The genius who revelled in deception

Bestseller: John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in some of its many versions.

Was John le Carré really a “giant of literature”? The spy novelist’s death has prompted a host of reverential tributes – but some critics believe that they overstate his achievements.

It is a cold, dark night, with mist rising from the River Spree. At a café beside Checkpoint Charlie, two men are waiting. Their eyes scan the Berlin Wall with its guard towers, floodlights and tangles of barbed wire. Suddenly, they leap to their feet as a lone figure begins the perilous crossing from East to West. Has their agent fooled the enemy, or is he about to be shot?

This is the kind of scene that the name John le Carré instantly evokes. His novels, particularly about the Cold War, sold in huge numbers – the most famous of them being Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. And his death at the age of 89 has been the cause of widespread mourning.

The head of MI6, Richard Moore, called him “a giant of literature” – a phrase echoed by the novelist Stephen King and historian Ben Macintyre. Stephen Fry referred to his “great life and talent”. Gary Oldman described him as “a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated spy novel”.

Because le Carré – whose real name was David Cornwell – had been a spy himself, his novels were valued for their authenticity. Some of the terms he used, such as “mole” and “tradecraft”, have passed into everyday use. In contrast to the glamorous, highly dramatic, good v bad world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, he presented the spy’s life as a seedy, often tedious one in which moral issues are never black and white.

Le Carré had an extraordinary start to his life. His father was a fraudster who spent time in jail and brought “a ceaseless procession of fascinating people” to their house. The young le Carré grew up without any real concept of truth: “Truth was what you got away with.”

This, his admirers say, made him ideally suited to write about a world of deception. But some critics think he is not very good at writing at all.

The novelist Frederick Raphael took issue with the opening of A Delicate Truth, which describes a character whose “very British features, though pleasant and plainly honourable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limits of his endurance”. What, Raphael queried, do “very British features” look like? And how can someone look “honourable” and furious at the same time?

Le Carré, he concluded, “stretches his thrills with mixed clichés, idiosyncratic phrases (can people “go faint at the knees”?) and witless dialogue”.

An anonymous critic in Standpoint argued that le Carré wrote some good books to begin with, but then declined into a “tendentious propagandist” offering plots of “cartoonish simplicity”. America was always cast as the villain, “Britain as the duplicitous stooge and multinational companies as the Devil incarnate”.

Many of his protagonists, the critic argued, were “stock characters, not full-blown portraits”.

Le Carré also had some really bad ideas for book titles. Two alternative titles for The Night Manager were The Last Clean Englishman and The Camel’s Nose.

Was John le Carré really a “giant of literature”?

Wholly moley

Some say, yes: le Carré elevated spy stories, which had traditionally been pure entertainment, to the level of serious literature. He discussed serious issues in a sophisticated way, and portrayed the spy’s world with new realism. Ben Macintyre argues that he created a genre of his own, combining “penetrating psychological insight with complex plotting and mastery of language”.

Others argue that taking a serious approach is not enough to make someone a great novelist. Le Carré’s books teem with banal prose and shallow characters. A first-class writer would be more nuanced: Shakespeare gave even his wickedest characters psychological depth. The murky world of modern espionage is far better portrayed in Graham Greene’s novels.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to have someone as a friend if you do not trust him or her to tell the truth?
  2. A question that nagged at le Carré for most of his life was the difference between patriotism and nationalism. How would you define it?

Activities

  1. John le Carré spent two years as a teacher at Eton. Write a story about a teacher who is also a spy.
  2. Draw a map of Berlin showing how it was divided by the Berlin Wall.

Some People Say...

“A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue.”

John le Carré (1931 - 2020), British novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that, whatever you think of his writing, le Carré’s books work brilliantly on screen. The film of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, starring Richard Burton, is regarded as a classic. The television version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is considered one of the BBC’s best dramas ever. More recently, The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl have been big hits on TV, and films of The Constant Gardener and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have been critically acclaimed.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how accurate a picture of a spy’s existence le Carré’s books actually give. He himself said that because he had only ever been a junior spy, he had had to invent things based on “glimpses of reality”. He added that “People insist that I know things that I have absolutely no knowledge of, and never did have.” A former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, said that le Carré’s view of the service was so one-sided and negative that it was “corrosive”.

Word Watch

Spree
Berlin has two large rivers, the Spree and the Havel, as well as many canals.
Checkpoint Charlie
The most prominent of several points where the Berlin Wall could be crossed – with permission – during the Cold War. It was the only one that East Germany allowed foreigners to use.
Berlin Wall
Work started on the wall in August 1961 to stop the flood of emigrants from East to West Germany. Not until 1989 were people allowed to cross the border freely again, by which time at least 100 would-be escapees are believed to have been shot dead by East German guards.
Stephen King
A best-selling American horror and crime writer whose books include Carrie and The Shining.
Gary Oldman
A British actor who played the lead character, George Smiley, in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He won the Best Actor Oscar in 2018 for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
Mole
A spy who spends a long time living under cover and is only activated after being accepted by the enemy as completely trustworthy.
Tradecraft
The procedures that spies follow – for example, when sending secret messages to each other.
Choleric
Angry. In medieval times anger was thought to be caused by a liquid in the body called choler.
Idiosyncratic
Unusual. Originally, an idiosyncrasy was a physical or mental characteristic which set someone apart from everybody else.
Duplicitous
Deceitful. It comes from a Latin word meaning “twofold”, indicating that someone might talk one way about one thing, while behaving an entirely different way somewhere else.

Subjects

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