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After the death of John le Carré was announced a few days ago, a friend asked me where I thought the creator of George Smiley and the Circus would rank in a generation. I told him I didn’t have the faintest idea. Where does he “rank” now? Most of the younger people I know (“younger” meaning under forty) have never read le Carré; if they know his work at all, it’s via adaptations for TV and movies. As for the critics, they’ve preferred to slot him as a chronicler of “the Cold War,” a term that is at once indispensable and nearly meaningless, so profligate is its misuse. Never mind that many of his books take us well past that era.

I won’t rehearse here the potted biography of David Cornwell (the man behind the world-famous pseudonym, which in my ignorance I mispronounced for many years) readily available to you in obituaries and such. Suffice it to say that David Cornwell’s father was a con-man, a cad, and a pathological liar who did prison time; David’s mother abandoned him and his older brother to the care of her parents when the boys were still children. The future spy and novelist had an early and intimate acquaintance with deception and betrayal. If you desire a responsible if clearly friendly account of the writer, I recommend Adam Sisman’s John le Carré: The Biography (published in 2015), despite its pompous subtitle. Sisman chose an epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.” That captures an essential quality of le Carré, if not of writers across the board.

For a series of reissues that first appeared some time ago, le Carré wrote retrospective introductions to a number of his books. His 1991 introduction to The Looking Glass War is particularly interesting. That book, first published in 1965, came after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a bestseller that became a popular movie as well. “After the success of The Spy,” le Carré wrote in that 1991 introduction,

I felt I had earned the right to experiment with the more fragile possibilities of the spy story than those I had explored till now. For the truth was, that the realities of spying as I had known them on the ground had been far removed from the fiendishly clever conspiracy that had entrapped my hero and heroine in The Spy. I was eager to find a way of illustrating the muddle and futility that were so much closer to life. Indeed, I felt I had to: for while The Spy had been heralded as the book that ripped the mask off the spy business, my private view was that it had glamorized the spy business to Kingdom Come.

Alas, as le Carré notes, The Looking Glass War “was received, in Britain, with such wholesale derision from the critical community that, had I taken it to heart, would have persuaded me to follow a different profession, such as window-cleaning, or literary journalism.”

The ironies are delicious. Here is le Carré in 1991, world-famous, looking back with a mixture of irony, candor, and cutting wit, immensely charming to the reader if not to le Carré’s targets: “my British critics absolutely didn’t see the joke. Or if they did see it, they didn’t find it faintly funny. They wanted A Spy at Easter, A Spy at Christmas, Alec Leamas Rides Again. They wanted anything but the bad, sad news.” A few readers, at least, must wonder if they aren’t implicated here as well. But the irony is all the more persuasive because le Carré doesn’t spare himself:

My error, I now believe, was not to have gone far enough down this dangerous path. I should not, as I see it now, have bothered with the Circus or George Smiley at all. I should not have taken counsel from my gifted American editor, Jack Geoghegan. I should not have pulled my punches. I should have let the Department exist where I was convinced that Britain herself existed, and in some eerie way contrives to exist to this very day, in a vapour of self-delusion and class arrogance. . . .

And yet, half a page later, in the conclusion to this introduction, le Carré wrote: “What I do know is that it was an honest book, and perhaps a brave one. Above all, it was the best I could do at the time.” Slippery as an eel, this fellow—and yet, at the same time (remember that epigraph from Fitzgerald?) unfashionably sincere.

Suppose you haven’t read anything by le Carré, or perhaps you tried him long ago with indifferent results. Here are two suggestions. First, another book in the Smiley cycle, one of my favorites, The Honourable Schoolboy, first published in 1977. You might look for the Penguin paperback edition in that series I mentioned, with a retrospective introduction from 1989, very much worth hunting down. Second, Our Game, published in 1995, one of the best among le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. Ignore the chatter about his “legacy” and read his books.

And if you’re still waffling, despite my best efforts, consider le Carré’s conclusion to that 1989 introduction to The Honourable Schoolboy (a novel in which Hong Kong figures prominently):

As to Hong Kong—is that all history too? Even as I write, Mrs. Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary is in the colony, bravely explaining why Britain can do nothing for a people she has dined off for a hundred and fifty years. Only betrayal, it seems, is timeless.

Oof. In 2020, that assessment from thirty years ago is all too pertinent. And yet, if one of the “people trying so hard to be one person” who together made up John le Carré firmly believed that last sentence (“Only betrayal, it seems, is timeless”), the controlling intelligence of his books did not. The truth, however slippery, is timeless, and always worth trying to tell, whatever the cost and however fallible the teller.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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