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Square’s Roots

As the Cold War ended, the compass went haywire.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (1928) and Eric Ambler’s late-1930s volumes, from Epitaph for a Spy to A Coffin for Dimitrios, started to change things. (In fact, for years until le Carré burst on the scene, Ambler was thought to be the one genuinely good writer the genre had produced.) But spy fiction, as distinct from pure adventure stories, came into its own only with the Cold War, from Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949) to Adam Hall’s The Quiller Memorandum (1965). Desmond Cory’s Secret Ministry (1951), Ian Fleming’s From Russia, with Love (1957), Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964)—the British owned the genre in those days, and they were killing it. Such parodies as Colin Watson’s Hopjoy Was Here (1962) and Donald Westlake’s The Spy in the Ointment (1966) were already revealing the essential emptiness of the genre, and the fantastical film versions of Fleming’s already fantastical spy were turning the whole thing back into adventure thrillers.

And then we found John le Carré. If James Bond was an old-fashioned figure out of E. Phillips Oppenheim or William Le Queux—a multitalented hero against mastermind villains, updated with a little more brutality and a lot more sex—then le Carré’s George Smiley was .  .  . well, what was he? He had a touch of the quiet eccentricity of an elderly Oxbridge don, coupled with a curious bit of dissociation that seemed at times like something out of Camus. A deliberate self-effacing and hiding of intelligence reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, as well, together with the sad, enduring love of a cuckold that could have come from James Joyce’s everyman figure of Leopold Bloom. He was, in fact, basically the aging Alec Guinness, who was perfectly cast as Smiley in the 1979 setting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 1982 version of Smiley’s People—the pair of BBC miniseries which stand as the closest approximation that film has ever managed to le Carré’s vision. So defining has Guinness’s portrayal become that it’s hard to imagine any other way to set the character.

Hollywood has come out with a movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (see “Slow Motion Smiley” by John Podhoretz, Dec. 26), but the book resists being compressed into the two hours of a movie, and besides, the star Gary Oldman isn’t playing George Smiley: He’s playing Alec Guinness playing George Smiley, and not quite achieving it. You might think, with le Carré’s name back in the news, that he’s ready for a revival. There’s the new film; the Acorn Media release of the old Tinker, Tailor BBC series on DVD; the Indian summer of what le Carré has suggested may be his last work, the surprisingly good Our Kind of Traitor (2010).

But really, le Carré was always slightly disappointing when the topic wasn’t the Cold War. His 1983 foray into the Middle East, The Little Drummer Girl, seemed at the time a dead end from which he backtracked in A Perfect Spy (1986) and The Russia House (1989). But then the Soviet bloc came crashing down, and le Carré never quite seemed to find another subgenre deep enough to hold all he was capable of pouring into it. Moral undertone was the problem. He could still construct a puzzle plot; he could still do a more complex character study than anyone imagined the spy tale could actually contain; he could even maintain the languid perfection of that distinct prose. But in the exhaustion of Great Britain that le Carré imagined, what was left after the fall of the Soviet empire? 

The tension of his best books came from a moral certainty that, all the way down at the bottom, the enervated self still knew that communism was worth resisting. And after that, what resistance? Less and less and less until, at last, nothing at all.

Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.

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