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John le Carré’s New Novel Arrives at a Very John le Carré Time

The spy novelist comes in from the cold

(BBC)
(BBC)

The headline will say Smiley is back, and the takeaway will be, in a world that increasingly seems ripped from the pages of John le Carré’s novels, the return of one of his beloved heroes couldn’t come any sooner. If we’re all talking about Christopher Steele, we might as well be reading about the Circus.

Reading John le Carré is one of my favorite things to do with my time — from the late-period thrillers like A Most Wanted Man and A Delicate Truth to the Cold War epics Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, and his Jamesian masterpiece A Perfect Spy. David Mamet once said le Carré was one of the greatest novelists writing in English, and I still feel like that underrates him. Word that le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies, is coming in September is great news, full stop. And if news that A Legacy will feature characters from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, makes it all feel like a reunion tour, then this still supremely talented writer will make it the most compelling reunion tour possible.

According to le Carré’s site, A Legacy of Spies is narrated by Peter Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the most recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor), the longtime sideman to le Carré’s gnomic spymaster hero, George Smiley. Guillam is called out of retirement, because “Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized under disturbing criteria by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.”

That this news dropped on the same day WikiLeaks released documents that detailed “sophisticated software tools used by the Central Intelligence Agency to break into smartphones, computers and even internet-connected televisions,” at a time when most people know “IC” stands for intelligence community and a new Cold War seems not just inevitable but the current state of the world, makes the publication of a new le Carré rather prescient, and quite necessary.

Don’t expect some kind of The Bucket List for spies here. Le Carré has done journeys through the past before — see The Secret Pilgrim — and most of his novels are built on a complicated blueprint of characters’ digressive memories. That Smiley is mentioned heavily in the release shouldn’t suggest that le Carré’s most famous creation is still alive and kicking, and listening and scheming. According to the AP, “Viking declined to say whether Smiley, who was apparently born at least 100 years ago, is still alive or only remembered in flashback.” I’d count on the latter.

The real clue to what A Legacy of Spies will be about is in the line, “characters … are to be scrutinized under disturbing criteria by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.” Le Carré, especially late-period le Carré, is an angry writer. Protagonists in Our Game, Absolute Friends, and A Delicate Truth are well-mannered cranks, Cold Warriors shunted to the side by a new age of technocrats and terror. Their idealism — whatever they believed in, be it England, socialism, English socialism, or just their fellow man — has been crushed.

The idea that le Carré would relitigate the cases of the past through the lens of the present is fascinating, but I would expect that to be an exasperated and bitter trial. Think about how much has happened since 2013, when le Carré last published a novel. Think about how many different roles the spy has played in the popular imagination since then. And think about how much le Carré has done to form that imagination. I can’t wait to see him in court.