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The Secrets John Le Carré Revealed

The Cold War is over, but we’re still living in Le Carré’s world

Harrison Freeman

The Cold War was a conflict staged between grand ideologies but fought by amoral operatives; it was freedom versus oppression in the newspapers and liars versus assassins in the streets. In a way, the gulf between the high principles that justify a movement and the low pragmatism with which it pursues its aims is common to every political conflict: the French Revolution wrote fraternité on the banners it hung above the guillotines. But the Cold War exaggerated the tension to an extreme degree. This was partly because of the world-historic immensity of the opposing systems and partly because of the relative absence of overt conflict between them. The Cold War had no storming of the Bastille, no Gettysburg, no Omaha Beach. The grand struggle to control the future of humanity was fought by bureaucrats, spies, and proxies, in secret, deniably, off-screen.

No writer was more finely attuned to this tension than the great English spy novelist John Le Carré, who died on Saturday at the age of 89. The son of a con man, Le Carré jumped from Oxford in the mid-1950s to a career in British espionage, working in both intelligence and counterintelligence. He had a strained relationship with his father—he famously paid for the older man’s funeral while declining to attend it—but took from him a deep fascination with deceit, concealment, and misdirection. His name itself was something like an act of spycraft: Born David Cornwell, he adopted his pseudonym because he published his early novels while still working in intelligence. His first bestseller, 1963’s hugely influential The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, appeared while David Cornwell was still employed at MI6.

Le Carré saw in the Cold War both an instrument for exploring his obsessions and a splendid vein of entertaining stories. Working in the shadow of the grand ideologies, he pulled off a miraculous literary trick, one that the spy novel might be uniquely suited for. His books become more entertaining, not less, as they probe farther into moral corrosion, ambiguity, and complexity. His plots are more riveting when you don’t understand them. Take a Western, say, and make it darker, twistier, and more morally slippery, and the result will likely seem “difficult,” a highbrow spin on a lowbrow genre; think of a film like Unforgiven. But disorientation and vertigo are the spy story’s essence. Le Carré drew them out, with the result that his novels were both giddily enjoyable genre works and dark meditations on the machinery of the age.

This is how he managed to create works that became indelible cultural touchstones even though almost no one who read them, or who saw one of the countless film and TV adaptations they inspired, could summarize them afterward. Quick, what’s the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? What happens in The Night Manager? Maybe you watched The Little Drummer Girl, Park Chan-wook’s version of Le Carré’s 1983 bestseller, when it came out on AMC two years ago; why does the protagonist go undercover again? The appeal, in stories like these, isn’t the A-B-C of the plot; it’s the sense of being lost in an unfamiliar alphabet. It’s the atmosphere of fragile deceptions, shifting loyalties, provisional realities overlaid on one another until the “real” reality—like good and evil, our side and their side—becomes impossible to distinguish. Mr Green goes to Budapest to stop an arms deal; you might forget who’s selling what to whom, but you remember that Mr Green is pretending to be Mr Red to Mr Silver, and that Ms Smith knows his real identity but will keep his secret if he helps her brother defect to the West, but that unbeknownst to Mr Green, Ms Smith is actually working for the Soviets and not the Hungarians—and keeping track of all this is both unsettling and electrifying. More than that: It’s electrifying because it’s unsettling, and vice versa.

Le Carré didn’t invent this atmosphere; you can find approximations of it in the work of older spy novelists, of whom my favorite is Eric Ambler. But he unlocked its potential. He revealed its secrets, made them available to any number of writers and directors working under the ambiguities of the Information Age, and thus he became, quietly, one of the most influential writers of his own lifetime. The quiet counted; Le Carré’s best-known character, George Smiley, who appears in nine of his novels, didn’t become as famous as James Bond, but the Le Carré way of looking at the world proliferated across culture in ways Ian Fleming’s never did. Bond’s blockbuster status even points to something a little stupid about the character—of what conceivable use is a celebrity spy? You don’t leave a Bond story and find yourself more inwardly Bondlike—what would that even mean? more obsessed with aftershave brands?—but putting down a Le Carré novel almost always imparts a pleasant little shiver of paranoia, a new consciousness of what you’re giving away, and who might be watching.

Unlike Bond, Le Carré’s characters are endowed with deep inner lives. They know more about themselves than most people ever know, because they know what they are capable of and how far they will go; and they know less about the world than most people think they know, because they know how little they can trust. Their moral resignation, remorse (they feel guilty for things they’ve done, often without knowing what they’ve done), and battered alienation are evidence of a geopolitical terror that doesn’t want to be seen. To be a spy in a Le Carré novel isn’t to be more sexy or glamorous than other people, it’s to take on a kind of heavy knowledge—the knowledge of what it’s like to perform, in the name of the good, actions that make you doubt the existence of the good. And then to go on performing them, because when you’ve lost faith in goodness, all you have left are the rules of the game.

He was an artist of quick character portraits, twisted insights (“a slammed door,” he has an agent observe in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “made less noise than a door surreptitiously closed”), and coiled witticisms. His sentences have a way of making you laugh, then circling back around on you like a boomerang and hitting you when your guard is down. For mordant asides, he had few rivals. I did a quick Google search for “John Le Carré quotes” after I learned he’d died; here are a few of the first results that popped up:

Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you. It is whatever you can still betray.

You should have died when I killed you.

All men are born free: just not for long.

A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought.

Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.

After the Berlin Wall came down, there were readers who assumed Le Carré’s best days as a writer were past. The end of the Cold War was also the end of his great subject; what else could the aging spymaster find to write about? As it turned out, plenty. In his later life, Le Carré discovered that his signature concerns could be adapted to the age of globalization, and he wrote some of his most beloved works—The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, The Tailor of Panama—on subjects ranging from black-market arms dealers to corrupt pharmaceutical companies. He also discovered a new and more direct mode of political anger, as if the perceived lowering of stakes following the defeat of communism had freed him to state more directly who the bad guys were, though without ever letting the good guys off the hook.

He became an elder statesman. He appeared in photos from his idyllic house in his idyllic corner of Cornwall, every inch the former British schoolboy (The Honourable Schoolboy was the title of one of his books), clad in cardigans, trailed by whippets, bushily eyebrowed, smoking a pipe. He was everyone’s beloved grandfather, if that grandfather also happened to have peered into the abyss of the late 20th century and written genre-defining literature about it.

His influence had arguably never been greater than on the day he died. I had spent much of that week bingeing the French spy drama Le Bureau des Legendes, released in the U.S. as The Bureau. It’s the story of a spy who returns from Syria—who comes in from the not-so-cold, so to speak—but continues to use his secret spy identity to see the woman he loves, a mistake that leads him into a hellish labyrinth of schemes and betrayed loyalties and perilous acts of deceit. It’s a terrific show. Le Carré had nothing to do with the making of it, but it’s his work almost as surely as Smiley’s People is. At another moment last week, I looked up the plot of Captain America: Winter Soldier to confirm a detail for a piece I’m writing. Le Carré, obviously, had nothing to do with making that movie, and you might think that nothing could be farther from his work than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the ’70s political thrillers that inspired Winter Soldier are works made in his image.

All that week, in other words, I’d been thinking about him without thinking about him. I’d been not-quite-seeing him in the shadow behind the scene, where a spymaster should be. The Cold War is over, but we’re still living in his world. We will go on seeing him, and not seeing him, for a long time.