The Surprisingly Progressive John le Carré

Alright, not that progressive. But, hence the ‘surprising’ as it was more than I was expecting. Having seen the excellent 2012 adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré’s novels seemed to fit the bill for my post-deadlines reading, with espionage, a splash of Cold War politics, and 1960s and ‘70s Britain lurking coolly in the background. I promptly purchased Penguin’s new, gorgeous boxset of George Smiley novels, le Carré’s anti-Bond, and dove in.

A Murder of Quality, le Carré’s second novel, published in 1962, contained more class commentary and English satire than most modern novels. The plot revolves around the murder of Stella Rode who, days before she is found bludgeoned in her garden, sends a letter to a magazine editor stating that she fears her husband Stanley will kill her. Stanley is presented as an outsider at the public school where he teaches. The other teachers, particularly D’Arcy, make no secret of their contempt for his being from a Grammar school, and allowed into their age-old, Establishment institute.

What le Carré manages to do is maintain a complex web of social pressures and prejudices alongside an equally sprawling murder case, to show the Etonian mindset at work. In the end, the snobs are unsurprisingly revealed as responsible, but Stanley’s life is ruined by scandal, despite being the victim of a complex attempt to frame him for his wife’s murder. The intolerance of those in charge towards a self-made, working class man, who is easily more intelligent than most of them, is a sufficient motive for murder. Le Carré seems to be saying something about the introspectiveness and cruelty of the English upper and middle classes, and their reluctance to change in the early ‘60s, a period far from the liberated, hazy hippy revolution that we have come to see the decade as. As Ian McEwan wrote – it was only the ‘60s for some.

Contempt for working class people still lurks on the left and right, even by the most amplified voices against injustice. In A Murder of Quality, the supposedly more liberal Fielding, an elderly, large Establishment figure with that rambling, over-educated tendency to fill conversations with endless quotations and anecdotes, is ultimately the murderer. He is threatened because his secret favor of Head Boy Perkins, and his cheating for him so he will pass his exams and reach Oxbridge, is uncovered by Stella, whom he then kills.

Although Fielding was pontificating about how great social change can be, as soon as someone beneath him poses a threat, he knew that she was so loathed by those in the school for her refusal to conform to their irate customs, anyone would be a viable suspect. In other words, le Carré knew that those helping others up the ladder will always throw them down again if they become a serious threat – principles go out the window if they compromise the supposedly principled.

Immediately afterwards, I read 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which is every bit as brilliant as its reputation claims. Here, too, was le Carré’s use of political tension to underpin a meticulous thriller. However, this novel had a bleakness and aimlessness to it that showed how politics in the Cold War era was increasingly defined not by any solid ideological stance, but purely by geography and a bleak, elitist nationalism. The protagonist Alec says at one point,

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?

This stark outlook on Cold War espionage and morality is even more striking when it is remembered that le Carré himself served in British Intelligence, and only retired to become a full-time writer after this novel was published. His pessimism is not ill-informed. Le Carré is not just anti-war but also implies that the moral distinction that predicated the Cold War, that between Communism and Western capitalism, is a myth designed to justify a very male, very privileged power game.

There are obvious, cheap parallels to Brexit and Trump that can be drawn here, but stepping out of contemporary politics for a moment, le Carré is lampooning a class system that upholds this, that he himself had benefitted from. Alec, the protagonist, is the ultimate victim of all this game playing, and is described as more working class and decidedly less posh than his bosses. We readers fall for these thrills just as much as the members of the Circus do (the heads of British Intelligence, so named because of their headquarters’ location in Cambridge Circus, Central London).

Their thrills are ours, until the tragic ending springs up to remind us of the cost that these plots and plans have in the real world. Le Carré is, I think, still revolutionary in his outlook. The implication in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is that anyone get caught up in the instantaneous excitement that feeds into a dangerous, amoral nationalism, and an ever-concentrating elitism. Taking one look at the faces of disillusioned white men screaming at teenagers, students, and human rights campaigners these past few weeks, shows le Carré was rightfully concerned about this thrill-seeking dimension to hatred. Morally, there is little difference between those thugs on the streets, and the Etonians in Downing Street, who encourage this behavior, seeing politics as little more than a game.

This idea is taken to new levels of dourness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), where the dramatic climax is stripped from the plot in the story of George Smiley’s hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest level of British Intelligence. Once the mole is found, there is a distinct sense of anticlimax, of emptiness. Le Carré describes the scene at the house where the mole has just been found, and all the senior members of The Circus are present in an empty, quiet, strange, atmosphere, that ‘might have been a board meeting.’ The thrills they sought, and we enjoyed, as the hunt got underway evaporate into a sad scene when the hunt is over. That lack of moral difference explored in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold filling the vacuum, as these men see that a close friend must be sent away, forever.


Interviewing the mole, Smiley asks about his story as a Soviet agent. (I will not reveal the mole’s identity but use his codename ‘Gerald’, as he is described in the book prior to his reveal, so you can go off and enjoy the film or book – both of which are marvelous). Gerald outlines his motives below:

“We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter…

“The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution…

“The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability in world affairs…”

With much of it, Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed; it was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him.

This again emphasizes the lack of difference between sides, but the focus on circumstances and tone being the defining feature of the ideas’ worth is something markedly more pessimistic than in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Whereas in that novel we see characters caught up in the power games, deciding through personal tragedy that their leaders are inhuman, cruel, and without moral integrity, here, le Carré shows it to be true rather than simply a natural if incredibly biased reaction to betrayal.

Even Smiley, the novel’s protagonist and main investigator, does not fall distinctly on either side of the supposed ideological lines. Le Carré’s presentation of Gerald’s justification, the unending sentences with ellipses, have a droll, bored, faint-hearted tone, as though Gerald is trying to convince himself as much as he is Smiley. And that bored, faint-hearted justification is the only one given in the whole novel – we see no more of his intentions than that, and perhaps there are none. It all feels like a pointless game these men are caught up in, too deep inside the state machine to be driven by passions.

Gerald also has an erotic relationship with a male agent in the novel, the agent being a hero who was cruelly betrayed in a mission by information that Gerald leaked to the Soviets. Not only does le Carré represent these queer men as complex and un-stereotypical, at a time where the public mood was much less than friendly towards homosexuals, but also says something about the personal consequences of political games. Whilst nobody comments negatively on homosexuality in the book, the relationship is doomed by their political roles rather than prejudice. Le Carré is being less forward thinking in the sense that he uses this to demonstrate Gerald’s, and thus intelligence services in general’s, inward looking, and unreliable nature – he has several adulterous flings. But nonetheless, his lover is portrayed humanely, and is deeply hurt by the betrayal. At least with one half of the relationship, le Carré dedicates this storyline purely to tragedy caused by these aimless loyalties. Not bad, for 1974.

John le Carré surprised me in these books. Whilst I was merely expecting some thrills and complex plots, which I received, the welcome inclusion of bleak international intelligence gathering, and a dark political outlook was a welcome addition. Progressive for his time, certainly, but now, amidst this corona crisis, the message of elites wandering into power with disastrous, morally bankrupt consequences seems is somewhat comforting. Especially considering we are now on our Twentieth Etonian Prime Minister – and our third consecutive one, if we discount Theresa May who was not eligible since Eton is still an all-boys school. It seems that le Carré got rather a lot right.



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