There was a time when John le Carré mattered, really mattered—back when he seemed a major talent and one of the best observers of our time: the man who had turned genre fiction into literature.
It started when he produced The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, built to the 1974 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and reached a crescendo with Smiley’s People (1979). The films helped, of course: the popular Richard Burton movie that Hollywood made from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965, the James Mason movie that director Sidney Lumet adapted from Call for the Dead in 1966. The widely acclaimed seven-part television miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for that matter, which the BBC released in 1979, with Alec Guinness playing le Carré’s quiet spymaster, George Smiley. But mostly it was the books—all those volumes from le Carré. The Looking Glass War (1965), A Small Town in Germany (1968), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977): For decades, you could find them on library shelves and used-book tables—dog-eared paperbacks, faded book-club editions—and to pick one up was to fall deep into the strangely placid waters of its agitated plot.
I was going to say that readers may have forgotten just how good le Carré’s writing was; but even as the years went by, le Carré never lost his writing talent. Indeed, in many of the later novels, from Single & Single (1999) to A Most Wanted Man (2008), prose was really all he seemed to have left. If anything, in a book like The Constant Gardener (2001), the writing had become even more careful, more delicate, more precious. Too precious, in fact. Somehow, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, each new volume felt a little less substantial, a little less incisive, a little less important, until—at this book, or that—you dropped off the le Carré express: not so much disliking him as ceasing much to notice him.
In the early books, however, the unhurried precision of that prose, the slow movement through those Cold War plots, made each new publication a mandatory read. He gave a wonderfully languid quality to the adventure tales of his spy fiction, as though Henry James had decided to rewrite Ian Fleming—Daisy Miller wandering into Casino Royale and having a rather tawdry little affair with James Bond.
Tawdry, in fact, has the authentic le Carré ring to it. A word of class distinction, just a little dated, and capturing in the prose what all the best le Carré seemed to be about: that moment when the classic British manner of affected amateurism and indolence fell over into genuine exhaustion—a spiritual, social, and even physical ennui that pervaded everything. Bit by bit, the old colonies had fallen away, till old England just didn’t count for much, le Carré was telling us, and the struggle against the Soviets was fought, in the final decades, only through a kind of inertia. A dull stone rolling slowly down the tail end of a slope. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold showed us a Cold War so much more vile than previous fiction had taught us to expect. The Looking Glass War, a spy profession so much more incompetent. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an England so much more corrupt.
Right at the moment he came along, espionage fiction needed someone like John le Carré. (His real name was David Cornwell. He had to use a pen name—“John the Square” in French—because he was still working for the British secret services when the first novels appeared.) By the early 1960s, the genre had grown somehow both enormously popular and enormously dull, the lift the Cold War had given spy novels hardening into formula and cliché. Yes, there had been spies in popular fiction before fears of the Soviet Union began to dominate the category. Back in 1907, Joseph Conrad used the genre to explore the murderous psychology of leftist terrorists, but Germany remained the central worry through most of the era. And of those books, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) remains almost worth reading. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920) is better than the universal dismissal of its author would lead you to suspect, as, for that matter, is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).
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.