There’s no getting around John le Carré. He is the man who did more than anyone else to invent the way we think of Cold War cloak-and-dagger stuff, the novelist who invented the Father Brown of the spook trade, the saintly George Smiley – so transfiguringly impersonated by Alec Guinness on television. At once informing and plugged into the popular imagination, le Carré belongs in a weird category: he is one of those popular writers who is so manifestly superior and has, as a consequence, such a hold on our imaginations – and at a residual level how we conceive of the world (or used to) – that he doesn’t seem simply a romancer like Ian Fleming or Agatha Christie or J.K. Rowling, but a formidable writer who has used a popular medium, the novel, and a knack for sheer readability, to conjure a world we acknowledge as true, in prose we think of as impressive and fine.
Yes, but once we concede that, there are further questions. Do we think of le Carré as a figure like Raymond Chandler, creating glorious yarns in a familiar idiom and according to a particular grid, writing novels conformable to comfort and taste, but with the glory of a literary polish and the suggestion – no less pleasurable for being phantasmal (more so in fact) – of depth via plays of light and flattering mirrors? Or do we see him, as he might ideally wish to see himself, as the true heir to Graham Greene, forging a high and moral art out of the moral dubieties of a grey and dodgy world? Is he, in short, a real novelist, or is he a high-powered hack? And how important is the distinction? Does he just knock it for six?
Well, there are two recent books to ponder. A new thriller, A Delicate Truth, an absolutely up-to-the-minute in the evocation of the kinds of anxieties and undecidables that hover around the Edward Snowden enigma (as I write the fugitive beneficiary of Moscow’s games with America), and the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the book that convinced the world John le Carré was more than a writer of spy novels, but an author everyone had to read.
Within a couple of years of its publication, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was made into a film with Richard Burton, who was one of the most famous actors in the world when it was released in 1965. That is one of the paradoxes with le Carré: he inhabits the populaire so totally that the interpretation or version he provokes can have a riveting authority that outshines or surpasses the original. And not just in the way that the Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bonds were ‘iconic’ (to use the word le Carré used to describe Alec Guinness’s Smiley), but in the sense that they represent versions of the same thing, but with a greater power, like Baudelaire translating Poe (or whatever – the King James Bible giving a lift to the Koiné of the New Testament, perhaps). In any case, it’s the Spy wot dun it. Who could forget Martin Ritt’s film in stately black and white, with Burton’s face gaunt and his voice graven, with Claire Bloom as the hapless lovely librarian girl and Oskar Werner, the great Viennese actor, as the German-Jewish spymaster, so gentle, so besieged?
It’s interesting that very early on le Carré was filmed as if he were Dickens – that is, as an original so beloved that it imposed a literalism on the medium (this is a trick J.K. Rowling, too, has pulled off, though not, perhaps, with quite the same luxurious transcendence, Maggie Smith aside). It is only with the passage of time and the evidence that the end of the Cold War was his Waterloo (as the Kennedy period had been his Austerlitz) that we have started to have ‘versions’ of le Carré that are skeletal and skimpy, such as the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which Gary Oldman’s Smiley is inexplicably drab where Guinness was mysteriously mild.
So there is a sense in which The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was an instant classic, like Psycho or A Streetcar Named Desire. How does it stand up? It is the work of a man who has already written Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), which are thrillers of the first rank without making the reader think that she has hit something like The Moonstone or Pudd’nhead Wilson or The Red Dragon – works that break the mould. But more than anything le Carré had so far written, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a work of great moral power. It is full of complex, ambivalent emotion and a sense of the supremely pitiable, maybe even tragic, nature of human life.
A tough secret agent, Leamas – hard-drinking, cool to the point of frigidity in the ruthless dimness of his views, exceptionally intelligent (convincingly so, indeed), though not an Oxbridge intellectual or la-de-da or a spoiled don – is recruited to cause chaos in the ranks of his East German opposite numbers. (The fact that Leamas is such an anti-hero-type – so classless, speaking accentless German, but not being a public school boy – made it the perfect role for Burton, who had been Jimmy Porter in Tony Richardson’s film of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and whose stony, just perceptibly Welsh voice was too dynamic and tough to come across as ‘posh’.) There is a long scene where Control, with braying donnishness, puts it all to Leamas, who, like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes in William Empson’s characterisation, comes across as a ‘not very successful man’. So Leamas goes to seed in order to lay his plot. He works in a theosophical library where he meets a nice young girl, who happens to be a communist. At the same time, he is recruited by a gayish chap, who is the first mover in the scheme for him to defect. Before this, he has prepared himself by acting drunk and assaulting a grocer, which gets him a short prison term. He is a character who takes things hard and who finds the world hard. And he is, in his stoical way – all games and counter-games aside – something of a hardened case. Or, if you like, he is a bit of an existential hero in a world that is without much in the way of amenity or kindness or clearcut comforts and suavities.
It is a ‘cold’ world and a world where a spy can come in from the cold by changing sides. No discussion of le Carré’s signature book should disclose the details of a plot, which is both genuinely surprising and has a chaste and lucid geometry. But the characterisation, while being in some sense subdued to the mechanism, is vivid. Leamas is a hard-boiled hero who is still heroic, because under it all he is capable of human feeling – capable of love, though he hardly wants to know its name. The girl is well, if conventionally, observed. We get a complex and dramatically vibrant, if understated, sense of the finenesses and weaknesses of the Jew, Fiedler, and the Nazi, Mundt, and of the terrifying complexity of the vast webs that link and sever this world of people who play with the paradoxes of the knight errant and the traitor.
There is a lot of masculine, plot-heavy complexity in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but there is also a stark, not quite parodistic story about human value in a politically dehumanised world. The thriller-ish scintillation and the human drama is handled in a way that is masterful but modest. If the story tilts a bit in its vision toward Graham Greene (minus God, with less explicit dark night and angst), the rather chaste style of the narration, the bareness and economy of the manner, constitute a flawless medium for Leamas’s cold, Burtonian demeanour, and for the sharp workings of the story – which, while not being Sophoclean, end in unforgettable pity and terror. It is a book with some affinity with Orwell – its implicit politics would seem to lean left, if le Carré did not exhibit such a horror of ideology and the capacity of systems to corrode human beings. A novel of matchless grace and power and authority, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is greater than the sum of its parts, and it carries absolute conviction because it is a farewell to the inanities and the deep charms of the spymaster’s caper. For a moment at least, in the compositional grandeur of its small-scale black and white images, that is what the le Carré universe looks like in this one-off masterpiece.
The smart new anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has a musing introduction in which le Carré talks with an ambivalent disingenuousness about being a spy attached to an embassy in Germany:
I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 under intense unshared personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them for publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.
As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving with me nothing to do but watch in a kind of frozen awe as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.
Anger because from the day my novel was published I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.
This is a very attractive, almost gorgeous essay and it has the le Carré hallmark of very companionable self-dramatisation. He is a naturally histrionic writer and at his best he takes on an effortless sense of drama. He can do anything with a riveting parade of panache, so that the prowess of the writing is almost as interesting as the thing depicted – though this is also, by its nature, liable to be intensely interesting because we are (with whatever admixture of fine grey naturalism) in the vicinity of the Great Game. It is le Carré’s ability to pass through the labyrinth of intelligence and counterintelligence that makes him such a wizard of a storyteller, up there with John Buchan, if not Graham Greene.
The glimpse of the epiphany in which le Carré conceived of Leamas is a bit Greene-like. There is a case for saying that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the one great le Carré book because Leamas is the man of action who believes, paradoxically, that all actions are limited. He believes that the only redemption that can befall anyone in a world of necessities, a world of whiskey priests and tales of two cities, is that which comes like an act of grace; that for anyone as straightened and up against it, with a creed that barely extends beyond whiskey and kindness, the only goodness is in death and the only hero is the martyr.
Of course, le Carré went on to create a different kind of hero and a different kind of detective-priest. In the process, he saw his capacity to write potential drama transformed. Because in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), he created George Smiley. Before he had finished, he knew he was writing a character who would be played by Alec Guinness. Anyone who gets hold of the DVDs of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People will hear le Carré talking with enthrallment about the business of working with Sir Alec and finding that the actor had not only transfigured the character, but that he had come to realise he had been writing for Guinness.
The detail is fascinating because le Carré has always been the suavest kind of trashmeister, the most urbane and literate of yarn spinners, with a quality of yarn that does not insult the intelligence but challenges it as it weaves and winds. But he is not, at the end of the day, Graham Greene. You can make at least a debater’s case that Graham Greene is the last great master of narrative momentum who was also a great literary artist, in the sense that he wrote bestsellers that could be read primarily for the satisfactions of their plot. They were unputdownable in the perfectly ordinary sense that you wanted to know what happened next, but they were, at the same time, works of art with their own authenticity, their truth and depth of moral feeling, their quality of life.
Le Carré can do it all. There is a high literacy and an executive brilliance to the description and the action in his novels. There is also a real vivacity and skill and a vibrant instantiation of typology in his characters. But they tend to be at their least successful when they toy with introspection or explore depth or complexity of feeling. So was Leamas a one-off, then – a Rembrantian sketch of moody truculence and stoicism waiting for Richard Burton? And is vintage le Carré such an empowered trashmeister because, in George Smiley, his priestly Guinness-transfigured investigator of spies, he stumbled on his martyr figure, and in doing so found his saint? And is the clue to both characterisations the glitter with which they ask to be fleshed out by great actors?
None of this is to deny the power of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and what le Carré achieved with the mature Smiley. If The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the novel in which le Carré brings his early method to its highest point of accomplishment, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the one in which he maximises the magic of his bewitching command of complex plot development. In the resurgent Smiley, he creates a character who is equal to the plot’s ratiocinative unravelment: a superbrain and a sage, but also a profoundly human, deeply likeable and residually frail figure. Rotund and retired, busily reading his Grimmelshausen, Smiley is the ‘verray, parfit, gentil knyghte’. He is the man of honour who rides under the banner of honesty. What was Newman’s definition of a gentleman? Someone who would never deliberately inflict pain. We need Smiley and his gentleness because this is a world of such fantastical dark corners. It’s worth remembering that in terms of the old rhyme, Smiley is the beggarman: a god or angel, a drawer of the great bow, is liable to look humble. Indeed, humility is his second, if not his first nature. Are we not taught, blessed are the meek?
The plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is concerned with the mole at the heart of the Circus, the central intelligence service. But this is a spy story with a deliberately enriched, quasi-panoramic texture. There is Jim Prideaux, teaching at his prep school and befriending the troubled boy. We know he is the one time soul brother of Bill Haydon, the most glittering and T.E. Lawrence-like of the figures in the Circus. There is also the Scottish Chief Percy Adeline, the chameleon eastern European slitherer Toby Esterhase, and the bluff London ex-don, Roy Bland. There are revelations about an Australian spiv and two-way spy named Ricky Tarr, and a rather plangently dramatised episode that recalls Smiley’s long-ago interrogation of his opposite number, Karla, the Russian master spy, who comes to possess the cigarette lighter that Smiley’s wife Ann had inscribed to him.
Ann is characteristic adornment to the new world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Because she is a kind of willowy witch of infidelity, she complements the sense of Smiley’s heroism. She radiates the glamour he so singularly lacks, yet she is also a kind of grace note, a trophy that underlines the sorrows that trail along with his saintliness. It is a brilliant stroke to give Smiley an unfaithful wife who is also a part of the furniture of the book, like an old master glimpsed on a living room wall. That she was played in the television version by the great Siân Phillips is exactly in tune with the superadded lustre of the book’s characterisation.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a kind of epic representation of – however odd it may sound – the cosiness of British life in the midst of a nightmare world where roads cross, dreams go haywire, and ideology is just a dead hymn to sing by. It is interesting in this respect that Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality are essentially detective stories in something like the classic British mode. They are jigsaw puzzles of intrigue and they perform their dance of injunctions in the face of worlds of comfort and calm: the immemorial playing fields of Eton – the playing fields of a mythical England of the mind, in any case. In that sense, they are compatible with the vicarage or country house style of murder mystery, in which a world of order, a blessed land, is violated and the sleuthing knight errant (disguised as a toff with a monocle, a bumbling priest, an old lady, or a Belgian prat) comes in to perform the rites of exorcism, dispel the demon or slay the dragon.
What complicates all this and makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy such a rich and surprising book is that the essentially imaginary garden (if we may transpose Marianne Moore’s category of poetry to the related one of romance) has so much of the suggestion of real toads in it. Or to put it another way: if the toads are not real, the types are, or seem to be. The old military types who like a tipple, the quivering schoolmasters, the young Turks, the old dears. Remember Beryl Reid as Connie, the Oxford Don who had been a high priestess of the Game, in the television version. In its lightning insinuation, her jewel-like cameo seemed even to outshine Guinness. And if it was better than the book, because of the absoluteness of the human instantiation, it could not have been so good if le Carré’s writing had not laid the foundation. He is a brilliant observer and one of the great celebrators of the ‘nursery land’ of British life. There is a passage somewhere in which Auden complains about the nicknames, the staginess, the air of everyone having been to school with everyone else, the unbuttoned chumminess of English establishment life. Le Carré makes love to this with such vengeance that it is hard not to see it as part of the deep mystery of his charm. What was it that Cyril Connolly said in Enemies of Promise? That life after Eton could be a bit of a letdown to the golden boy.
It is significant in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold that Leamas is an outlander. Nominally Irish in the book, residually Welsh in the movie, he belongs to a broader, far less comforting sense of a Britain without class borders. The way the book pivots into art almost by misadventure relates to this. The Circus world is an arena of cool distance to Leamas, and it is part of le Carré’s tinniness and the brilliance of his opportunism that he should have hit on an anti-hero, a classless protagonist – a tough, terse, Jimmy Porter by the Berlin Wall figure – who could embody the wintry discontents of the Cold War because he had, like his nation, such a powerful implicit sense of the scarred desolations of the hot one.
In le Carré’s next book, Smiley’s People (1979), the Alec Guinness characterisation of Smiley is already in place like a myth or a gift. This is the other novel Guinness did as a miniseries for television. It concentrates on Smiley as a monk warrior intent on, and obsessed by, the shadow of his old nemesis and opposite number, Karla. The head of Moscow Station, Karla is Smiley’s ‘semblable’ and ‘frere’. He is the formalised and feted antagonist in the deadly duel, the most charismatic figure, apart from Smiley, in this middle-period goldmine le Carré, and the one who casts the longest shadow in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Smiley’s People is a heavier and greyer book than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and discernibly preoccupied with the question of honour. Smiley goes to see an operative in Germany after contacting a man who owns a nightclub. When the latter hears what has happened to his friend, he says to Smiley: ‘I ask you as a soldier.’ We are almost in the realm of the Teutonic Knights. Ann is dancing like a mist around the periphery of the action (her great affair has its part in Karla’s scheme), but there is also a disturbed young girl who must be cherished and who is close to the centre of the cares of Smiley’s antagonist.
Much of the writing in Smiley’s People is very fine indeed. Le Carré inhabits the figure of Smiley like a destiny. It is as if Guinness made him realise what was implicit in Smiley: that he is a priest of the Great Game, an ascetic, and that the enforced loneliness of his separation from Ann is the insignia he must wear to be a knight who believes in the code of chivalry that binds him to his foe. It is significant, certainly it is symbolically neat, that the ultimate game should involve the figure of a girl, a daughter who stands for a love that is beyond the treacheries of sex and friendship. At some level, these highly intelligent novels of espionage, with their very masculine display of hard knowledge, of great factual armouries of information (designed to test the little grey cells of the less sentimental sex), hit up against the rocks of what a girl might mean to a man. In the case of Smiley’s People, it is the bond between father and daughter. The great scene at the checkpoint with Karla is the reductio ad absurdum of Smiley’s world. The childless Smiley and the great antagonist: the master spy who has this daughter as his hostage to fortune.
It is the archetypal scene in le Carré – comparable in its quieter, more comical way to the terrible climax of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It is done with remarkable skill. It is also an endgame. The book seems to be called Smiley’s People because it honours the hearts of those Smiley has loved, including his intimate enemy. It is a magnificent elegiac protraction of what was implicit in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it underlines that Smiley is now a man of grace and a seer – not least because the Guinness characterisation made it so overpoweringly implicit. Smiley can no more have a private life than Father Brown can. He is, if you like, a coat that Guinness puts on, as he will put on the Jedi gear of Obi Wan Kenobe. Although Smiley has an inner life, he manifests it like the disembodied journeying voice of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: ‘You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.’ The privacies he cherishes belong to others. Even though he plays one last game in exploiting them, this tallies with his belief in what Leopold Bloom in Ulysses identifies as ‘Love … I mean the opposite of hatred.’ But in Smiley’s case, this means he is no longer a character who can develop (if he has ever been). He has achieved the sanctity of being a type.
It’s interesting, in this respect, that le Carré belongs so securely yet so ambiguously to the summits of trash without quite touching the foothills of art. He is one of those writers – Larry McMurtry is another – who tells stories that are full of human feeling and have great curves and pivots of action, but who nevertheless presents us with characters who do not essentially change. This makes him, like Chandler and G.K. Chesterton, a wonderfully entertaining writer. But Smiley is not going to jerk into some new form life. He does not belong with Raskolnikov and Anna Karenina, with Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer. Nor is he a cousin of Henry Scobie and all the self-doubting faith healers of Greeneland. Does he belong with Porphyry in Crime and Punishment? Not quite, though Dostoevsky’s detective is the supreme example of a type who takes on the power of a spectre. No, Smiley belongs with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Father Brown.
The exception that proves the rule is The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), which seems to follow straight on from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Smiley is now the head of the Circus and he is doing all sorts of things that make no sense of his life of the spirit. What, to begin with, is he doing as anyone’s boss? We are told that he has Bill Haydon’s desk carved up; we are told he has left Ann. At one point, some chap is hauled over the coals for sexual peccadilloes and subsequently kills himself. Then Smiley breaks protocol by attending the funeral. The character we know would have done none of these things. Nor does he have any place in the rich, polychrome and aromatic style of this four-square epical novel, with its choruses of Hong Kong journalists and honourable schoolboys in the hills of Tuscany, and its louche, slangy, stagey homeliness of manner. In this big fat middlebrow mouthful of a world, it is as if Smileyville had somehow become a magic pudding: the more you eat, the more it keeps on giving. But that’s not how it works. This is le Carré pretending to do Smiley. This is le Carré being pretentious. For what it’s worth, he seems to have realised the character had jumped the shark.
The later books – some of them, like the new one, of significant distinction – dwell in the suburbs of le Carré’s opinions, but they don’t have any of the forlornness and hallowedness of Don Quixote or the chivalry of Chaucer’s Knight. In The Perfect Spy (1986), le Carré confronted the horror of the memory of his father. Then the Cold War ended like a romance that finishes too happily or too disappointingly for its tragicomic elements to survive as any kind of energy. The texts for Alec Guinness departed and so did the glory thereof, together with the realities into which such romances might breathe.
Le Carré lost something when the Cold War was won by the West. Of course, that must be a shorthand. But it is as though the graininess and grandeur of the world had receded. The later work, the work of the last twenty-five odd years, is different. It is at a lower literary temperature. The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardner (2001) – it is not that they do not reflect moral concerns. They are full of the fire of the author’s opinionation. But the literary landscape they inhabit is no longer mythic. It is no longer a world of order, full of this kind of sadness and that kind of sordor. It is no longer the heart’s country, where flawed men, clutching at honour like a straw, fight a game of poker with Jews and Nazis and Tories and Lefties, never knowing which card is which.
Our Kind of Traitor (2010) – about what? Russians changing sides? – seemed an uncharacteristically depressed performance with great stretches of humdrum writing. The novel before that, A Wanted Man (2008), was an impressive attempt at a contemporary intelligence novel. With its honourable Scottish banker and two sympathetic German intelligence people (a man and a woman) trying to protect a Chechen resistance fighter from the crucifixion of the American label of ‘terrorism’, it was full of colour and sympathy – though, again, the Scottish good guy was never quite convincing when the novel washed us in the stream of his consciousness. Le Carré can be oddly external precisely where he starts getting arty.
A Delicate Truth is a return to form. It’s not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but it is a much more impressive and engaging book than Our Kind of Traitor, and in many ways it has an edge on A Wanted Man. We are not quite in the heartlands of le Carré’s mythic stamping ground, but we are in a place of murky darknesses and grey confusions. We are in the realm of the horrors that can be perpetuated under the cloak of security, in a world where every cloak must always come with a dagger, and truth and justice are liable to be stabbed to death. A Delicate Truth could scarcely be more pertinent (for what that’s worth) because it is concerned with the kind of moral anxieties that afflicted Bradley Manning – who was mercifully found not guilty on the capital charge of aiding the enemy, but went down heavily nonetheless – and brings to mind the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Indeed, Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times, recently singled out A Delicate Truth as an allegory of the evils currently in play.
In the first movement of the book, an older intelligence chap – the kind of man you might imagine played by the late Eric Porter (Soames Forsyte in the sixties BBC Forsyte Saga) – is contacted by his Scottish political overlord and made to take part in a totally hush-hush anti-terrorist operation with a group of SAS-style operatives. The action is ghastly, haunting and immoral. Although the hero is complicit, neither he nor the tough Welshman who commands the operatives consents to the actual atrocity in which they have, at the end of the day, partaken.
Cut to a smart young chap working in intelligence who is the object of sunny attentions from an urbane elder statesman of the Great Game. At a given point, the younger man becomes suspicious of a particular operation of which there is no record. He eventually finds himself linking arms with the honourable servant of the state who found himself involved in the secretive outrage.
It is always wrong to reveal too much of a thriller’s plot, but the unfolding of A Delicate Truth sees the older chap in secret meetings with the Welsh good soldier that are brilliantly shadowed and suspenseful. There are various malign, extramural intelligence forces that speak in the voice of America and seem eventually like masks on the face of Satan. There is also an alliance between the younger hero and the honourable old man’s daughter, which has an attractive enough fictional vitality, and there are scenes of confusion and tumult and bashings and narrow escapes and a general air of premonitory gloom in the face of overwhelming forces – forces that will commit any outrage in the name of security and which control the world with all the tenderness of a sadistic prison warder.
A Delicate Truth is a spritely piece of thriller writing, solidly suave and beautifully nuanced. The self-seeking politician Scot; the noble but disturbed Welsh man of arms; the old pukka sahib who understands duplicity but has the accent of kindness: all of this is done superbly. And it is hard not to like the doughty old hero, knighted for what he considers his one act of infamy (by association). He is drawn with real flintiness and style. In his dour masculine way, he represents the spirit that gave the empire – or the old Labour/Tory consensus that stood up to Hitler, whatever you want to call it – with a familiar and decent distinction.
If A Delicate Truth proves to be le Carré’s swan song, his career will have ended with at least a wisp of its old glory. There is something moving about the most famous trashmeister on earth, the man who invented the very idiom of spy fiction, writing a book like this in defiance of a world that cloaks its darkest deeds in acts of legislative infamy. A Delicate Truth is an aria of agony and if it is true that Barack Obama has a ‘soft spot for John le Carré’, as he claims, then he should shudder at how much this leonine novelist of dark corners is at war with the spectre of all wars on terror – for they will all take on the same licence to assassinate, annihilate and close every record that might hold the powerful to account.
At the same time it has to be admitted that A Delicate Truth, riveting read though it is, is less than the sum of its best parts. It begins in thrilling darkness. It brilliantly reintroduces us to a character we have met before. It summons up apparitions of an earlier action with great power. But it is not ultimately a satisfying articulation of that action. It is so many fragments of outrage, and so many variously realised bits in the face of a confusion (which may be a terrible political cloud of unknowing). It is an old-man’s thriller: partly expert, with an old master’s touch, and partly clichéd, because no new thing breathes in it.
It is a curate’s egg, A Delicate Truth, like much later le Carré, but with a superb quality in its best bits. And there is no gainsaying the impressiveness and the intensity of the outrage that feeds its energies. There is a bleak and pleasing power in this denunciation of the world of our new political masters. How odd to think that the urbane, white-haired le Carré has written a kind of legend for WikiLeaks. But art and its cousin, the higher trash, follow no master – least of all political wisdom. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is beaten out on the old cracked kettle of the honour of thieves and the freedom to love, a right to whiskey and a girl’s love, and the power of sacrifice. It is written to the deep tune of ‘he who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother’; it raises its glass to the fellowship of rogues on the scaffold and to the mercy we can only beg. These are le Carré’s true myths. They are what he thinks as a writer, and the adventures of Smiley are their sublime coda. The flicker of them in a late book, the light of them half a century ago, commands our honour.