What makes John le Carré a writer of substance

It’s sometimes said that David Cornwell, known to his millions of readers across the world as John le Carré, was his droll, studiously observant, dry-eyed anti-hero George Smiley: “small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.”

The author, on the other hand, could not have been more different: lankily handsome, by turns jokey and ferocious, and — especially of late — given to fiery anathema against the dunderheads and crooks who somehow, in the regrettable way of the world, had come to call the shots of nations. The masters of Britain, whatever their breezy affectation of accent and manner, had turned spiv, the last vestiges of common decency prostituted to swindlers no better than his notorious conman father and perennial escape artist Ronnie Cornwell — immortalised in A Perfect Spy.

Secretive, then, was the last thing le Carré was — at least in his later oracular years. Rather he was a signer of letters, a writer of jeremiads against the transatlantic scoundrels of the day, prodigal squanderers of the common European history and culture to which he was most passionately attached.

Someone, sometime, had to translate Dean Acheson’s famous 1962 characterisation of a Britain that had “lost an empire but has not yet found a role” into literature. But until le Carré came along, no writer had nailed the toxic combination of bad faith and blundering, the confusion of tactical cynicism with strategic wisdom, with such lethal accuracy.

Whether or not he recognised it, his writing did, however, have some precedents — at least in bladelike literary temper, and the steely sense of honour persisting in a dishonourable world. He belonged to the same “lower-upper-middle-class” as George Orwell (another nom-de-plumer who had the moral sludge of collapsing empire clinging to his pen); had dwelled in the entitled halls of Eton (Orwell as schoolboy; le Carré as teacher) and likewise became an acerbic connoisseur of loss. Again, like Orwell — who revealed himself now and then as a poetic limner of deep England — le Carré had a pitch-perfect ear for the disingenuous hypocrisies sustaining those who mistook “Getting Away with It” for national purpose.

John le Carré in Austria in 1965 © Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

Le Carré’s other literary pedigree (though he might have been surprised to hear it) came from Anthony Trollope: the shrewd sense that institutions had collective personalities and psychologies, as if they were extended families. As such, they were the theatre of deadly, high-stakes dramas of loyalty and betrayal. Trollope’s Barsetshire was MI6’s Circus, home to tangled lines of paternal obligation, filial revolt, conjugal cynicism and misjudged greed, wound around ancient grudges and suspicions.

The Smiley books, in particular, were the building blocks of a true saga: its characters forever circling each other, beady-eyed and fretful. “Control”, who loses it; the mean streak of integrity that is Peter Guillam; Jerry Westerby, who makes a fleeting but crucial appearance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but is the Honourable Schoolboy of the book that may be le Carré’s masterpiece. They are the stubbly anti-heroes, living in ratty lodgings of peeling wallpaper and cold toast; naggingly persistent, even when they were dead like Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, haunting a successor generation of New Spooks in pencil skirts and tieless shirts idly imagining that their new glass-and-steel habitat somehow conferred post-imperial clarity.

Le Carré was superb at many things; not quite so superb at some others. Athletic sharpness and its rituals were designed to be revelatory. The opening of his final, fate-of-Europe book Agent Running in the Field is set in a badminton club and for le Carré aficionados, gives clues to the dénouement of the whole story. No one since Dickens or Waugh has done social atmospherics better. The scene at the beginning of An Honourable Schoolboy in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, where “a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies . . . fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero” is one of the great set pieces of le Carré writing. At its centre is one of his Dickens-Modern creations: the ancient Aussie, “old Craw” based on someone le Carré knew from that field trip to south Asia, and “who had shaken more sand out of his shorts than most of them would walk over.”

But le Carré also had that British problem: the flipside of the ease with which he evoked the sweaty comradeship of clubs and guilds of all kinds — namely that the women who populate his stories, even when they are at the centre of them, like The Little Drummer Girl, are observed, sized up and costumed, rather than truly embodied. They speak from the outside, not the inside. There are lots of waifs-turned-hard in the plots, tragic victims such as Leamas’s disastrously naive Liz Gold, “her face, like her body, had large components which seemed to hesitate between plainness and beauty” and routinely faithless wives such as Smiley’s Anne. The most richly imagined — take Connie Sachs, the veteran cast-off spook whom Smiley goes to see when he’s on the trail of the Tinker Tailor mole — are maternal chums. Wistful hints of the carnal playtime of yesteryear are delivered with mannish shots of scotch and chuckling pokes in the ribs as if reliving old games of squash.

The way Americans really speak was somehow filtered through his default contempt or pity, and his ear for the lingo of the vagabond classes sometimes verged on Professor Higgins-like curiosity. Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor was a wonderful creation so long as he didn’t open his mouth and say “Mr Smiley”. The true chronicler of the insubordinate plebeian spook has always been Len Deighton.

But as a sketch-artist of fateful topography, le Carré was, among postwar British writers, peerless. It was the hook on which readers, including me, were immediately and gratefully caught. Thus, the British embassy in Bonn, that Small Town in Germany, the first book of his I read:

Imagine a sprawling factory block of no merit, the kind of building you see in dozens on the western by-pass, usually with a symbol of its product set out on the roof; paint about it a sullen Rhenish sky, add an indefinable hint of Nazi architecture, just a breath, no more, and erect in the rough ground behind it two fading goalposts for the recreation of the unwashed, and you have portrayed with fair accuracy the mind and force of England in the Federal Republic.

Like Trollope and Orwell, le Carré’s writing is most usually celebrated as a sharp-focused portrait of an age; attuned to the manipulative mischief of power, dwelling in the light-deprived burrows where underground creatures scurry around, stepping over old bones and sundry rubbish, to carry out, as best they can, the dirty business of state.

But beyond all that, le Carré’s writing will endure in the great pantheon of English literature as the work of an incomparable language-wrangler: often surprisingly tender amid the carnage, exactingly watchful, brimming with sensuous plenitude, even on rain-sodden city streets, and with the bloody beat of life pounding away on every page.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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