John le Carré, 1931-2020

Harry Goodwin 15 December 2020
Image credit: The Wall Street Journal

John le Carré is dead. Chronicler of British decline; realist assassin of 007 fantasy; as terse and brutal a stylist as Larkin or Orwell – the spy novelist was both the most English and the least English of writers, and he remains indecipherable. The obituaries will trace a decent silhouette of his life: first a childhood marked by a conman father and boarding-school rigours, then seasons as a teacher at Eton and a spy in Germany, then marital failure, then sixty years making sense of it all. That silhouette becomes a pencil-sketch in Adam Sisman’s competent biography and in le Carré’s evasive memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Read them when you read him.

Le Carré – whose real name was David Cornwell – was born in a world of empires, class and silence, and leaves behind a world of superpowers, money and noise. Political journalists, who love him, laud his interrogation of deceit and venality in successive historical theatres: barbed-wire Europe, blood-money Africa, demented England. For sure, le Carré was both a political moralist and a political satirist: in his books, a very English aversion to hypocrisy puts paid to no end of English pieties, whether those of national honour, democratic integrity or global significance. He mattered because he told us, in tones as free from nostalgia as from relish, that we no longer matter.

He mattered because he told us, in tones as free from nostalgia as from relish, that we no longer matter.

But not only because of that. Like comparable spectators of decline – Houellebecq, Murakami, either Roth – le Carré was also a sharp portraitist of male emotion. Taking politics as the centrepiece of his oeuvre mistakes its backdrop for its theme, which was love. The most resonant moments in his books are when yearning and fear burst through the fluent, vicious banter between his public-school spies. The title of his 1963 breakthrough ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ alludes to just such a scene. The watchful spy chief ‘Control’ observes to his underling Leamas that

Image credit: The Wall Street Journal‘We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible, of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really. I mean… one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold… d’you see what I mean?’

He continues:

‘I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’s left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.’

The cajoling questions, the prophylactic metaphors, the redundant clauses muting the eloquence: here we have an Englishman trying to talk about his feelings without talking about his feelings. In banishing sympathy and demanding hardness, the shadow-world of espionage pulls English masculinity to the edge of tragedy. And all this comes before Leamas, acting on Control’s orders, seduces an innocent young woman and uses her in a plot against East German intelligence – only to realise Control has betrayed the pair of them. As bullets fall around him at the foot of the Berlin Wall, Leamas dramatically ‘comes in from the cold’. Control was right: it is impossible to live without sympathy.

Le Carré’s novels are full of cynical seductions and cool betrayals, and none more so than his 1974 masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The set-up: a Soviet agent has infiltrated the highest ranks of British intelligence; the retired, impotent spymaster George Smiley has to root him out. The book is not a whodunnit, since it is patently obvious to most of the characters and to the reader who the mole is. Rather, the drama lies in the mystery of why it is not obvious to Smiley, Britain’s best spy even in his dotage. The answer: exploiting Smiley’s hopeless love for his faithless wife Ann, the Soviet spymaster Karla has ordered the mole to seduce her without secrecy. The consequent envy and bafflement and humiliation stops Smiley from seeing straight. To open your heart to sympathy, then, is to open it to betrayal.

It is all very lonely. As Smiley, ‘deceived in love and impotent in hate’, lies in wait inside the mole’s safe-house

‘His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible. He thought of Jim and Sam and Max and Connie and Jerry Westerby and personal loyalties all broken; in a separate category he thought of Ann and the hopeless dislocation of their talk on the Cornish cliffs; he wondered whether there was any love between human beings that did not rest upon some sort of self-delusion; he wished he could just get up and walk out before it happened, but he couldn’t. He worried, in a quite paternal way, about Guillam, and wondered how he would take the late strains of growing up. He thought again of the day he buried Control.’

How good men are at acting – at playing the cynic, the clown, the brute, at pretending they have no thoughts of love. I first read this passage when I was about fourteen, in the library of a boys’ school quite similar to the ones where le Carré grew up and later taught. I was too shy to face the cafeteria, so I used to spend every lunchtime hiding behind the library’s fiction and history shelves, until my mother noticed how much weight I had lost. I would usually pull out a book to pass the time, and after I first tried a le Carré – Our Kind of Traitor, not his best – I never really stopped. His spy stories excited me and fed such curiosity as I had about the world beyond England, but more than that they showed me that I was not alone in the way I felt. That gave me cause for hope.

Gritty realist that he was, le Carré made little use of religion. In taking the measure of such a writer, talk of ‘memory’ and ‘legacy’ seems more than usually trite. And yet, ambushed by such a loss, it seems more than usually difficult to accept this: that there exists on the far side of the grave nothing of warmth or hope or sympathy, only silence and mud. Our lives are shabby, false and short. They mean nothing without love.