Books April 2005

Tradecraft

Rightly championed for decades by genre and literary readers alike, John le Carré has written a novel that may appeal to neither camp
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A short and straightforward tale of espionage: today it is hard to imagine such a novel securing critical recognition for an obscure writer. Luckily for John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) appeared at a time when people still wandered freely between the literary and genre sectors, sometimes even forgetting where they were; it felt more like occupied Vienna than Cold War Berlin. Both J. B. Priestley and Graham Greene praised the book in the strongest terms, hardly minding that they were agreeing with people who had enjoyed Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me a year earlier. It wasn't long before the postmodernists arrived on the scene, vowing to obscure the line between elite and popular culture altogether, and in the sense that a towering wall was erected in its place, they certainly kept their word. But by then le Carré's good name had already been established, and both sides still respect it forty years on.

Looking back, the much vaunted break with the 007 tradition doesn't seem quite so clean as all that. Though highly literate, and endowed with greater gifts of observation and imagery than most of today's prizewinners, le Carré is hardly an intellectual writer. Like Fleming, he fawns over his good guys, displays a fierce pride in a conventionally imagined Englishness, and scripts foreign characters according to national type. Also like Fleming, he deals in male fantasy: Alec Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, may have been a snappish fifty-year-old operative, but he was just as interesting to flight attendants as Bond was, and his girlfriend was barely out of her teens. How strange that critics consider it escapist tripe when a dashing young man wins a pretty young woman, and unflinching realism when the young woman invites a nondescript middle-aged man home for no apparent reason at all—though to be honest, I now prefer the latter kind of book myself.

The James Bond novels abound in embarrassments, from gobbets of nonsense presented as hard-won expertise ("the smell of danger … something like the mixture of sweat and electricity you get in an amusement arcade") to absurdly connoisseurish leering at women. Le Carré put a stop to most of these things while finding new ways to make the reader squirm. The occasional burst of iron-manliness is bad enough in itself: "And Jack—dear Jack—you have your marvellous old attaché case, as faithful as the dog you had to shoot." But it is even harder to take when expressed in the primly mournful tone of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, a novel of which le Carré is an avowed admirer: "And Magnus goes. Magnus always goes. Even when a sharp smack across Mary's chops would be the wiser course, Magnus goes."

There are also passages that make one realize how liberated the Bond girls were by comparison:

Then she felt ashamed, because she knew she should have cleaned and tidied. Jumping up, she fetched the carpet sweeper and a duster from the kitchen, and set to work with feverish energy. She found a clean teacloth and spread it neatly on the bedside table and she washed up the odd cups and saucers … "Alec, don't be cross, please don't," she said. "I'll go, I promise I will, but let me make you a proper meal. You're ill, you can't go on like this, you're … oh Alec," and she broke down and wept, holding both hands over her face, the tears running between her fingers like the tears of a child.

The smart reader forgives these little things, because le Carré's best novels are some of the most exciting stories ever written. They are exciting because he wrote them with this goal uppermost in mind. "I would wish that all my books were entertainments," he has said, and to his credit he never uses that word in the shamefaced way that Graham Greene did. So why do "serious" types consider his work to be something else entirely? (An American interviewer sought to compliment him by saying that "entertainment" is "not a word usually associated with le Carré.") The answer seems to be that the very stratagems he uses to make his work exciting have always made it seem quite highbrow as well. Take The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: the gloomy tone lends plausibility to a story in desperate need of it, as gloom has done since Conan Doyle and continues to do in Hollywood. (Fleming knew the principle, and although he couldn't keep his writing joyless enough, one of his choices to play 007 on film was the long-faced Richard Burton—who ended up playing Alec Leamas instead.) But the fact that le Carré's England feels as bleak as his East Germany was interpreted by some as a repudiation of the Cold War mindset and thus of the entire spy genre. Meteorological relativism was taken for the moral kind, and the hero's grumbling about dirty methods pored over as if it betokened a Scobie-like inner struggle. Ever since then le Carré has been the "moral ambiguity" man, though his hero was really just fretting, as the best good guys often do, about sinking to the bad guys' level. Fretting needlessly, I might add: if the author really thought it wrong to trick a totalitarian enemy into executing one of its own intelligence officials (and it sounds like a great idea to me), he would have done a better job of making us agree with him.

In the famous trilogy of the 1970s—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1979)—the gloom was augmented by an element of willful difficulty that made everything seem even more authentic for the reader, and even more serious for the critic. The battle between spymaster Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, Karla, was so complex that it all but required a foldout chart to follow, and the prose often lapsed into a dense combination of Britishisms and spy jargon: juju men were sent spare and graded Persil; they felt like Gordon at Khartoum. At times leCarré seemed not to care whether the average American reader understood him at all, an attitude that never fails to make the average American critic sit up and take notice. The books are still remembered on both sides of the Atlantic for their "sophisticated analysis of moral questions," as a British newspaper recently put it, though one would need to have been raised on a very strict diet of Don DeLillo to find this sort of thing profound:

[Smiley] thought about treason and wondered whether there was mindless treason in the same way, supposedly, as there was mindless violence. It worried him that he felt so bankrupt; that whatever intellectual or philosophical precepts he clung to broke down entirely now that he was faced with the human situation.

Of course, moral issues do not have to be articulated in order to be explored, but at the very least a writer must make readers doubt the hero a bit themselves. Le Carré, however, will not even allow us the critical distance we feel in the presence of Bond, who is described on the cover of a new edition of Casino Royale as "chillingly ruthless." Someone is always reminding us that Smiley is the perfect dear if not the perfect spy, and the cordiality with which his idiosyncrasies are detailed can be downright cloying. His self-doubt—if that's not too grandiose a term for what seems largely a matter of reading German poetry and having the occasional "weep"—is there mainly to recommend him to us, like a metaphysical version of a white hat.

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