John le Carré’s Novels Weren’t Just Spy Thrillers — They Were High Literature

Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Todd Chretien

One year ago today, novelist John le Carré died at age eighty-nine. His talent for turning spy novels into great literature was unmatched.

English writer and spy novelist John le Carré in 1965. (Terry Fincher / Express / Getty Images)

Born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931 to a con man father who ended up in jail — “when he cheated others, he cheated himself” — and an absentee mother, the future John le Carré became a diligent student of nineteenth-century German literature. He was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service while at Oxford and ended up laboring in obscure counterespionage endeavors during the years of the Cold War. His superficial chroniclers — in the absence of any good biography on hand aside from his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel — speak vaguely about interrogations of German and Soviet deserters, his time in Vienna, and the omnipresence of Berlin, that gray city fragmented by interminable plots. The work, confessed le Carré, was conducted in an “inexact manner.”

Being a spy was not enough. He wrote a novel — in longhand, as he always did — which he was forced to publish under a pseudonym because of the official secrets law, obliging him to disguise his anecdotes. His signatures on a nondisclosure agreement forced him to bury his past in anonymity, a circumstance which, in 1961, gave birth to “John le Carré” and Call for the Dead. The action in his first novel played out between British spy George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart, Dieter Frey, two former comrades in arms in the war against Nazism who now found themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War. The book produced the Smiley character — his last name clashing with a profoundly somber personality — who would become inseparable from his creator over the years.

In an opening chapter called “A Brief History of George Smiley,” his exceedingly beautiful wife, Lady Ann, describes him as “tremendously vulgar” and then takes off with a Cuban race-car driver. In ten masterful pages, le Carré deploys a mix of innuendo and the most outlandish commentary to detail the odd lot who surround his protagonist, painting a picture of Smiley as a “sentimental” and impassioned lover of England (owing to his extended time abroad), a man who flees from the “temptations of friendship,” a son of Oxford recruited by his emeritus professors, and an instructor who taught in Germany — rounded up by the secret service at the end of the war.

Le Carré lent Smiley a considerable amount from his own life; not Smiley’s corpulence, his “frog-like” appearance, or his insomnia, but a good part of his past, to be sure. Years later, le Carré would say, “A good writer is not an expert in anything besides himself. And with regards to this matter, if he’s smart, he’ll keep his mouth shut.” The novel appeared in the movies as The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet.

Next came A Murder of Quality. His readers categorized it — as they had his first — as a “police procedural with spies,” a violation of genre purity — thereby demonstrating that shuffling books from one canon to another is all such generic purists are good for. Murder tells the story of a killing in the residence hall of an old British institution “founded by some obscure monks.” But great success had to wait until his third novel emerged in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Divided by its wall, le Carré made Berlin his narrative subject, thus realizing a vision of disillusionment. In the mouth of his central character, the spies are “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?” In a later confession, le Carré was more sparing: “This profession does not live in the real world, it only visits it.” George Smiley, in what Graham Greene called “the best spy novel I’ve ever read,” would be only a supporting character. The success of the novel — and later the Martin Ritt film starring Richard Burton — allowed le Carré to leave his old job behind, professionalize himself, and buy a country house in the Swiss Alps.

The English have been addicted to the Great Game since the nineteenth century. In an aristocratic society that frequently despises nonacademic intellectual work, spying is, curiously, not to be taken lightly. Rudyard Kipling began the trend, but Graham Green and Eric Ambler have also written about it. But is there anything ideological at stake in the deadly duel between the intelligence agencies? There’s little show on the Soviet side, burned out by endless purges, cynical doublespeak, authoritarianism, and a society based on bureaucratic privilege. And there’s not anything more on the British side, with its disaster of colonial racism and its mistreatment of the working class — perhaps aside from defending five o’clock tea and a petty-bourgeois version of freedom.

Along with these last two, there most likely lingers for le Carré the immediate memory of the abundant nationalism that emerged from the ashes of the London V-2 bombings, the population’s wartime heroism, and its marvelous resistance against Nazism, not to mention the common people’s extermination in the Russian occupied zones. But what really remains is a soft cynicism, the game of masks, and deception itself — that is, the love of the Great Game.

Articles, like dogs and novels, have a life of their own. I intended to gather only a few sources for a brief reflection on le Carré, but my plans have been spoiled. I have a whole shelf dedicated to le Carré, and some time ago, the books began moving to a little cabinet next to my bed, first one, then two, and then a whole pile of hardcovers formed a tower threatening to crash down on me while I slept.

And thus this humble servant at his typewriter has tempted the kiss of a spider and ended up poisoned, and badly so. What appeared at first a superficial exploration into an author’s work — one whom I have followed with great fidelity for forty years — became an obsession.

In the middle of the night, I would head downstairs and rummage through my crime novel library, flipping through John le Carré’s entire collection. And while browsing through the pages, I discovered forty-year-old subway tickets — and that was the beginning of rereading the books from start to finish. For two weeks, I have gone from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to The Honourable Schoolboy, arriving at Smiley’s People and then returning to Call for the Dead.

For dessert, I read his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. One thousand six hundred pages and three of his films have robbed hours of sleep. It all confirms something I knew, but that was not fresh in my mind: le Carré’s work is high literature.

The books that really hooked me were a trilogy centered around Karla, the director of the KGB’s spy center, starting in 1974 with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Smiley was handed the impossible task of unmasking a Soviet infiltrator at the highest level of the English secret services — who, in passing, seduces Smiley’s wife.

The novel fed off echoes of the 1950s when a powerful Russian infiltration network led by Kim Philby (“Stanley”), Donald Maclean (“Homer”), Guy Burgess (“Hicks”), and Anthony Blunt (“Tony” and “Johnson”) was discovered. Le Carré said as much, “When I wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Kim Philby’s dim lamp lit my path.”

Despite Smiley’s success, the “circus” was dismantled and the British lost a great deal of credibility and trust with their “American cousins.” He followed up in 1977 with The Honorable Schoolboy, where the duel between Smiley and Karla covers half the planet, revolving around the “negative” spaces left over from the impact of the infiltrators in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy; that is, the book focuses on what was prevented from taking place. The story ranges from the life of a retired agent to a splendid view of Hong Kong to the North American debacle in Southeast Asia. Le Carré enters the labyrinth of global misinformation. By breaking the infiltration ring and turning it on its head, Smiley gets his revenge and regains prestige with the Americans, about which, deep down, he seems to give a damn.

He would wrap up the matter in 1978 with Smileys People when George comes out of retirement to tighten the ring around Karla until his eventual downfall. Le Carré illustrates his own maxim, “There is nothing as dangerous as an old spy in a hurry.” And, of course, the story ends on the demarcation line between East and West Berlin.

But the trilogy is not, although we may expect it to be, a series of confrontations between two great characters. Karla, whose real name we never learn, is a man without a voice; he appears only twice in the novels.

The first time is during a flashback in New Delhi that captures the interrogator’s voice (Smiley) and the interrogated (Karla), a Soviet agent who risks being purged upon returning to the USSR. In the end, Karla refuses to give into Smiley and returns to the USSR, but not before stealing Smiley’s lighter. He reappears ghostly and defeated in the third novel set in Berlin. Throughout the trilogy, Smiley senses Karla’s identity, guessing at it through an unframed, blurry passport photo hanging on the wall of his London office.

Nor is the trilogy the story of a single character because, among all the secondary plot lines, George Smiley shies away from the light. Smiley, seen from afar, is the myth, the relatively trustworthy shadowy shadow who restores the empire’s lost pride. But neither are they action novels — although, of course, there is action — or works revolving around intricately ideological debates. “Allowing time to think is dangerous,” le Carré once said, without it being very clear whether he was referring to his character’s spy craft or the texture of his books.

The grace of le Carré’s style lies not in great anecdotes but in the journey through a human landscape peopled by agents addicted to the love of adrenaline or danger or the dilettantes, civil servants, schemers, and Cold War bureaucrats’ impossibly abstract fidelity and professionalism.

The genius of his approach to the narrative is in the hundreds of twenty-page (or two-line) anecdotes with which he builds his novels. There are no functional or purely secondary characters. If someone opens a door, it is not so the central character can enter; the doorman has a name and a history — one which is more or less vulgar or exotic — and it is in these sketches that John masterfully develops his sense of humor and his talent for selecting the perfect metaphor. A sub-secondary character — for instance, the daughter of another secondary character — will take five pages to describe, all of them aiming to offer the reader a small scrap of information. He is the king of peripheral approaches. Never look for the center if you can avoid it.

If Carlos Fuentes in Cristóbal Nonato explores the baroque by the light of the word, le Carré seeks its equivalent by way of the anecdotal framework, its rhythms, its evasion of the central plot, and the search for the secondary that — simply because it is secondary — does not cease to carry tremendous significance.

Like Peter Berling, Stratis Tsirkas, Peter Weiss, and Philip José Farmer, he belongs to an architectural school specializing in anecdotal puzzles.

In Karla’s trilogy, he abandons the plot — as Victor Hugo questioned, does such a thing exist? — to dedicate seven pages to a meeting of the circus’s security cabinet. (The name has nothing to do with any actual circus being derived from a roundabout in London near the intelligence services headquarters.) In doing so, he creates a masterful portrait of the British Empire’s high bureaucracy, made up mostly of moronic or pedantic (or both at the same time) bureaucrats. In Mexico, we would call these gray blurs in charge of obscure budgets and official interests “chile counters.”

Outside of the aforementioned British authors, only Len Deighton, and, at times, Julian Semionov, matches le Carré’s talent for creating great literature in the havens of spy novels. The genre has been mostly gripped by Manichean visions and platitudes, lost in sophisticated cardboard heroes who aspire to nothing more than ordering two olives in their Martini.

After his literary success, le Carré took to shutting himself up once a year in Cornwall to write another novel. “I am not part of the literary bureaucracy,” he observed. The British secret services hate him, Julio Cortázar remarked that his novels are like bricks, CIA-financed magazines loathed his contempt for the silly gringo empire, and Soviet literary magazines were no more enthusiastic.

Le Carré resurrected Smiley with The Secret Pilgrim in 1991. Invited by Ned — a character from The Russian House — to give a lecture at a British intelligence service training school, the end-of-term dinners serve as a pretext for the intersection of reflections, fictional autobiography, and numerous tales of real espionage. And, once more, in his 2018 A Legacy of Spies, Smiley — after a twenty-five-year hiatus — returns to literature.

By the 2000s, it is not that the world of John le Carré still lives but that its characters do, the children of an empire that no longer exists, even if they are being replaced or displaced. The 2003 Iraq War infuriated him (“The United States of America has gone crazy”). If he never liked bankers much to begin with, he liked them even less in his later years; and they were not the only objects of his scorn. In his stupendous The Constant Gardener, le Carré turned his pen on the Russian mafia, arms dealers, and pharmaceutical transnationals in a plot revolving around wealthy corporations testing defective drugs in Africa.

Le Carré explained that his children exerted at least a degree of political influence on him, endowing his later works with not only a critical but hypercritical view of the Western world.

For the same reasons that Jules Maigret will always be Jean Gabin and Sherlock Holmes will be Basil Rathbone, I cannot help but picture Alec Guinness’s masterful version of le Carré’s Smiley — in both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smileys People — vulnerable, tireless, lucid, and very sad, never forgetting to wipe his glasses clean with the edge of his tie. Unfortunately for Gary Oldman — despite all his talent — his portrayal of Smiley in the 2011 movie adaptation of Tinker came second.

For all that, more than simply an article, read this as a thank you to the editors for having forced me to return to Smiley. Now I will go back to sleep.

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Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a novelist and political activist based in Mexico City.

Todd Chretien is an organizer, author, translator, and high school Spanish teacher. He has contributed to several books, including Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics, and is editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution.

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