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Summary Article: Le Carré, John (pseud. of David John Moore Cornwell)
from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

The most respected British spy novelist of the 20th c., Le Carré uses espionage as a metaphor to examine themes of widespread betrayal and corruption in contemporary life. Le Carré has called the spy novel “the collective couch where the subconscious of each nation is confessed,” and raised the status of the genre, pitting his gritty authenticity against what he saw as unrealistic glamor and caricature used by writers like Ian FLEMING. While he enjoys popular success, Le Carré’s complexity has also been compared favorably to that of Joseph CONRAD. Writing under the pseudonym John le Carré because of the necessity, as a Foreign Office employee, to disguise his spynovelist identity, Le Carré became the foremost British novelist of the Cold War, promoting obsessive awareness of double agents, or “moles” (a term he popularized). Hallmarks of Le Carré’s style are colorful dialogue and minute analysis of intelligence casework. The actual aims of espionage operations are often vague or secondary; primary are bonds between characters and attention to investigative detail.

Le Carré’s father, a charming but manipulative con artist who fronted dozens of nonexistent businesses, provided the model for one of Le Carré’s most memorable characters, Rick Pym in A Perfect Spy (1986). Le Carré’s mother left the family; he did not meet her again until he was an adult. Family is a source of pain in nearly all of Le Carré’s novels. Mothers are distant and marriage usually disastrous. Like Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy, Le Carré went to Europe in his teens, studied languages at the University of Berne, and did army intelligence work in postwar Vienna. In the 1950s, he took a first in modern languages at Oxford. In the early 1960s, he joined the Foreign Office, serving in Bonn. The extent to which the Foreign Office provided cover for intelligence work has been much debated, but Le Carré has admitted to some spying.

His first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961; repub. as The Deadly Affair, 1964) and A Murder of Quality (1962), were murder mysteries rather than espionage thrillers. They do introduce Le Carré’s most famous spy, George Smiley, who appears in eight novels. Smiley’s character is completely realized on the first page of Call for the Dead: he is short, fat, shy, and repeatedly compared to a toad. Described as “breathtakingly ordinary” by his incongruous wife, the beautiful Lady Ann, Smiley stands in opposition to the heroic stereotype of the spy. Like his creator, Smiley is a firstrate linguist with a particular interest in German culture and literature.

Smiley has a minor role in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), Le Carré’s first secret service story and most influential novel. Alec Leamas, a British agent, is sent on one last mission before retiring, or “coming in from the cold.” Control, head of the Circus (Le Carré’s name for the British Intelligence Service), uses Leamas as a mock defector to East Germany. Leamas is unaware that Control’s actual aim is to protect a double agent, the brutal Mundt, highly placed in the East German spy service. Leamas and his lover are shot at the symbolic Berlin Wall, site of several of Le Carré’s most vivid scenes, while Smiley looks on helplessly.

Although bleak and labyrinthine, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was an enormous critical and popular success and Le Carré left the Foreign Office to write full time. The two spy novels that follow, The Looking-Glass War (1965) and A Small Town in Germany (1968), display an increasing pessimism about both political and personal ethics. They were less successful, and in 1971 Le Carré published an experimental novel about an unorthodox romantic triangle, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, leaving the thriller genre and showing instead the influence of James JOYCE. Much of the response was negative, and his next book returned to the character of George Smiley.

The ambitious style of The Naive and Sentimental Lover did influence the books that followed. The three novels in The Quest for Karla trilogy are leisurely and expansive, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley’s People (1980) are considered among Le Carré’s best. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley traces a mole at the Circus’s highest level who has been passing information to Moscow Center, the Soviet Union spy service. Working against elements in the British establishment that would rather not reveal the depth of the treachery, Smiley unmasks the Circus’s second-in-command, charismatic aristocrat Bill Haydon. Haydon’s treachery is at two levels: he seduces Smiley’s wife, the chronically unfaithful Ann, at the same time as he destroys government faith in the Circus’s entire network. The reputation of the trilogy’s middle book, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), has not fared well. It was one of Le Carré’s first novels set outside Europe and seems too thoroughly researched; details about southeast Asian war zones become overwhelming. In the last two books of the trilogy, Smiley’s compassion diminishes as he determines to bring down a Moscow Center chief known only as Karla. A doppelganger for Smiley, Karla obsesses him as Kurtz haunts Marlow in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) is Le Carré’s first novel with a female protagonist and its focus is the Middle East. Charlie, an English actress, is used by the Israelis to infiltrate a Palestinian guerilla group. In one of Le Carré’s most acute examinations of double loyalties, Charlie is encouraged by her Israeli controllers to use her immense capacity for affection to bind her to both sides in the conflict. The scrutiny of doubleness is most intense in A Perfect Spy. Magnus Pym spies both for the British and the Czechs and dreads discovery of the self-loathing and emptiness at his core. As the son of a confidence trickster, Pym assumes that any lie is acceptable in his quest to charm and please others. A Perfect Spy contains some of Le Carré’s most effective comic writing. Its memorable, eccentric characters suggest the influence of Charles DICKENS.

The Russia House (1989) and The Secret Pilgrim (1991) finish the cycle of Circus novels. The former offers a relatively friendly look at post–Cold War Russia, its military capabilities a shambles. The latter is Smiley’s farewell, offering anecdotes about past cases. With The Night Manager (1993), Le Carré entered a new arena. His novels from this time concentrate less on politics than on destructive economic power. The villain in The Night Manager is a British businessman who deals arms and drugs. In Our Game (1995), former British spies enlist in the Quixotic effort to help a tiny Islamic nation in the Caucasus trampled underfoot by the great powers. The Tailor of Panama (1996) is a parodic spy story about corrupt or deluded men fabricating intelligence for personal gain.

“The mere fact that communism doesn’t work doesn’t mean that capitalism does,” Le Carré said in the 1990s, and he now reserves special reproach for “bent Brits.” Single and Single (1999) returns to the theme of dishonest father and damaged son. The father is Tiger Single, head of an immoral British bank laundering money for international criminals. The Constant Gardener (2001) is a stinging indictment of Western indolence in the face of third world suffering. Le Carré, who has said that a “sense of colonial guilt” lingers over his writing, targets a pharmaceutical industry greedy for profits and careless of human life. The novel’s hero, Tessa Quayle, is Le Carré’s first convincing feminist character. The novels after the cathartic A Perfect Spy are less ambiguous, less cynical about women, love, and family, and correspondingly exacting in their censure of what Le Carré has called “crimes of unbridled capitalism” in the public sphere.


Bibliography Barley, T., Taking Sides: The Fiction of J. L. (1986); Beene, L., J. L. (1992); Bloom, H., ed., J. L. (1987); Cobbs, J. L., Understanding J. L. (1998); Lewis, P., J. L. (1985); Monaghan, D., The Novels of J. L. (1985)

Sue Sorensen

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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