John le Carré Le Carré, John - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John le Carré 1931–

(Pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell) English novelist and short story writer.

Le Carré is an enormously popular writer of spy fiction. His novels are praised for their insight into human motivation and personality, and are noted for their credible plots and realistic characterizations. Le Carré's protagonist, British agent George Smiley, is considered by many critics to be a refreshing contrast to the suave, superhuman heroes of other contemporary spy fiction. Le Carré portrays Smiley as an ordinary, somewhat lonely middle-aged man who often battles his superiors and bureaucratic red tape in addition to Soviet agents.

The authenticity of le Carré's work derives from his career in the British Foreign Office. From 1960 to 1963, le Carré served as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, and in 1964, as Consul in Hamburg, he was involved in intelligence activities throughout West Germany. Call for the Dead (1961), le Carré's first novel, received positive reviews for its gritty realism and nonglamorous depiction of cold war espionage. Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), was both a critical and popular success and placed him in the forefront of spy fiction. The "Smiley" trilogy—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1980)—are other bestselling works.

In The Little Drummer Girl (1983) le Carré abandons the cold war and Smiley for the Middle East conflict. The Little Drummer Girl is the story of an English actress who is recruited and trained by Israeli agents to help capture a high-ranking Palestinian terrorist. It is controversial because the heroine begins to sympathize with the Palestinian cause, which many equate with terrorism. In general, however, The Little Drummer Girl received favorable and provocative reviews and has affirmed le Carré's universal status as a powerful and entertaining novelist.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré has abandoned the polite chess game of the Cold War. He has plunged instead into a very hot and current struggle of hand grenades and fragmentation bombs, the mutual campaign of terror waged by the Israelis and Palestinians…. [The central character,] Charlie, an idealistic young actress and a political innocent, has been chosen to lead an imaginative journey, one that parallels a personal journey of le Carré's: from initial sympathy for the Israelis to a sombre, bitter recognition of Palestinian oppression and pain. The plot is as labyrinthine as ever. But the passion of the writing, kindled by an overwhelming concern for peace in the Middle East, is unmatched. Out of his sorrow and fury le Carré has written a novel that rises eloquently above the politics of the Middle East. With The Little Drummer Girl he has transcended his fluent technique as a thriller writer, creating a novel as intense and as morally complex as the best of Graham Greene himself. (pp. 47-8)

Mark Abley, "John le Carré's Trail of Terror," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1983 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 96, No. 10, March 7, 1983, pp. 47-52.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The beginning of John le Carré's new book ["The Little Drummer Girl"] is, for a spy thriller, entirely orthodox: There is a bombing, a bombing by a terrorist. Where? Near Bonn, but the location does not matter. There have been so many others, in Zurich, in Leyden, here and there. It matters only that the victim was an Israeli. Although the reader spends time in Bonn and in Tel Aviv and in Vienna, Munich, Mykonos, London, it matters hardly at all, except that the ambiance of these places is an invitation for Mr. le Carré to use his palette. The places are simply where the terrorist strikes, or where the antiterrorists are collected.

It becomes instantly apparent that we are in the hands of a writer of great powers. (p. 1)

We are very quickly aware that we are reading not Dashiell Hammett but someone much more like Lawrence Durrell. The author does not forget his duty. There is sleuthing galore ahead of the reader; and, in the end, the Palestinian terrorist is emphatically dead. But the momentum of the story is not ended with his death. There is left—the girl. The instrument of the Israeli antiterrorists. An English actress named Charlie, she is permanently changed by the complex role imposed on her—to be faithful at once to the Israeli and the Palestinian causes. And she is in love with the most mysterious character to have appeared in recent fiction, whose flesh-and-blood reification Mr. le Carré flatly refuses to give us. His name is Joseph, and other than the Israeli superspy Schulmann, the English actress Charlie and, however briefly, the Palestinian superterrorist Khalil, there is only Joseph seriously to ponder. At first he is merely a will-o'-the-wisp, and one is not entirely certain that he actually exists. Then he is incorporated formally into the plot, his persona on the one hand central, on the other hand continuingly elusive. And when finally only he exists for Charlie, after the entrapment, after Khalil is gone, the magnetism is enormous. The emotional tension of the postlude elevates it into a full fourth...

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Melvyn Bragg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Little Drummer Girl] is the third Le Carré novel which is exceedingly well-timed. The first was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which defined the Cold War with an intensity and adult perception which came as a relief after the lockjawed propaganda of the politicians and the comic-cuts cartoons of popular fiction.

Then came Smiley who tinkered his honourable way through people in institutions so very like the institutions most of us have suffered through. Whether it was school, university, the factory, the civil service, Smiley talked about the JOB. Moles were found in every cranny; spooks in every nook.

Now, with The Little Drummer Girl, Le Carré has slipped away from Smiley and pitched camp in the Middle East.

It is the Middle East of espionage: in that sense Le Carré is taking his life-belt with him. It is also the Middle East of propaganda: in that sense he is walking into a fiery furnace. For as everyone knows who has ever written anything about the State of Israel, to applaud is permissible; to question is to criticise; to criticise is to ask to be pilloried….

[How much] is Le Carré taking on here where the new fuse in the book is the discovery by the chief character—an English actress called Charlie and borrowed, in part, from the author's sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell—that the Palestinians too have a case, a cause, and should have a country….

The Middle East drew Le Carré on. He talked to Israeli intelligence officers. He "goofed around". Then he went to the Palestinian camps and met Arafat. His perception changed, as does that of Charlie in the novel. She is enlisted by Israeli Intelligence to act as a double agent and help the Israelis eliminate a particularly effective nexus of Palestinian opposition…....

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Reginald Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Little Drummer Girl] Le Carré has moved right away from Smiley-land to the Middle East, from the Cold War to the passions of the Israeli-Arab conflict, from national security to national hate. Smiley himself is no great miss, still less his tiresome wife. The fascination of the Smiley books lay increasingly in what he did rather than what it did to him, and in Smiley's People we were given a splendid gala performance by the espionage circus, a sort of celebratory perhaps even valedictory climax to a life of deception and make-believe. The skill was breathtaking but you didn't lie awake afterwards wondering what the performers did when they went home. We'd come a long way from the focal humanity of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Now in The Little Drummer Girl the human dimension tops the bill once more, though happily not at the expense of those special effects, those shifts of shade and light, those transformation scenes, those trompe l'oeil backcloths, those gods out of machines, which make Le Carré's stagings of the drama of subversion so memorable. The theatrical metaphor is apt. The little drummer girl herself is an actress called Charlie. Why not? Karla, after all, was a chap. Names are where we start to know each other and in Le Carré's world, knowledge is the beginning of deceit. Who else would have called a constitutional melancholic Smiley? And the Smiley-figure here, the...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Martin Cruz Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Writing about Le Carré is chancy. Ever since 1962, when The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was published, he has been the standard by which other writers of the so-called international thriller are measured. A couple of years ago I got the garland "Le Carré of the Year." The next season it was passed to the succeeding pretender. Le Carré stayed the constant. With his new novel, The Little Drummer Girl, he remains ahead of us, dwelling at, exploring, the very end of espionage as the analogy he helped create….

In each new book, Le Carré becomes more involved and entangled in espionage as the professional technique it really is. This is the context and lesson of his work as it has...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Thurston Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Le Carré's] new novel, which marks a sharp break away from the tortured world of George Smiley and his colleagues at the Circus, springs from the author's complete immersion in the stream of Middle-East terror and counterterror. They spill out into many of the European cities to which the action of The Little Drummer Girl takes us. Le Carré entered that grim world looking for a fresh plot for Smiley, but he soon discovered that the locale demands a cast of entirely new characters. So he has given us Kurtz, Litwak, Ned Quilley, Tayeh, Salim, Khalil, the indomitable Joseph whose real name is Gadi Becker, together with a troop of subsidiary people, each drawn so as to be sharply remembered. Then, of course,...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With The Little Drummer Girl, John le Carré has thrown off his winter cloak and let his limbs flex. Unlike the Smiley novels, which have a burrowing, circumspect determination, The Little Drummer Girl doesn't read as if it were written with mittens. The book feels as if it were dashed off with the zealous haste of a reporter filing for a deadline. Once the dread Karla had been flushed from his lair like a sick, shivering animal at the close of Smiley's People …, le Carré must have sensed it was time to strike down the tents of the Circus and push on to a larger, more turbulent arena—the Middle East.

Yet this novel is far from a severe break from le Carré's previous...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

David Pryce-Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Le Carré's thrillers have conveyed, as few others, the urgency of the struggle waged between East and West, between totalitarianism and democracy. The struggle is openly about human values, and its outcome will affect the lives of virtually everyone. Some aspects of it nevertheless are largely invisible, or at least concealed from public inspection, and it is upon them that Le Carré has focused. In order to depict the East-West struggle in fictional terms, he has blurred its moral outlines, to show that both sides use comparable means to advance their very different ends. The intensity and drive of his thrillers have derived from the ambiguity at their center, whereby good men often do evil for reasons of...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Marghanita Laski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is not on being an excellent thriller-writer that John le Carré has gained the kind of superior acceptance that Marilyn Monroe has over Joan Blondell, but because he has come to count (as, say, Price, Gardner, Freeling, and Lyall have not) as a good writer, a writer worthy of more than inclusion in some forthcoming Best of British Thrillers list, a writer who can be read for vicariously authentic agony. So is The Little Drummer Girl a good book? It's hard to feel that this is a useful question as compared with the far more interesting, Is this a good thriller? And yes, it is, though with interesting flaws.

The most trying of these is a flaw that is becoming endemic in the...

(The entire section is 586 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apart from the rare scathing review, The Little Drummer Girl has won well-nigh universal praise. In some respects the praise is deserved, for the novel moves at a brisker pace than most Le Carré novels while retaining their characteristic virtues: it is carefully plotted, well written, has a strong sense of place, and offers a credible portrait of the mechanisms of clandestine intelligence struggle….

[However, the] novel suffers from Le Carré's weakness in characterization. He makes elaborate efforts with Charlie, his first female protagonist, but the end result is a mass of contradictions. (p. 24)

But The Little Drummer Girl is interesting principally because in...

(The entire section is 968 words.)