When John le Carré published A Perfect Spy in 1986, Philip Roth, then spending a lot of time in London, called it ‘the best English novel since the war’. Not being such a fan of A Perfect Spy, I’ve occasionally wondered what Roth’s generous blurb says about the postwar English novel. As a le Carré bore, however, I’ve also wondered how Roth managed to overlook Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the central novel in le Carré’s career, in which George Smiley – an outwardly diffident ex-spook with a strenuously unfaithful wife and an interest in 17th-century German literature – comes out of retirement to identify the turncoat in a secret service that’s explicitly presented as a metaphorical ‘vision of the British establishment at play’. If you sit up late enough watching DVDs of the BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness, or Martin Ritt’s version of The Spy who Came in from the Cold with Richard Burton, it’s possible to persuade yourself that le Carré might even be the greatest English novelist alive. Unfortunately, looking at his other books the next morning makes this seem less likely, in part because the classic phase of his career ended earlier than we bores like to remember, and in part because some of his early strengths have become, in a changed context, weaknesses.
Le Carré’s best novels, many of them featuring Smiley as a bit player rather than a leading man, run from Call for the Dead (1961), his first book, to Tinker Tailor, which opens an enjoyable but transitional sequence detailing the conflict between Smiley and Karla, his opposite number in Moscow. The 1960s thrillers are snappily written, well paced and observed, passionately glum and, above all, brilliantly plotted. ‘It would be beautiful in another context,’ Smiley remarks ‘almost dreamily’ while unpacking the Moscow Centre ploy at the heart of Tinker Tailor – ‘a device so simple that it left him genuinely elated by its symmetry’. Clive James, writing in 1977, had similar feelings about the ‘symmetrical economy’ of The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963). ‘It could,’ he said, ‘be turned into an opera.’ Le Carré – that is, David Cornwell, an ex-spy – once said that he entered the secret world ‘in the spirit of John Buchan and left it in the spirit of Kafka’; allowing for quite a lot of exaggeration at both ends, it’s a reasonable comment on The Spy who Came in from the Cold, which combines a focus on dingy bureaucratic settings with a pessimistic, formally dazzling storyline. After Tinker Tailor, which uses multiple time schemes with even greater skill, some of the energy goes out of le Carré’s enterprise as he tries out fresh material. The hero of The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the middle book of the Smiley v. Karla trilogy, plods dutifully across South-East Asia while reflecting that his service’s ‘natural soul was with Europe and the good old days of the Cold War – Czecho, Berlin and the old fronts’. It’s hard to disagree.
One reason for le Carré’s becoming, in his own words, ‘intensely bored’ with that set-up was Guinness’s later performances as Smiley, which he felt constrained him. Plainly, he was also fatigued by having to keep dragging his hero out of retirement: by the time of Smiley’s People, the master spy had spent almost twenty years being recalled from his studies of ‘the lesser German poets’. Besides, Smiley, despite a discreet rejuvenation, was getting on a bit, and in order to keep setting his stories in the present, le Carré needed younger characters. Here, though, he was at a disadvantage, since much of his archly humorous dialogue was starting, by the late 1970s, to sound excessively fruity. It’s fun in Tinker Tailor when a Whitehall functionary awkwardly prefaces a top secret discussion with: ‘Charlotte got her scholarship to Roedean, which was nice.’ But as the ‘confiding upper-class bellow’ and ‘donnish bray’ became staples of parody in the non-secret world, le Carré responded by camping them up some more.
In his early novels, the reader’s sense of being given an insiderish briefing on the postwar establishment’s snobberies and mannerisms makes the spying stuff believable too. Leamas, the hero of The Spy who Came in from the Cold, looks like ‘a man who was not quite a gentleman’: ‘If he were to walk into a London club the porter would certainly not mistake him for a member; in a Berlin night club they usually gave him the best table.’ Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive school’ and an ‘unimpressive Oxford college’, while Turner, the Yorkshire-accented interrogator in A Small Town in Germany (1968), is ‘a former fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, which takes all kinds of people’. All three men cast disabused eyes over the ruthless spy chiefs, priggish civil servants and self-seeking diplomats who notice such things about them. And from the ‘calves-foot jelly’, ‘essence of beef’ and ‘breast of chicken from the jar’ fed to the convalescing Leamas to the ‘glass-fronted sentry box with a “Scenes of England” calendar and a line of mossy telephones’ in the secret service’s lobby in Tinker Tailor, the surface realism generated by the vigilant class arrangements is assisted by le Carré’s command of gloomy detail.
The big political worries – West German rearmament, the recruitment of former Nazis by Eastern and Western security services – are part of a wider debate over the moral claims of Cold War liberalism. Ends and means become confused for the spies, who, in extreme cases, start to take it for granted that thriving espionage agencies are ‘the only real measure of a nation’s political health’. Communists and capitalists use similar methods, and their operations are equally likely to destroy any innocents or idealists unlucky enough to figure in their calculations. The only thing more horrifying than their professional symbiosis is the powerful bond, laid bare again and again, between institutions and emotionally defective Englishmen. The Looking Glass War (1965), in which a forgotten military intelligence outfit sends an agent to a pointless death in East Germany out of nostalgia and bureaucratic stir-craziness, features some particularly alarming cases. But spies aren’t the only ones afflicted. The first of le Carré’s institutional hollow men is a colourful housemaster in A Murder of Quality (1962), a detective story set in a poisonous public school staffroom.
Prep and public schools are always suspect places in le Carré, but his early thrillers wouldn’t be so good if their intelligence agencies didn’t also have a romantic, vaguely upper-crust ideal to fall short of. The Circus, as Smiley’s service is known, might be shabbily unscrupulous, vulnerable to moles, short of funds, and riddled with time-servers and self-promoters. But it still has living memories of such glamorous figures as Steed-Asprey and ‘Fielding, the French medievalist from Cambridge’ – representatives of an incorruptible officer class whose prewar exploits are only ever hinted at. Tinker Tailor says a sentimental farewell to that class while frostily exposing its last-ditch pretensions in the person of a disappointed romantic imperialist who’s revealed to be the hollowest man of all. The fading of the early 1960s establishment, with its obsessive class gradations and competitively worn college ties, probably had a more deleterious effect on le Carré’s writing than the end of the Cold War. The novels after Tinker Tailor often seem more interested in the social comedy of the emerging post-gentlemanly dispensation than the construction of neatly engineered plots. We start hearing more – more than we need to – about dislikeable characters’ ‘violence with auxiliary verbs’. And le Carré shows that he can write brilliant dialogue for the likes of Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian-born surveillance man with an ingratiating manner and a shaky grasp of English idiom, which is fun for a while, but only for a while.
A lot of his writing since the mid-1970s is overripe. Phrases he’s especially pleased with – ‘the permanent night-time of his elected trade’, for example – have a way of getting repeated and recast (‘the remaining disparate articles of her uncertain faith’). There are too many adverbs, too many jaunty nicknames, too many characters given to aphoristic witticisms. And when he wants to conceal what someone’s up to or inject ambiguity he adopts a style that soon grates:
There remains the mystery of the telephone transcripts. Did Jerry ring Lizzie from the Constellation, or not? And if he did ring her, did he mean to talk to her, or only to listen to her voice? And if he intended to talk to her, then what did he propose to say? Or was the very act of making the phone call – like the act of booking airline passages in Saigon – in itself sufficient catharsis to hold him back from the reality?
What is certain is that nobody – neither Smiley nor Connie nor anyone else who read the crucial transcripts – can be seriously accused of failing in their duty, for the entry was at best ambivalent.
This passage from The Honourable Schoolboy isn’t much more comprehensible in context, though the effect being aimed at is indicated when Jerry is shown reading Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The Little Drummer Girl (1983) features an Israeli operative called Kurtz whose actions are similarly shrouded in uncertainty: ‘At what stage in the chase he had hit upon his plan,’ we’re told, ‘probably not even Kurtz himself could have said.’ In these cases, the grace notes being struck or plot points being fudged don’t mitigate the ostentatious skirting of unspeakable mysteries. And even when there are sound plot-mechanical reasons for limiting the narrator’s knowledge, le Carré often overdoes the inventing of different points of view. Leamas’s stage-managed ejection from the Circus in The Spy who Came in from the Cold is dealt with in ten deft paragraphs – most of them told from his colleagues’ generalised viewpoint, with a few comments from Elsie in Accounts. The Honourable Schoolboy, on the other hand, summons a cast of office cranks just to decide where the story should begin: ‘One crowd, led by a blimpish fellow in charge of microphone transcription, went so far as to claim that . . . To less flowery minds, the true genesis was . . .’ And so on.
By the early 1980s, le Carré might have given that ‘blimpish fellow’ several chapters. Freed at last from the Circus’s stock players, he developed the all-embracing interest in his characters’ lives that good realist novelists are meant to have. As well as fleshing out all the point-of-view characters’ biographies and offering a few insights into their shabby-genteel lives, the longer novels work hard to give the main figures greater psychological depth, borrowing extensively from le Carré’s odd, unhappy childhood and his experiences as a young intelligence officer in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the effort often seems misplaced, in part because his attempts to create character-driven narratives continue to lean on genre conventions. Unfaithful wives, shrewd yet eccentric crones and idealistic beauties tend to show up in one guise or another, and there’s a similar checklist for the men.
Above all, the storylines have become looser in order to accommodate the developing central figures. And for all le Carré’s accomplishments, the carefully researched details and lovingly planned espionage-inducing childhoods don’t make up for the loss of the intricate plots. Faced with one of his later blockbusters, you start to miss the spiritedly melodramatic understatement of his 1960s novels, in which anonymous men hatch nightmarish schemes while moaning about government-issue radiators, and the darkness is invariably laid on extra-thick.
In one respect, the end of the Cold War and the shift from mutually assured destruction to asymmetric conflict ‘impacted’, as one of his ghastly junior ministers might now put it, on le Carré in an interesting way: it has shaken up his politics. In Tinker Tailor, we’re told that a minor character, a strong-arm specialist called Ricki Tarr, was recruited to help suppress ‘the Malayan emergency’ before being ‘called back to Brixton and refitted for special operations in Kenya – or, in less sophisticated language, hunting Mau Mau for bounty’. The main implication is that Tarr is an unsavoury, potentially dangerous person, not that the Circus plays a nasty role in putting down insurgencies. Confronted with the practicalities of Tarr’s work, Smiley would probably have taken some leave and been spotted ‘sitting rigidly before an old volume of German poetry’, as happens in one of the books, ‘while he silently wept’. But the need to fight Communism always overrides his fretting about British moral credentials, however dubious those might be and however much of a hash the Cousins might be making of things in Vietnam.
‘I do find I become a great deal more radical in my old age,’ Smiley announces during his final appearance in The Secret Pilgrim (1991), an inquest into the Cold War that also offers some pointers for the future. The right people have lost but the wrong people have won. Capitalism must stage its own glasnost, which perhaps it can now that anti-Communism won’t provide ideological cover for low deeds. Unhappily, this isn’t the view taken by the likes of Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, an arms dealer who once did the Circus some favours and can’t see why he should stop shipping his ‘toys’ to African warlords just because the government’s gone soft. Bradshaw comes out with a long rant on this theme (‘my advice is step aside, let them slug it out, and bloody good luck to ’em’), which the narrator dutifully transcribes, though not before giving a disconcertingly extended disquisition on Sir Anthony’s barbarous dialect and ‘sawing nasal tones’:
He spoke English as if it were his second language, but it was the only one he had. He spoke in what my son Adrian tells me is called ‘slur’, which is a slack-mouthed Belgravia cockney that contrives to make mice out of mouse and dispenses almost entirely with the formality of pronouns. It has a vocabulary, naturally: nothing rises but it escalates, no opportunity is without a window, no minor event occurs that is not sensational. It also has a pedantic inaccuracy which is supposed to distinguish it from the unwashed, and explains gems like ‘as for you and I’.
And since the early 1990s, le Carré’s novels have registered his growing dismay at, on the one hand, the bungling or ignoring of opportunities for the great powers to act less thoughtlessly, particularly in the developing world, and, on the other, the strange accents and linguistic abuses of the rapacious new elite. Perhaps the idea, as Cyril Connolly writes of Eminent Victorians, is to make his points in ‘the language through which the bourgeois ear’ might be ‘lulled and beguiled’. But the results are jarring.
Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo, the narrator of The Mission Song, is the 28-year-old son of a Congolese woman and an Irish priest. Brought up in Catholic orphanages in Kivu and – for complicated reasons – Sussex, he has degrees from SOAS and Edinburgh and an unfaithful English wife who works as a journalist. At the beginning of the story, he has a freelance role as a ‘top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the eastern Congo’, plus French. So it’s reasonably plausible that his ‘needle-sharp ear’ would detect ‘the trace of an English public school accent’ beneath ‘the colloquialisms’ when someone says: ‘Please yourself, mate.’ Salvo makes little jokes about his abilities, as when someone speaks with ‘what my top interpreter’s ear instantly identified as a Welsh intonation’. His run-on sentences and endearingly awkward phrasing – ‘I am not a friend of explicit’ – indicate, too, that his translationese is less needle-sharp than he thinks. But when he reveals early on that his own accent is not ‘your Caribbean melody’, let alone ‘your Blairite wannabe-classless slur or your high-Tory curdled cockney’, he sounds more like a novelist born in 1931 than a Congolese-Irish Londoner born in the late 1970s, interpreter or not.
The story Salvo wants to tell begins in a familiar manner. Motherless childhood, problematic father, unsettling schools, solace in language studies, talents sniffed out by appreciative men armed with copies of the Official Secrets Act: all the usual elements are in place, given an African spin, and accompanied by satire on the metropolitan newspaper world. Then, shortly after an idealistic Congolese beauty has appeared on the scene, the mysterious GCHQ-like department that uses Salvo as a translator lends him to a still more mysterious body for an off-the-record job. Salvo is called on to interpret, and listen in, at a conference between various Congolese warlords and a would-be national saviour known as the Mwangaza, billed as an aged follower of Lumumba. The Mwangaza overflows with idealistic rhetoric, and so too, to begin with, do the on-site representatives of the shadowy British syndicate sponsoring the meeting. In exchange for little more than certain mineral rights, the syndicate is even offering to supply some vaguely defined ‘agricultural equipment’, along with heavily tattooed ‘personnel’, to help push through ‘agricultural’ reforms. At first Salvo is awed by everyone’s goodwill, but pretty soon a dispute is being resolved with a cattle prod, causing his ‘African heart’ to beat ‘more loudly’.
The novel is a companion piece to The Constant Gardener (2001), in which a British official’s seemingly unfaithful wife is quickly revealed to be an idealistic beauty given to saying things like ‘my duty is to Africa.’ It also resembles Absolute Friends (2004) in featuring a passage seemingly designed to make le Carré’s right-wing critics see red. In Absolute Friends – an enjoyable Cold War rehash, filled with complaints about dangling modifiers, which suddenly mutates into an all-out assault on the global war on terror – the passage in question was a lengthy speech in praise of ‘the Canadian Naomi Klein, India’s Arundhati Roy, who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia’s John Pilger, America’s Noam Chomsky’ etc. Rage blinded several reviewers to the fact that the speaker turns out to be a provocateur, and le Carré does something similar with The Mission Song’s roll-call of ‘A-list neo-conservatives’, which includes an unnamed former National Security Council member, a Pentagon adviser, an oil company CEO and the ‘vice president of the Grayson-Halliburton Communications Enterprise’. These figures aren’t the masterminds behind the coup attempt planned in the novel. They’re said, by one of the actual plotters, to be the masterminds behind a rival attempt.
Like The Constant Gardener, which aimed to alert a mass audience to pharmaceutical companies’ wrongdoing in the developing world, the new novel has a basically unimpeachable message. With help from Michela Wrong, the International Crisis Group and ‘Stephen Carter, my indefatigable researcher’, le Carré has assembled a thick file on eastern Congo, and his narrative is packed with mini-lectures on the region. His rundowns of the civil wars and humanitarian crises (four million dead) triggered by the Rwandan genocide, and of the struggles for the DRC’s coltan reserves, are, however, more interesting and sobering than the story’s main argument, which is that foreigners planning coups in resource-rich African nations do not always have the inhabitants’ interests at heart. As with The Constant Gardener, too, the seriousness is undermined by le Carré’s insistence on cutting to the heart of Africa and Africans. The earlier novel brings on shrewd crones and grizzled aid worker types and gives them such lines as: ‘The whole of Africa, that’s one big gender fight, man.’ Salvo can provide similar insights on his own, and the first-person depiction of his slowly awakening African consciousness is a little embarrassing.
Even so, speaking as a le Carré bore, there’s something hypnotic about watching the novelist give his character soothingly familiar attributes (well-honed spy-skills, an admiration for T.E. Lawrence) and then scramble to explain how he got them (a ‘One-Day Course’, a patriotic teacher at the Catholic orphanage in Sussex). An odd levity also seizes the narrative from time to time – even, or especially, when le Carré issues denunciations – and many scenes have a dreamlike atmosphere. In one of them, Salvo goes to a restaurant, where he notices ‘a dapper professional gentleman, perhaps retired, and diminutive in stature’: it could almost be George Smiley. Some loud men in blazers turn up, wives in tow. ‘They hailed from Rickmansworth,’ Salvo learns from their noisy conversation as they settle in, ‘and they called it Ricky.’ The loud talk continues: The Mikado was crap, the Japanese are not nice, someone’s gynaecologist has ‘made a total balls, but never mind’. Then – as Salvo comes to remember during later moments of moral choice – the shy retired gentleman of le Carré’s age shows that he shares his creator’s disposition by shaming these people, ‘all clearly accustomed to life’s good things’, into lowering their voices. ‘I will speak,’ he says. ‘I owe it to myself.’