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A Legacy of Spies
by john le carré
viking, 272 pages, $28

Last December, while most of us were watching the presidential election lumber toward its disastrous conclusion, two aged ­representatives of a very different political era died.

One of the deceased was David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, the pen name he used while writing novels set in the demimonde of spies, ideological enthusiasts, shadowy politicians, and outright gangsters that flourished during the Cold War. As a young man, le Carré was an informant and officer for Britain’s domestic security agency, and later served in its Secret Intelligence Service. For the most part, though, “the secret world” of his books was a product of his imagination.

The other, less familiar figure was the real thing. George Blake was a Rotterdam-born, Cairo-educated hereditary subject of the United Kingdom. A member of the Dutch Resistance and fluent in five languages as a teenager, Blake was recruited by the British SIS during World War II. He went on to study Russian at Cambridge before being posted to occupied Germany, where he established extensive networks of informants.

Despite his impressive record, Blake was working for the Soviets. Apparently “turned” during a period of captivity in North Korea, Blake betrayed hundreds of agents and disclosed the existence of listening tunnels under Soviet installations in Vienna and Berlin. Unmasked by a Polish defector to the CIA, he was tried and sentenced by British authorities to forty-two years in prison. He served just five—after which he escaped to Moscow, where he lived out his days as an honored guest.

The parallels are worthy of a le Carré book. Already bored with his job and dabbling in writing, le Carré’s own intelligence career ended when his name was disclosed to the Soviets by Kim Philby, who defected in 1963. Although he had not been active for several years, Philby’s betrayal was an even greater blow to SIS prestige than Blake’s because he was an indubitable member of the so-called “Establishment.” From this double experience of bureaucratic dullness and shocking revelation, le Carré crafted a fictional world of espionage. The result was so vivid that it became partly real, as terms le Carré apparently invented—including “mole” for double agent—became part of the professional lingo.

Spying, in this sense, is not just about collecting information. It is an exercise in storytelling, in which the true and the false are not only hard to distinguish but constantly changing from the one into the other. No wonder it made such valuable material for a novelist. Occasionally dismissed as the author of mere thrillers, le Carré liked to reply that “spying was the genre of the Cold War.”

Le Carré and Blake were on different sides of that war. Although he always held vaguely left-wing opinions and became more strident in his later years, le Carré never doubted that the Soviet Union was a monstrous tyranny. Blake, by contrast, remained a dreamer to the end. “I justified it in my mind by believing that I was helping, in a small way, in building a new society. In which there would be equality, social justice, no longer any war, no longer any national conflict,” he told a PBS film crew in 1999.

But different assessments of the Soviet Union were compatible with doubts about the superiority of the West. Unlike Philby, Blake did not belong to the upper middle class and did not share the nostalgia for the British Empire expressed by some of le Carré’s characters. But all three regarded the increasingly dominant United States as rapacious, brutal, and hypocritical.

For Blake, the horror was humanitarian. In interviews, he described the strategic bombing of North Korea as the turning point in his loyalty. Le Carré’s revulsion was more aesthetic. Like Bill Haydon—the Philby-inspired mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—le Carré believed that intelligence services reflected national character. He didn’t like what he saw in the CIA. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, reproduces a diary entry in which le Carré declares, “I only have to see their Mormon haircuts and listen to their open-plan charm. I have only to hear them call Europe ‘Yurrp’ and I start sweating at the joints.”

This undercurrent of disillusionment, if not outright moral equivalence, was an element of le Carré’s initial appeal. When his breakthrough, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was published in 1963, James Bond was the world’s most famous spy. Ian Fleming’s handsome, tough, elegant creation offered an ideal of woman-slaying, death-defying manhood. The gadgetry on which Bond relied represented the promise of clean, efficient, powerful modernity. Like JFK, who was an avid fan, Bond was a man of the Jet Age.

At least on the surface, le Carré’s spies were different. Far from action heroes, they were mostly overworked, underpaid, and undersexed. In ­Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le ­Carré’s avatar, George Smiley, describes himself as a “commercial traveller,” trundling wearily between underheated offices and cheap hotels. True, these locales might be spread across thousands of miles of land or sea. But they shared a seedy ambiance that made it hard to distinguish among London, Berlin, and Bucharest. Even “the ­Circus”—the name by which le Carré designated the fictional headquarters of British intelligence at London’s Cambridge Circus—evokes the wearisome repetition of uninspiring routines. High technology was not among their tricks. In the decade of the moon race, le Carré’s spies were still chalking messages on walls or surreptitiously passing paper notes.

Unlike Fleming’s, le Carré’s secret world was defined by bureaucratic rivalry. He not only exposed tense relations between the Circus and “the Cousins”—in-house jargon for the CIA. He also depicted counterproductive rivalries among Britain’s own intelligence services. The Looking-Glass War, a less commercially successful follow-up to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, revolves around a plot by the Circus to tempt a competing organization into a doomed operation that results in its defunding. The death of a brave, though incompetent, agent is judged an acceptable price for this ­administrative coup.

These qualities offered le Carré’s readers a frisson of reality. In a disenchanted age, we are tempted to believe that the most unpleasant possible interpretation of any social phenomenon is the most accurate.

Yet the superficial sophistication of le Carré’s depictions concealed a moral hollowness. Smiley devotes his life to the Circus at the expense of his health, marriage, and psychological equilibrium. But he cannot explain why. Perhaps his dedication is just a habit left over from the righteous struggle of the Second World War. “The enemy in those days was someone we could point at and read about in the papers,” he explains. “Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy.”

Le Carré’s dislike of America was understandable. Although snobbery played a role, the British governing class had reason to be bitter about the decline of its power and the indignities of the “special relationship.” For public officials of Smiley’s generation, it was a brutal comedown. “Poor loves,” mourns Smiley’s colleague Connie Sachs. “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves . . . You’re the last, George, you and Bill.”

But what about a very different people, who could not be seen as a rival or replacement to Britain? Beginning with The Little Drummer Girl in 1983, le Carré published a series of books that included troubling depictions of Jews and ­Israel. Critics accused the novel of glamorizing terrorism while depicting Israelis as morally indifferent to Palestinian suffering. In 1996, le Carré published The Tailor of ­Panama, an updated homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The titular Jewish character is presented explicitly as a corrupt counterpoint to Christian virtue. To these indications, le Carré added statements in his own name. During the Iraq War, he joined the international cadre that blamed the State of Israel for America’s disastrous policy in the Middle East.

Like many intellectuals who flirt with anti-Zionism, le Carré gave no indication of personal anti-Semitism. His published works include favorable depictions of other Jewish characters and express outrage at the reintegration of ex-Nazis into German society. The early novel A Small Town in Germany is devoted to this theme. Le Carré even had kind words for Israeli society. Israel, he recalled, was

the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now Oriental, now Western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.

Notwithstanding this single statement, le Carré was in general uncomfortable with the combination of purpose and power represented by the State of Israel. He seemed to prefer the diminished ambitions of former empires to the swagger of young nations on the rise—a preference that may have colored his perception of the United States. Skepticism that states are vehicles for justice can be an antidote to the excesses of nationalism. But by itself, it is an even more naïve idealism than the moral certainty le Carré found so annoying in Americans. Especially in later novels such as The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, and Absolute Friends, le Carré’s villains become cartoonish in their venality and ­indifference to suffering.

Lacking real insight into the wrenching dilemmas of morality and politics, le Carré emphasizes technique. The pleasure of his novels lies partly in their accounts of espionage “tradecraft”—another term he invented or popularized. But in this respect, the critic Greil Marcus noted, they are not so different from ­Fleming’s exuberant nonsense. When he depicts contests between politically uncommitted virtuosi, le Carré reads as “James Bond in world-weary drag.”

Like his hero Smiley, le Carré was a monastically devoted professional. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he produced more than two dozen novels, many of them bestsellers. As Sisman documents, his work process was grueling. In addition to long hours, it involved an improbable number of drafts in which characters and plots were radically revised, right up to the moment of submission.

Like other highly productive writers, le Carré may have published too much. His last significant book was the autobiographically inspired A Perfect Spy, which combines an ­unforgettable depiction of le Carré’s con-artist father with an imagined timeline in which he remained in SIS. That was 1986. After that, his works grew thinner, clumsier, and shriller.

Part of the problem is that le ­Carré knew how to write convincingly about only one sort of person: the privately educated Englishman living in the shadow of the Second World War. Despite his reputation as a keen observer of social relations and mimic of dialogue, he fails in portraying any other generation or type. Le Carré’s final novel, Agent Running in the Field, focuses on a character in his late forties—born around 1970, given the book’s appearance in 2019. Yet the man speaks like a pensioner who grew up in the days of unarmed bobbies and endless cups of tea, rather than in Thatcher’s turbulent Britain.

There is a surprising parallel to this process of alienation in the work of Philip Roth, who became friendly with le Carré while living in London and blurbed A Perfect Spy as “the best English novel since the war.” Their signature milieus are distinct. But both Roth and le Carré were artistically limited to historical moments and social formations that were already in decay when they became famous in the 1960s—and had virtually disappeared by the 1980s.

They compensated in similar ways. One strategy was political hectoring. After 9/11, anti–Iraq War, anti–Bush Administration, and anti-corporate themes became ­reliable features of both writers’ work. Whatever the justice of these opinions in themselves, they did not make for successful literature.

More important than political statements, though, was their growing reliance on period pieces and flashbacks to a more familiar time. Despite a nominal setting close to its date of publication, the action of A Perfect Spy occurs mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. Roth’s later works obsessively revisit the same era.

The tendencies to politicization and nostalgia intersect in le Carré’s last novel. A Legacy of Spies describes the last days of the Circus and adds new complexities to the operation at the heart of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is more like a pleasant reunion with old friends than a standalone book. Yet le Carré cannot resist drafting poor Smiley into his own passionate opposition to Brexit.

If it fails as an independent work, though, A Legacy of Spies remains a testament to le Carré’s genuine accomplishment. This was not any feat of moral analysis or political insight. Rather, it was the creation of characters that may prove as enduring as Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, Aubrey and Maturin. For readers who are drawn into le Carré’s secret world, it does not matter that Smiley and ­Haydon, Guillam, the dastardly Mundt, and the shadowy puppet-­master Karla are enclosed by an anachronistic pastiche. They are people who remain with us after we close the volumes in which they appear.

John le Carré does not belong in the first rank of “literary” novelists. Even at their best, as in A Perfect Spy, his formal explorations were more wearisome than rewarding. But neither was he a mere scribbler of airport thrillers. In contrast to a Len ­Deighton or a Frederick Forsyth, with le Carré the plot is not the point. Indeed, his books may be more enjoyable if you give up trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. Yet le Carré was one of those rare souls who is able to conjure a believable identity—a “­legend,” in Circus parlance—from borrowed mannerisms, half-­remembered dialogues, and memories recounted so many times that they have become almost fictional themselves. Like Blake, whose death he preceded by just a few weeks, he was among the last of the great spies. 

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and literary editor of Modern Age.