spy to angry old man: the politics of John le Carré

It is a truism that, as they get older, angry young radicals tend to relax into complacent conservatism. The fire of youth fades to a dull glow, or flickers out altogether; the injustice that once seemed so offensive becomes more bearable, perhaps ameliorated by the trappings of success. John le Carré has travelled in the opposite direction. As he has aged, he has become more angry, not less. Far from dimming in his ninth decade, the flame of his rage burns hot and strong. This change is manifest in his books. While ambivalence was the dominant mood of le Carré’s cold war novels, his more recent books are unabashedly partisan.

George Smiley, le Carré’s most famous character, present in most of his books until the collapse of communism, is no cold war warrior. Far from relishing the struggle against the east, he is repeatedly troubled by doubt, agonising about whether the anticommunist cause justifies the concomitant human suffering. In his moment of triumph, when his arch-enemy, the Soviet spymaster Karla, is on the brink of surrender, Smiley feels pity for him. What distinguishes Smiley from Karla is not ideology, but moderation: in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley tells his lieutenant Peter Guillam that Karla’s fanaticism will prove his downfall. Yet in fact it is human weakness, his love for his daughter, that is his eventual undoing. And this goes to the moral heart of Le Carré’s fiction. The tension within them is not between left and right, but between the individual and the cause, between people and patriotism.

When he began writing fiction in the late 1950s, le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, was working for the security service. MI5’s principal function in those days was to resist communist penetration and subversion of the British state. His work for MI5 was reflected in his first novel, Call for the Dead, published under a pseudonym to protect his identity. One of Cornwell’s tasks was to “vet” individuals to ensure that they posed no security risk. At the beginning of Call for the Dead, Smiley is introduced as a senior intelligence officer who has just been vetting a civil servant with access to sensitive information. In America, a witch-hunt had meant that those with a communist background were banned from working in Hollywood, let alone in government. But Smiley is shown as untroubled about his interviewee’s communist past. “Half the cabinet were in the party in the 1930s.”

By the time the novel was published, Cornwell had transferred to the Secret Intelligence Service, more popularly known as MI6, and was serving under cover in Bonn, then the capital of the Federal Republic of West Germany. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, made him famous around the world: it occupied the top of the US bestseller list for 35 weeks, becoming the bestselling novel of 1964. The intense press interest led to his cover being blown and his resignation from the secret service.

One reason why The Spy Who Came in from the Cold made such an enormous impact was its seeming authenticity. This, apparently, was the real world of spying: one in which there were no heroes, and the line between right and wrong was at best blurred. The protagonist, Alec Leamas, is not a glamorous figure: he is a tired, middle-aged man on the edge of burnout. Leamas’s outburst at the end of the book is a fervent protest against the bad things he has been asked to do in the service of his country. “What the hell do you think spies are?” he asks his distressed girlfriend: “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” This was a very different depiction of spying from the one presented in Ian Fleming’s novels. The moral ambiguities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are in marked contrast to the unquestioning certainties of the James Bond books. To readers in the early 1960s, accustomed to the messy compromises of the cold war, they seemed far more truthful. Similarly, le Carré’s squalid settings seemed more realistic than the five-star hotels and high-rolling casinos frequented by Bond.

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