Le Carré was right

Christopher Tayler

I used to have a pet theory – outlined in the LRB in 2007 – to explain why John le Carré’s later stuff didn’t have, as I saw it, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been wrongfooted by social change. More specifically, the declining pay and prestige of most kinds of public service meant that intelligence bureaucracies could no longer serve in the same way as a microcosm of the dark heart of the British establishment. Plummy chaps who, pre-Thatcher, would have made their way from prep schools, public schools and Oxbridge to the higher reaches of the BBC, the Civil Service or MI6 – the chaps whose speech and behaviour le Carré had observed with an outsider-insider’s intentness when he was starting out – were overwhelmingly concentrated now in financial services and commercial law.

And no one spoke the way his characters did any more. In 2007 there had been a Labour government for ten years. ‘Blairite wannabe-classless slur’, as le Carré put it, was the language of power. Even James Bond, as played by Daniel Craig, was speaking a slimmed-down RP. The spy chiefs and senior civil servants who appeared on the news were managerial types without detectable donnish mannerisms. Journalists presented themselves as slick professionals. Jerry Westerby, the shambling upper-class hack who speaks a non-PC schoolboy pidgin in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, may or may not have been a recognisable caricature in the 1970s, but either way he belonged to an extinct social species. That a joke figure like Boris Johnson could win fame with a similar act only underscored the point.

Above all, it seemed to me, romantic nationalism, which le Carré’s characters were still motivated by, just wasn’t much of a thing in the contemporary UK. So it made sense that I preferred the early novels, where I had more confidence in his depictions of a world that had mostly vanished before I was born. Perhaps a problem with the later novels was the anachronistic persistence of this pre-EU membership, pre-decimal world: a world in which power was wielded by men with extraordinary vowel sounds who valued low-grade verbal wit over technical expertise; and the general population could be mobilised around unfriendly views on foreigners; and there were hard borders everywhere; and British people were nostalgic about the Second World War rather than, say, the Beatles. Le Carré, whose early novels were part of the cultural convulsion that destroyed that world, should have known better. Or so it seemed to me in 2007.

My pet theory hasn’t worn very well. David Cameron shot some of it down. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg did the rest. And perhaps it was always a rationalisation of the feeling you have in your twenties and thirties that understanding your own cohort’s codes and assumptions means you understand the world in general better than your elders do. Now it’s too late for me to apologise to le Carré, but on Monday I re-read The Looking Glass War (1965) and found that he was a good deal more prescient than I was.

That novel is about a group of ageing, dysfunctional fantasists, obsessed with the glories of the Second World War, who launch a doomed operation against a European target on the basis of misunderstandings, wishful thinking and internal political squabbles. Everybody dies or comes to a sudden chilling realisation that, of the operation’s two nominal leaders, one is completely detached from reality, and the other is a clever manipulator – though not as clever as he thinks he is – whose studied eccentricity conceals a frightening inner emptiness. Their target is a non-existent East German rocket site rather than access to the Single Market, but otherwise it’s a Cold War classic that also stands up as a state-of-the-nation novel in December 2020.


  • 18 December 2020 at 8:58pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    I also have a pet theory about le Carré and it is that he rode the wave of the (continuing) fascination with upper-class habits, speech and actions that lasted from Vanity Fair to, oh I don’t know, Downton Abbey.
    Well-spoken, well-educated, modest, under-stated but supremely confident the denizens of the books of Le Carré followed in the footsteps of Conrad, Wodehouse, Thirkell, Waugh, Powell et al in showing an idealised civility that probably never existed but which, for those outside the Upper Ten, epitomised ‘Englishness’.
    Great escapism.

  • 19 December 2020 at 4:26pm
    sterilepromontory says:
    This is a spot-on commentary; I write as a 69-year-old for whom the world of the early Le Carre was recognizable. (Before Le Carre, I appreciated Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries, Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat and Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever.) Tayler's comment about low-grade verbal wit reminded me of the line from The Little Drummer Girl: "I thought you and the Huns had kissed and made up long ago." Given my particular background, that line sliced across my face. As for The Looking Glass War, it opens with an unnerving preview of the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 almost 20 years before it happened. For me, Le Carre's best written, most complex and personal book was The Perfect Spy, which closes with the hero discovering nothing in his father's empty file cabinets, and a burn box. One addition I'd make to Tayler's theory: Le Carre wrote about a Man's World (inner and outer) that we're now supposed to look back on in shame.

  • 19 December 2020 at 5:05pm
    Bob Beck says:
    Le Carré wrote in 2008 that, when he made self-deception-shading-into-madness the subject of The Looking-Glass War, his "readers hated him for it":

    That's not always a sign of prescience on a writer's part, of course, but definitely seems so here.

    • 19 December 2020 at 7:24pm
      sterilepromontory says: @ Bob Beck
      Where did "Le Carre" come from? Does anybody know? "The Square"? The opposite of "hip"? In his world--as a writer, a spy, or as a fictional character--was it hip to be square?

    • 19 December 2020 at 8:53pm
      David Gordon says: @ Bob Beck
      Now I know why Richard Dearlove disliked le Carré.

    • 20 December 2020 at 1:48am
      Bob Beck says: @ sterilepromontory
      Maybe; but he said, in at least one interview, that even he didn't know how he chose the name:

    • 20 December 2020 at 2:05am
      Bob Beck says: @ David Gordon
      I can't say I'm sympathetic to Dearlove. But then I would say that, I suppose -- if you're a Le Carré fan, you tend to adopt, if nothing else, a jaundiced view of blustering officials.

  • 20 December 2020 at 8:30am
    Camus says:
    I think I have read most of his books, including "sentimental lover" but the last six left little impression, but rather a feeling that he had lost his skill in plotting a good yarn. This is partly because you can only create Smiley once, and Le Carré had to rejuvenate him after "A Call for the Dead" . But I am very grateful for the many hours of pleasure he has given over the decades.

  • 21 December 2020 at 9:52am
    Richard Fox says:
    One of Le Carré's friends was (and is) Tom Stoppard. Hermione Lee's biography shows how this idea of Englishness derives from values that go well beyond class and gender. Stoppard, coming to England as an 8 year-old, loved the qualities of honesty, loyalty and wit that he encountered there and which inform his plays. Like Le Carré, Stoppard feels desolated by the falling away from such 'English' standards in the last twenty years or so.

  • 23 December 2020 at 9:17am
    Julian Forbes says:
    I'd uphold your 2007 theory, Christopher. The later books do betray their author's 'retired' status and there is a lessening of excitement from the greater distance that one knows now exists between writer and his story-world. You notice the same thing, much more harshly, in later Frederick Forsyth: the tone that seemed so authoritative and real in Day of the Jackal now more clearly bespeaks days of slightly fumbly Googling. Le Carré's later books acknowledge this alienation more or less successfully (The Secret Pilgrim vs A Legacy of Spies). The success of A Most Wanted Man, meanwhile, is to my mind down to the fact that the typical concluding Smiley-ex-Machina untypically fails. The old tricks don't work, the old dogs are more thoughtful but they are now sadly just too old, and fat, and slow. Philip Seymour Hoffman's incarnation of that whole predicament in the film is as essential as Guinness's Smiley, by the way, and all the more chilling for the sense that he could be expressing something personal - the film was his last.

  • 29 December 2020 at 5:12pm
    R Bunting says:
    I always feel Le Carre is looking not forward but back, to a better time when intelligence services were (he believed) competent and decent and we could have loyal pride in our country. There's always a damaged but overwhelmingly honourable innocent somewhere in his plots. In moral tone the writer he most reminds me of is Buchan.

  • 29 December 2020 at 5:19pm
    vulpiani says:
    Conrad in the same 'footsteps' as Wodehouse? Ouch!

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