John le Carré Captured the Paranoid Mood of the Cold War

John le Carré was the Cold War's finest novelist. He was no leftist, but Le Carré's portrayals of the British security establishment offer an enduring insight into the mindset of the ruling class.

John Le Carré. (RDB / Getty Images)

John le Carré was the best novelist of the Cold War. His peers are Orwell, Koestler, and Vonnegut, quite as much as Fleming and Deighton. The literary novelists that critics lionized over le Carré mostly maintained the liberal separation of art and politics, but le Carré covered it all.

The Berlin Wall towers over his breakthrough third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), chasing the Checkpoint Charlie standoff; the Cuban Missile Crisis worries at The Looking Glass War (1965); the counterculture crowds A Small Town in Germany (1968); the Cambridge Spies haunt Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974); Vietnam bespatters The Honourable Schoolboy (1977); and the Second Cold War chills Smiley’s People (1980).

If, by le Carré’s magnum opus, A Perfect Spy (1986), the political had become the personal, spying and double agency metaphors for Oedipal conflict, 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim was le Carré’s own “end of history” after the Wall came down, a pyrrhic victory lap.

For while le Carré’s work after the Cold War had its moments — The Constant Gardener (2001) focused fire on capitalism as his Communist-preoccupied Cold War novels never had — it tended to reignite when returning to that conflict. Absolute Friends (2003) and the last Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017), restore some of the plot tension and melancholy gravitas of the Cold War novels.

So it’s a shame that many know le Carré only for the 2016 TV broadcast of his first post–Cold War novel, The Night Manager (1993). Though the novel shows some victor’s remorse in its depiction of capitalist haymaking in the post–Cold War void, the dramatization buries this in the very Fleming-isms to which le Carré was always the antithesis. Le Carré’s is a world of romanticized dowd and bureaucratic pedantry, not normalized glamour and macho hijinks.

Le Carré didn’t just capture the paranoid, fidgety mood of the Cold War. He also captured the glum, crabbed spirit of postwar Britain (with a patrician suspicion of youth, he managed to miss the sunnier part of the sixties).

His work offers a secret history of Britain quite as good as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time — and quite as partisan. For while initially there was the odd “classless” character (The Spy, Small Town), le Carré’s real skill proved to lie in rendering the peculiarities of the British governing class. As an insider-outsider (his part-Kray, part-aristo father groomed his sons as gentlemen), le Carré did this with an acuity that, like most satire, seemed to get seduced by its subject.

Establishment hauteur is made distinctly compelling in characters like the Machiavellian plotter Control, the viciously camp Roddy Martindale, po-faced bureaucrat Oliver Lacon or “Cockney Belgravia” bigwig Saul Enderby; and it’s positively lovable in sozzled archivist Connie Sachs, dashing wingman Peter Guillam or feckless fieldman Jerry Westerby.

Indeed Westerby, the titular hero of le Carré’s lost masterpiece, The Honourable Schoolboy, could be played by Boris Johnson. And only in Britain could public-schooled, Oxford-educated, gentleman scholar of German Romanticism George Smiley be considered an “everyman.” The claim, frequently made by critics, that Smiley is a non-establishment figure, perpetuates the upper-class narcissism of small differences — what Raymond Williams calls “the small change of the system” — in an ongoing attempt to confound class as (Williams again) a “continuing economic relationship … between the owners of property and capital and the owners of labour and skill.”

This is paralleled by long-standing critical claims that le Carré was “progressive,” radical, or even, as Michael Gove had it, a “leftie.” The closest le Carré got to socialism was as a student informer for MI5, or burgling CPGB offices as a full-time servant of the state. With the Cold War a metaphor for the struggle between liberalism and the Left — a bloody metaphor if you were Vietnamese — le Carré’s novels’ anti-Communism has a clear domestic corollary. Why raise the specter of a Communist “mole” in the British state a decade after Kim Philby in Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, when the working class has just deposed Edward Heath’s government and your former M15 colleagues are smearing Labour PM, Harold Wilson as… a Communist mole? Tinker Tailor is as much an elegy for an establishment-dominated, pre-democratized, prewar Britain as is Brideshead Revisited.

For liberals, the repressive Soviet regime offered the consummate bogeyman to scare children with socialism — personified in le Carré by Smiley’s Moriarty, the arachnid Soviet spymaster, Karla. The Eastern climate also presented the convenient metaphor of coldness: not as in lack of a hot war (again, see Vietnam) but as in inhumanity (again, see Karla, thus Communism). So Smiley — tubby, bespectacled, perennially wronged by his wife, warm, human — is the defender of decency, le Carré’s secret code for the liberal status quo.

The only time an alternative ideology is given voice in his novels is via the East German Stalinist Fiedler, in the stunning The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Communism here is, as per O’Brien in 1984, cold, utilitarian means, idealistic ends invisible, unheard. They always are in le Carré.

Elsa Fennan, in le Carré’s undervalued debut Call for the Dead (1961), so convincingly pretends to be anti-Communist that while the plot is “solved” by the supposedly mild Smiley murdering her demonic coconspirator Dieter Frey, the mystery of Fennan and Frey’s motivation remains resolutely unresolved. More egregiously, the leftists of the 1968 student movement are horseshoe theorized into neo-Nazis in A Small Town in Germany.

What then of Bill Haydon, the Philby-channeling “mole” of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Haydon’s decision to sell secrets and soul to the Soviets is depicted as the aristocratic dilettantism of a wrong’un. The best he can manage is that he “hates America very deeply.” Frankly, his creator didn’t seem to feel much better about it, America often getting the blame for the West’s excesses (as in Honourable Schoolboy, or 2008’s A Most Wanted Man).

Smiley’s Communist nemesis Karla’s motivation is as lacking in idealism as his mole: largely because he never utters a word across the three volumes of the trilogy to which he gives his name (The Quest for Karla). Karla’s silence is a highly effective dramatic device in his dealings with the lugubriously talkative Smiley, but it does rather weigh the argument in the West’s favor. Especially when, in the final volume, Smiley’s People (1980), Smiley’s quest for Karla is executed corpse by corpse.

Le Carré’s fulminations against the Iraq War and Britain’s Eton-dominated establishment have enhanced this “radical” reputation and were certainly refreshing amidst the chattering classes’ mogadon compliance over the last twenty-five years. Yet that le Carré taught at Eton, sent his sons to public school, and took a very public stand against Corbyn’s Labour, counts for little in the current goalpost-shifting climate, itself often as confounding as le Carré’s most elaborate double-bluff plot twists.

Nevertheless, for leftists, le Carré’s work offers a brilliantly observed and narratively compelling insight into the British ruling class and into the consuming liberal ideology of anti-Communism. It also offers an unrivaled insider guide to the contradictions of liberalism itself, personified by Smiley’s rueful and perennial struggle between ruthlessness and mildness. Both he and le Carré will be missed.