“I was always fascinated by the character of Richard Roper. Not because le Carré had added to a familiar type but because he’d subtracted. Take a charming, well-equipped, well-connected Englishman, remove the safety catch that usually comes with that model – honour, restraint, self-effacement – and you have a pretty deadly, psychopathic proposition.”
So Hugh Laurie tells me of his Golden Globe-winning performance as Roper, the Eton-educated, lethally charming arms dealer – who is simultaneously pursued by, and in league with, different factions of MI6 – in the BBC’s 2016 adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Night Manager.
As Laurie puts it, le Carré’s novels – the 25th of which, Agent Running in the Field, is published next week – are literary exercises in espionage, tradecraft in prose: “It’s always seemed to me that these stories about spies are themselves spies. They present as one thing, but act as another in the dead of night.”
Which is to say, le Carré’s tales hide something, deliver a message into a dead letter box, report intelligence by “Moscow Rules”. But what, exactly?
The conventional interpretation of the 87-year-old author’s work – and especially his George Smiley novels – is that they stand as a cultural counterpoint to the escapist national myth of James Bond. While Ian Fleming portrays espionage as glamorous, impeccably stylish and testosterone-charged, le Carré’s world is morally and aesthetically drab, a chess-board of ethical dilemmas, a microcosm of national entropy and decay.
His intelligence service – the “Circus” – is a warren of corridors, misplaced nostalgia and splintered dreams. As Connie Sachs, whose extraordinary mind is the memory palace of the Circus, says in Smiley’s People: “It’s grey. Half-angels fighting half-devils. No one knows where the lines are.”
As a corrective to the fantasy of Bond, le Carré’s fiction certainly does the trick. But it is so much more than that. If you had to force his writings into a genre – and he dislikes being pigeonholed – they are more accurately filed in the “Condition of England” category; as a chronicle of, and running commentary on, the state of the nation in the six decades since, as a young MI6 officer (recently transferred from MI5), he published Call for the Dead in 1961.
Andrew O’Hagan, whose most recent book is The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, is one of many acclaimed novelists and essayists of his generation who believes that, because of his association with spy fiction, le Carré is seriously underrated as a literary figure.
“Think of life without him: we wouldn’t know how occasionally creepy we were as a nation, as a force in the world, or how occasionally brilliant and irreplaceable, and, above all, how characterful. I think he tells us more about what we’re like than half a dozen more literary novelists. We see class, we see schooling, we see government, and the civil service.”
Class is, indeed, a particular fixation in le Carré’s writing – not least because he understands that it is much more porous and flexible than fixed social caste, and also deeply dishonest in its concealments. One of the many reasons why the author bonded with Alec Guinness, whose portrayal of Smiley in two BBC drama serials remains definitive, is that both had escaped deprived backgrounds to wear the camouflage of the English upper-middle class.
In his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl – recently dramatised by the BBC – the young English actress Charlie is drawn into an audacious plot by Israeli intelligence to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group. Le Carré relishes the irony that, in her bohemian group of left-wing friends, it is her background that entitles her to berate them ideologically:
And now and then she was their conscience, bawling them out for some real or imagined crime of chauvinism, sexism or Western apathy. Her right to do this was vested in her by her class, for Charlie was their bit of quality, as they liked to say: privately educated and the daughter of a stockbroker, even if – as she never tired of telling them – the poor man had ended his days behind bars for defrauding clients. But class will out, whatever.
Raised in a country that adores and indulges eccentrics, le Carré understands that our real weirdness is to be found in our ostensible conformity. Lurking within the apparently normal and conventional Englishman, there are often much greater ambiguities, treacheries and emotional displacements.
In what is probably le Carré’s most celebrated novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), Smiley – brought out of retirement to hunt down a Soviet-controlled “mole” operating at the top of the Circus – reflects upon the motivation of the culprit, Bill Haydon, thus: “He settled instead for a picture of one of those wooden Russian dolls that open up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside him. Of all men living, only Karla had seen the last little doll inside Bill Haydon.”
English repression and secrecy are the beams and joists of le Carré’s literary mansion; and it is from this that much of his fiction’s power arises. Secrecy, as le Carré himself (real name: David Cornwell) found while working for the intelligence services, confers its own power and dignity.
But it also compounds isolation and the price of wearing a mask – something the author had grown used to as the son of Ronnie Cornwell, a grandiose crook and war profiteer, imprisoned for insurance fraud. His childhood had been an exercise in traumatic concealment, his education at Sherborne School and Lincoln College, Oxford, a flight from the chaotic reality of his background.
At the heart of the strained, buckling Englishness is a complex relationship with loyalty to one’s country. In Call for the Dead, Smiley’s youthful training as a spy overseas “strengthened his deep love of England. He fed hungrily on memories of Oxford; its beauty, its rational ease, and the mature slowness of its judgements. He dreamt of windswept autumn holidays at Hartland Quay, of long trudges over the Cornish cliffs, his face smooth and hot against the sea wind.”
Yet Smiley’s story is one of progressive disillusionment – a cynicism tempered always by a niggling sense of hope. His long, obsessive and ultimately successful quest for his Moscow Centre counterpart, Karla – “He controls the whole of Russia, but he does not exist” – leads him to deploy the very methods he deplores in his opponent.
The arc of Smiley’s life in service is nothing less than the arc of recent English history. In his most recent (and apparently final) appearance in A Legacy of Spies, as an old man, he tells his now-ageing protégé and Circus disciple, Peter Guillam, that he is no longer sure what is left of his patriotism.
“So was it all for England, then?… There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?” The abrasive reference to Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech did not escape the notice of Number Ten.
This peroration, delivered in a library at the University of Freiburg, acts as a book-end to le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) – a ferocious fictional response to the construction of the Berlin Wall and its terrible human consequences.
Eleven years later, in Tinker Tailor, he is wrestling much more openly with the question of Britain’s relevance on the world stage. Naturally, he gives many of the best lines to Haydon, the compulsive traitor and mole, whom Smiley debriefs at Sarratt, the Circus’s training centre and interrogation house:
“Simply [Haydon] knew that if England were out of the game, the price of fish would not be altered by a farthing… The Suez adventure in fifty-six finally persuaded him of the inanity of the British situation and of the British capacity to spike the advance of history while not being able to offer anything by way of contribution.”
Not that Smiley (or le Carré) would ever have signed up to Haydon’s childish Marxist notion of “history” and its supposedly inevitable trajectory. The author never slipped into moral equivalence, nor forgave the Soviet system for the horrors it had inflicted upon the world.
In life and his work, le Carré celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall for what it was: a stupendous release of human energy. As Smiley tells a group of Circus recruits in The Secret Pilgrim (1991): “It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice. It wasn’t weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we’ve had enough.”
In the same book, however, we learn of “Smiley’s aphorism about the right people losing the Cold War, and the wrong people winning it.”
As le Carré told Time in 1993, he had hoped that Britain and the West might pursue a “new romantic dream”, a plan of colossal restoration to remake the world and dwarf the Marshall Plan. Instead, he watched with disgust at what followed: “a time of absolute moral failure by the West to perceive its own role in the future.”
Which is why it is such a misunderstanding of le Carré’s body of work to suggest that the fall of communism threatened him with literary extinction. On the contrary: while lazier Western intellectuals celebrated the End of History in the early Nineties, his writing took a new and exciting turn as he began to prophesy the tensions, follies and outright crimes of untrammelled capitalism and corporatism.
Long before Naomi Klein, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty made it fashionable to explore the pathologies of post-Cold War globalisation, le Carré was already busily at work on the new problems in his fiction.
In The Secret Pilgrim, a senior Circus officer, Ned, is given a final task – to persuade a rogue tycoon, Sir Anthony Bradshaw, from selling arms in the Balkans and central Africa. Ned fails utterly – “Fuck you. I’m Pharoah, right?” is Bradshaw’s response – and contemplates how his past missions are now mocked by a bleak future: “I had battled against an institutionalised evil [in communism]. It had a name and most often a country as well. I had had a corporate purpose, and had met a corporate end. But the evil that stood before me now was a wrecking infant in our own midst… it was as if Bradshaw had personally stolen the fruits of my victory.”
Robyn Slovo, the South African film producer responsible for the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor, tells me that the author’s fixation with the contemporary and the new is central to his enduring popularity and relevance. “For me, what is so special about John le Carré is that he uses his anger at the betrayals of modern politics and the corruption of ideals within the intelligence services to write so brilliantly, and so movingly, about our modern world. It is that anger and incisiveness that inspired the filmmakers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
This contention is borne out by the themes he has addressed since the end of the Cold War.
In The Night Manager (1993), Richard Roper incarnates the plutocracy of the modern arms trade, aided and abetted by elements of the intelligence service even as he is officially under investigation. “If a bunch of chaps want to make war,” Roper tells the undercover agent Jonathan Pine, “they’re not going to listen to a lot of wet-eared abolitionists. If they don’t, doesn’t matter whether they’ve got cross-bows or Stingers. Fact of life.”
In The Constant Gardener (2001), le Carré delivered a pitiless indictment of big pharmaceutical companies, their excessive power and the complicity of governments – including our own – in their exploitation of developing countries. In A Delicate Truth (2013), he turned to the shady relationship between Her Majesty’s Government and private security contractors and, specifically, the wonderfully-named (fictional) firm Ethical Outcomes.
Speaking to George Plimpton in a 1996 Paris Review interview, le Carré encapsulated his work thus:
“Most of all, [my books] are about the peculiar tension between institutional loyalty and loyalty to oneself; the mystery of patriotism, for a Brit of my age and generation, where it runs, how it should be defined, what it’s worth and what a corrupting force it can be when misapplied. All that stuff is just in me and it comes out in the characters. I don’t mean to preach, but I know I do, and I’m a very flawed person. It’s quite ridiculous.”
Yet, 23 years later, as our institutions are tested to the point of collapse, his point seems anything but ridiculous. Agent Running In the Field is a vividly topical account of British bedlam and betrayal in the age of Brexit and Trump.
As so often in le Carré’s world, a polite English practice – in this case, a game of badminton – lifts the curtain on a stage of broken hope, shocking treachery and a longing for reprieve.
I would not dream of revealing the outcome: suffice it to say that le Carré is as rooted in the contemporary world as a 25-year-old debut novelist. As Nat observes of Theresa May’s government: “A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit.” And now, in real life, the foreign secretary in question is Prime Minister.
As Fintan O’Toole, author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, puts it to me, le Carré’s novels are a majestic catalogue of the long decline of an imperial dream towards the present cliff-edge. “Looking back through the lens of Brexit, we can now see that no one else has anatomised so superbly the loss of faith in the idea of the British state as a force that could command loyalty. This long process may have ended up with the spectacle of a ruling class that has complete contempt for its own institutions, but it is in le Carré that you trace the ways in which Britain as an idea slowly loses its ability to command dutiful obedience.”
A refusal to mellow is an important part of le Carré’s enduring appeal. But rage alone does not explain his greatness, or his long entanglement with the fate of England – from the era of Somerset Maugham and London clubland to the age of digital surveillance and big tech. What keeps us reading is his candour about complexity; his disinclination, in an age of shrill certainties, to offer pat consolations. He knows the truth is difficult.
“There is no one better than a good Englishman,” says a character in The Night Manager, “and no one worse than a bad one.” Which of the two will prevail in the months and years ahead? In this unexpected hour of national turmoil, will Smiley’s disillusionment or his residual hope for his country be vindicated? Now more than ever, we turn to his creator, the sage of the secret world, for the wisdom that comes from a lifetime exploring the shadows.
Photographs Des Willie/BBC/The Ink Factory, Paramount Pictures, Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory, Focus Features/Universal, Getty Images