David Cornwell, known to the world by his pen name John le Carré, died Saturday at 89. His work, stretching over almost 60 years, redefined an entire genre and set the standard against which all political novels of the Cold War and after must be judged. He produced baffling literary puzzles without ever succumbing to mannerism or postmodern trickery, and his moral compass was unwavering.
An agent in the British intelligence services in the early 1960s, le Carré was exposed by notorious spy Kim Philby, thus ending his utility in undercover work. But having already established himself as a successful novelist—a part-time gig he undertook to cover the expenses of maintaining a young family—he was able to transition into full-time writing when his cover was blown.
Starting in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—his third novel but the first to break from the mold of English locked-room murder mystery—le Carré wrote a series of books that mordantly and unsparingly documented the diminished role of Great Britain in the postwar world, and its desperate efforts to make up for its losses in territory and might by leveraging its strong suits in wit, craftiness, and deceit. A patriot in the old, “Little England” sense, le Carré despised what he perceived as his nation’s lapdog posture vis-à-vis America, and he loathed imperialism, exploitation of the poor, and international adventuring in pursuit of vainglory.
Le Carré’s greatest invention was his remarkable protagonist George Smiley, whom he devised as a kind of counter-hero to James Bond. Where Bond was suave, Smiley was clumsy; where Bond was a prodigious lover, Smiley was a notorious cuckold. “Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged,” we are told at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley “was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting.” But Smiley, though absurdly cast against type, emerged as an icon of postwar fiction as the brilliant unraveller of intricate traps that reset themselves to catch their engineer.
Le Carré’s best novels marry form and content by being notionally about complex schemes and plots while enacting for the reader the process of discovery, entanglement, and resolution that his characters undergo. In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley explains to his protégé how his Soviet counterpart, the inscrutable Karla, has inserted a spy in the midst of British intelligence, and constructed a set of chicanes and pitfalls that will snare anyone who tries to pick his way through it:
“Look, I’m not quite there myself, Peter,” Smiley said quietly. “But nearly I am. Karla’s pulled the Circus inside out; that much I understand, so do you. But there’s a last clever knot, and I can’t undo it. Though I mean to. And if you want a sermon, Karla is not fireproof, because he’s a fanatic. And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall.”
This sense of undoing a “last clever knot” is the essence of le Carré’s craft, and central to the pleasure of reading him. As when we read Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle, we feel that we are in the hands of a great puzzle-master when we enter the world of his novels. But he also had a moral sensibility and political gravity that bring him closer to Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene, and a sensitivity to the operations and reflections of human consciousness that at times approaches Henry James. His novels repay multiple readings.
A motif in le Carré’s work is the “halfie,” the in-betweener who straddles multiple worlds, interpreting one to the other, never fully at home in either. From the half-Jewish embassy factotum and Holocaust survivor Leo Harting in A Small Town in Germany (1968) who pilfers British files and meticulously establishes a case against a prominent Nazi war criminal, to the half-Congolese, half-Irish Catholic polyglot interpreter Bruno Salvador in The Mission Song (2006) who is ordered to submerge his understanding of obscure languages at a conference in order to facilitate a British-backed African coup, le Carré’s many mixed characters represent the dual nature of the secret world. And spying, which always implies treachery, infects all levels of human relations, from interdepartmental memos to marriage.
The end of the Cold War did not derail le Carré, because his subject was always the thirst for power and the indifference of the state to the individual, eternal themes that do not vanish because one or the other side is victorious. He was no relativist: le Carré affirmed that certain liberal values—tolerance, freedom of thought and action, democracy—were essential and worth fighting for, though his distaste for American hyperpower and the xenophobia of the European right annoyed critics who thought he was too soft on militant Islam. But his sympathy for underdogs and lost causes was a constant. His two dozen books will outlive us.
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