I Read All 23 John Le Carré Novels

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
May 8 2013 11:31 AM

Confessions of a John le Carré Devotee

I read all 23 of le Carré’s novels. Here’s my full and complete testimony to Control.

Government crest

::::PERSONAL TESTIMONY & DEBRIEF::::

Released by personnel section five in accordance with Her Majesty’s Official Secrets Act to Slate magazine, 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20036. Enacted by ORDINANCE III of 1923 (incorporating ORDINANCE IX of 1934) as amended by Act XXI of 1967; Legal Notice 46 of 1965; &c. &c.

Personal testimony of one Ted Scheinman—formerly a London student (non-radical); at present a writer living in eastern North Carolina. Poses no apparent danger to the Crown.

I’ve been asked by parties unknown—or rather parties very much known, who would rather keep their names out of the evening papers—to scrawl a “testimonial” about my experience reading all 23 novels by John le Carré, né David Cornwell, formerly of the British Secret Service. Instead I’ll offer something different: a free and full confession, in keeping with le Carré’s insistent recourse to the language of liturgy.

Author John Le Carré.
Author John Le Carré

Courtesy of Anton Corbijn

It began on one of the quieter beaches in eastern Long Island. The bright orange Bantam paperback, cross-cut with ominous black stripes, misappropriating that old English nursery rhyme: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “He’s too young,” my father said. My mother said nothing, a neat bit of tradecraft that reliably won fights. I was 11, just back from a stint at British primary school, where fellow-travelers and I first taught ourselves how to play spy. We purchased smoke bombs and hollow pens from amusement shops. We schooled ourselves in dead-letter drops, though I cannot recall what was written in those furtive little notebooks. A campaign of calumnies and disinformation aimed at bringing down our headmistress? All very hard to remember through the fog of war.

I was also pricked by my father’s challenge. How little he knew! For I had done my recon—by which I mean that I’d seen all six hours of the BBC version. Squinting my eyes at the Atlantic, I summoned televised ghosts: Ian Richardson as the dashing Bill Haydon; Michael Jayston as the ever-resourceful Peter Guillam; and Alec Guinness as George Smiley himself, once and future majordomo of the Secret Service. There was no use in trying to shake Guinness from my conception of Smiley. I wasn’t the only one. “George Smiley, whether I liked it or not, was from then on Alec Guinness—voice, mannerisms, the whole package,” le Carré wrote in an introduction to Smiley’s People. Imagine that: your prize creation, stolen by an actor! But we were hip to the world, this author and I. Impersonation and identity theft are bywords, in our line of work.

I remember how a paperback would arrive every two or three years, raised letters protruding in the grand mass-market tradition, nearly three-dimensional, much like the characters inside. I would run my hands over these bulbous letters. They were trying to tell me something other than what was written; they were code; they were struggling to escape their bindings and defect. With the arrival of each novel, the murmurs would begin: What’s he on about now? Another Iraq conspiracy? More Cold War nostalgia? Reviews come forth: A sturdy enough effort—not up to the standard of his Soviet-era masterpieces, naturally, but points for perseverance, old chum. The novel, buoyed by its balloon lettering, floats quickly to the top of the Times best-seller list. A film is rumored. It’s often quite good.

But even from a young age, I could tell there was more than politics, class, and acts of stratospheric treason to be found in these pages. I adored the psychological acuity with which he roamed his characters’ heads, something that set him apart, in my estimation, from Eric Ambler and John Buchan. And that absurd nom de plume! John le Carré, like some addled saint, “John the Square,” holed up in a Cornwall fastness composing cryptic dirges for his country.

My task was to break the cipher.

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**

These childhood enthusiasms—“indoctrination,” I suppose you could say—left behind the sense of a thick-and-thin kinship between me and the author, not least because le Carré is such a meticulous exegete of the glimmering imagination of children. I suspect that a love of mysteries, of what le Carré calls “the secret world,” is a thing often forged in the first years of life. The novelist, apparently, agrees: His protagonists are more often than not orphans, seekers from their first moment of awareness, and le Carré conjures the limitless faith of youth with a poignancy reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Orphans make awfully good joes (def.: field agents who report to the fifth floor), and they make equally good recruits as characters. Le Carré’s favorites are the self-proclaimed men without a country, who eschew the cant of jingoism along with inherited notions of what to buy, where to summer, and so on. Solitary from childhood, they become watchers, listeners, mental note-takers. They hunger for a home, either real or ideological. “I am ready to give up half of what I believe in exchange for one clarifying vision,” says Sasha, the crippled German idealist in Absolute Friends (2003). These characters contrive faith—in Christ, in Lenin, in Mammon. Pick a god, any god. Maybe it’s Control on the fifth floor of the Circus, the fictional HQ of the British Secret Service. Maybe it’s Mohammed. Maybe it’s Trotsky. Maybe it’s all three at once, in which case the Circus has a novel-worthy problem on its hands.

**

I have been living my cover as a scholar and itinerant word-peddler for the past decade, and my list of “persons of interest” has evolved to include such known subversives as Jonathan Swift and the second Earl of Rochester. But I always maintained my connection with the contemporary “secret world,” decoding P.D. James and Colin Dexter under cover of night. On a nostalgic impulse, and with the suspicion I had missed something, I also began to reexamine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who remains a person of interest to le Carré, as well.

In 2004, le Carré wrote a rich, technical foreword to a two-volume annotated edition of Sherlock Holmes:

“Reflect for a moment on the cunning with which Doyle places the reader mid-way between his two great protagonists. Holmes the towering genius is miles ahead of us, and we know we shall never catch him up. We aren't meant to, and of course, we don't want to. But take heart: for we are smarter by a mile than that plodding Dr. Watson! And what is the result? The reader is delightfully trapped between his two champions. Is there anywhere in popular literature a sweeter portrait of what Thomas Mann sonorously called the relationship between the artist and the citizen? In Holmes, we are never allowed to forget the artist's urge towards self-destruction. Through Watson, we are constantly reminded of our love of social stability.”

“Sweeter,” “sonorously,” “delightfully”—see how le Carré brims with readerly enthusiasm even as he delivers valuable counter-intelligence on the Holmes-Watson dynamic. The method le Carré identifies above—containing the reader as a means to keep him or her reading—is more complicated in his own novels, rarely hewing to the neat linearity of Holmes–reader–Watson. In le Carré, protagonist and reader alike are buffeted by forces beyond their control, usually chasing one thing while fleeing another, Peter Pan and the pirates all over again.

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