Le Carré cover blurbs often feel as though an asterisk will descend at any moment: “NOT ONLY THE FINEST SPY NOVELIST OF THIS CENTURY, BUT ONE OF THE BEST NOVELISTS—OF ANY KIND—WE HAVE” (Vanity Fair on The Russia House, 1988); “They keep calling him a spy novelist, but of course he is much more; he is indeed one of a half-dozen best novelists now working in English” (an alarmingly specific number; Chicago Sun-Times on The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977). The business of the thriller is to keep things moving. Le Carré keeps you moving, but he also brings you to furtive rest stops: romantic vistas described in the manner of Thomas Hardy, a roll in the hay with an Amazon from the Circus, or a memory that surfaces like a debt-collector. To his own thrillers, Graham Greene felt bound to affix the conspicuous qualifier, “an entertainment,” which always struck me as somehow apologetic. Le Carré has no such apologies. In any case, as with mine, they would only fall on deaf ears.
My inquisitors grow impatient. I don’t know what they want from me, but they certainly want it, and quickish if you please. How I landed in this hellhole remains a mystery. What’s the charge, I asked—Consorting with a known novelist? Squandering my youth on spy games? Lord knows I’ve committed my share of sins. But if mainlining the complete works of the world’s greatest spymaster qualifies as treason, this full and free confession is one I’m proud to offer. If we have learned anything from latter-day le Carré, it’s that all treason is relative.
The Cold War was among other things an intellectual war. Hence all the academics and boffins in the corpus, and the persistent sense that the Circus functions much like an English department. Raised on righteous gripes about the internecine squabbles of the English department where my mother taught Brit lit, I have since belonged to two such departments of my own (an act of emulation that le Carré could diagnose better than I), and the comparison holds. Not even the keenest academic satirist can match le Carré for meetings; there is an ironic measurement and precision in his descriptions of the bureaucratic that smack of David Lodge and Richard Russo. And all the verbal dueling across conference tables at the Circus, or in Whitehall, or at a safehouse in Gdánsk, becomes as petty and self-serving as the ugliest of academic joustings.
This is no accident. The Oxbridge recruiting network remains a thing of legend; in le Carré, it’s usually a language don who conscripts the agents, his surname inevitably a hyphenate. We’re not talking about engineering students or prodigies in economics; the service was aggressive in recruiting humanities types, usually those who devoted their university years to the modern languages. This sort of espionage-with-a-pedigree is reinforced by the ambient British notion that once you attend Oxford, you never really leave. The novels’ sense of eavesdropping on overgrown undergraduates is especially unsettling if you happen to have gone to a well-regarded Northeastern school and your classmates are now running the free world. (I would happily name names, and my inquisitors would happily redact them.)
But the literary pleasures of such eavesdropping are hard to resist. Le Carré has full command of the wry, richly detailed periodicity of the English sentence. He’s a virtuoso of the espionage dysphemism, my favorite being “the coalition of the belatedly almost willing.” He replicates the rhythms of Whitehall’s creeping administrative jargon; parses it; skewers it. John Updike sang the virtues of Salvo, the narrator of The Mission Song whose polyglot skills make him a dangerous close-listener. But a running commentary on language is a staple in every le Carré book. Readers soon learn to judge a character by how he speaks, or misspeaks. The principal characters are equally attuned to their own words. Toby, one of the protagonists in le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth, has the magic ear:
“As a natural-born linguist with his father’s love of cadence and an almost suffocating awareness of the brand-marks on the English tongue, it was inevitable that he should discreetly shed the last tinges of his Dorset burr in favour of the Middle English affected by those determined not to have their social origins defined for them.”
To define or construct oneself is the goal of these broken characters, and their chief tool is language. Speech, cadence, word choice (the last especially) tell you whether you’re dealing with a Brixton Boy (one of the Circus heavies), a Lamplighter (a legman skilled at tapping phones), a villain, a stuffed shirt, or one of le Carré’s favored (and often doomed) innocents. The novelist adores the German axiom that “To possess another language is to possess another soul,” and le Carré’s characters are always juggling their souls, doing their level best to keep at least one alive.
The end of the Cold War made way for new points of disjunction: Heidelberg, post-Soviet Georgia, the Panama Canal, and, most recently, Gibraltar. What better symbol for the decline of imperialism than a precarious sliver of rock?
A Delicate Truth, Le Carré’s 23rd novel, is a meditation on “corporate rot,” in which multinationals and defense contractors represent the new invisible enemy. Among the corporate rotters are Miss Maisie, a dull, monied, right-wing caricature, and Jay Crispin, le Carré’s dark Gatsby—a “rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from.” Toby Bell, this year’s innocent, finds himself in the unhappy position of exposing a shameful counter-terrorism op that claimed the lives of a woman and her child. Le Carré is tilting at the Tea Party here (by name, no less), but more so at freelance intelligence peddlers and black ops coordinated by an “ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.” Even the acknowledgments are more polemical than usual: “[Thanks] to Clare Algar and her colleagues at the legal charity Reprieve, for instructing me in the British Government’s latest assaults on our liberty, whether implemented or planned.” That word “planned”: ominous, isn’t it?
From his very first novel, le Carré has trafficked in portraits of decline, evoking the grays of post-Blitzkrieg Britain, where rationing (if you recall) didn’t end until 1954. In le Carré, we see as nowhere else the decay of an empire that found its conscience too late and never knew precisely what do with it.
You don’t see this in Fleming.
The narrator of The Secret Pilgrim (1990) writes of Smiley: “George was more than a mentor to me, more than a friend. Though not always present, he presided over my life. There were times when I thought of him as some kind of father to replace the one I never knew.” What we see here is the narrator and le Carré becoming one—the novelist who grew up without a proper father and so created one for himself. There are those who still believe that pablum about how the Cold War’s end killed the novelist’s muse. Are we not still shadow-boxing? When’s the last time you saw your enemy?
In le Carré, everyone builds an altar to something. Perhaps this sordid little document is mine. What the inquisitors do with it I can only imagine.
Whatever you read, this won’t be it.