John le Carré

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Le Carré, John (Pseudonym of David Cornwell) (Vol. 5)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3239

Le Carré, John (Pseudonym of David Cornwell) 1931–

Le Carré, an English novelist, is one of the few thriller writers—Eric Ambler and Graham Greene are two others—able to create serious fiction, distinguished by insight into motivation and personality, without sacrificing the best qualities of the thriller novel. After his tremendously successful novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and several other thrillers, le Carré apparently abandoned that genre for "serious" fiction; but critics and audience alike were delighted to receive his most recent thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, regarded by many as his best book to date. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

In case you were wondering, John le Carré is still the master of the spy story. Thirty pages into [Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy] should find you breathing heavily and mumbling penances for hours wasted with Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. Le Carré's work is above all plausible, rooted not in extravagant fantasies of the cold war but in the realities of bureaucratic rivalry summoned up through vapors of nostalgia and bitterness, in understated pessimism, in images of attenuation and grinding down, in "a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end," as le Carré's hero puts it. Recently, le Carré has seemed anxious to abandon the bleak authority of his spy fiction (his last novel [The Naïve and Sentimental Lover] was a windy, conventional romance), but this story marks a return to the straight and elaborately constructed entertainment….

Whether le Carré has adopted the shadow world of spies as a metaphor for much of our contemporary style of life I do not know, but it has served him well in several books as a frame in which to put many brief but striking portraits of destroyed and hunted men.

Peter S. Prescott, "Smiley vs. the Mole," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 17, 1974, p. 104.

During a cold war, when battles are fought by spies instead of soldiers, spy novels, particularly those written in response to the exigencies of everyday political life, seem to flourish…. In a world politically split, with neat Schrecklichkeit, into Us and Them, the spy novel boomed with hectic inventiveness. However far-fetched and implausible, it nonetheless touched a raw nerve.

But as history moved beyond confrontation between the two superpowers to a more diffuse, amorphous, constantly shifting arena of multiple antagonisms and unpredictable alliances, the spy novel itself changed from a hyperbolic reflection of a comprehended world to a rather poignantly anachronistic echo of a world that is gone. As a result, the novels of John Le Carré, who is unarguably the most brilliantly imaginative practitioner of the genre today, are "historical" novels even when they are ostensibly set in the present. And because of their historical perspective, they can register a skepticism and moral ambivalence, even outrage, about many aspects of espionage that would have been unthinkable to Ian Fleming and Helen MacInnes, the straight-and-true descendants of St. George. In contrast to the razzle-dazzle adventure tales of those authors, neither of whom harbored the faintest doubts about good and evil or which is which, Le Carré's books appear to be enriched with the insight and subtlety of a complex literary sensibility—or, at the least, a muckraking insider's view of Intelligence work as a very dirty game, a brutal contest that leaves no one on either side clean or unbloodied.

As Kingsley Amis has acidly pointed out, this seeming philosophic detachment renders Le Carré acceptable and "true" and "realistic" to...

(This entire section contains 3239 words.)

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highbrows who would ordinarily disclaim any interest in a writer of mere thrillers…. Yet Le Carré's genuine strength is precisely and strictly that of a first-rate spy novelist. To distort his admittedly unconventional view of British Intelligence, seeing in it a symbolic representation of Larger Issues; to draw high-toned moral profundity from the exhausted seediness of Alec Leamas, the spy who came in from the cold, is to misrepresent and distort Le Carré's extraordinary achievements as an original and mesmerising writer working within the strict boundaries of a difficult genre.

It is myopic and unjust to link Le Carré with high art: The criteria for judging literary fiction are simply irrelevant to his superb entertainments and can only muddle a reader's pleasure. One takes up Le Carré's books not for his style, though he writes with exceptional grace and wit; not for his delineation of personality, though many of his characters are drawn with a lively eye for their singular eccentricities and foibles; and certainly not for his pseudoprofound comments on the moral implications and underlying rot of Intelligence work, which he offers with extreme reticence and veiled, slyly mocking solemnity. Rather, Le Carré is a master craftsman of ingeniously plotted suspense, weaving astoundingly intricate fantasies of discovery, stealth, surprise, duplicity, and final exposure. And the good news is that after The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, a recent limp venture into "straight" fiction, [with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy] he is back at the very top of his form. (pp. 15-16)

Pearl K. Bell, "Coming in from the Cold War," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), June 24, 1974, pp. 15-16.

[Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy] is le Carré's first Circus act since a mildly lamentable foray into straight fiction (The Naïve and Sentimental Lover—1972). If it is not exactly a three-ring literary homecoming, it is a splendid assemblage of the virtues displayed in previous le Carré thrillers. Fine public-school scenes (see A Murder of Quality). Gently savage reminders that lingering old-boyism from the heroic days of World War II can lead to lethal folly in the crocodile world of modern espionage. Brisk demonstrations that hell hath no fury like that of feuding bureaucrats (The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany)….

Le Carré can still raise Circus shoptalk to the level of art. The intricate procedures of his baby sitters (bodyguards), lamplighters (watchers, safe-house men), and pavement artists (shadowers) rarely palls….

[The] book remains something of a paper chase. Why? In part, one suspects, because the struggle occurs mostly in Little England, a political shire now shorn of power and purpose, where there may simply be too much central heating for the spy who comes in from the cold…. The remorseless world of international espionage is thus transformed into something very like a traditional English detective story with the suspects figuratively locked in the English country house as the sleuth (Smiley) pokes around and the tantalized spectators wonder if he will dare pin it on the butler. (p. 91)

Timothy Foote, "Playing Tigers," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 24, 1974, pp. 88, 91.

John Le Carré's new book ["Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"] … reconfirms the impression that Le Carré belongs to the select company of such spy and detective story writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Graham Greene in England and Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in America. There are those who read crime and espionage books for the plot and those who read them for the atmosphere; the former talk of "ingenious puzzles" and take pride in "pure ratiocination"; the latter think themselves more literary, worry about style and characterization, and tend to praise their favorite writers as "real novelists." Le Carré's books—like those of the six authors just mentioned—offer plenty for both kinds of readers.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is fluently written; it is full of vivid character sketches of secret agents and bureaucrats from all levels of British society, and the dialogue catches their voices well. The social and physical details of English life and the day to day activities of the intelligence service at home and abroad are convincing. Unlike many writers Le Carré is at his best showing men hard at work; he is fascinated by the office politics of the agency since the war. He even has a go at such "novelistic" effects as interlocking themes of sexual and political betrayal. Yet the plot is as tangled and suspenseful as any action fan could require, and the inductive skill of the diffident, intellectual hero should bring joy to the hearts of the purists. The scale and complexity of this novel are much greater than in any of Le Carré's previous books….

Le Carré's career has been erratic from the start. Unlike most genre writers, he has never simply cranked out books according to a formula. His first two novels—a modest spy story, "Call for the Dead," in 1961 and a rather poor detective story, "A Murder of Quality," in 1962—gave little sense that Le Carré would ever amount to very much. But his third book—"The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" in 1963—was manifestly the work of a strong and original popular novelist and was greeted with enthusiasm by such British worthies as C. P. Snow, J. B. Priestley and Graham Greene (who called it "the best spy story I have ever read")…. His next book, "The Looking Glass War" in 1965, also sold well but it was distinctly less exciting, more of an atmospheric short story than a novel, for all its length. "A Small Town in Germany" in 1968 sold less well but is a most impressive popular novel; yet after it Le Carré abandoned the genre to write "The Naïve and Sentimental Lover," a book that failed with both critics and public.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is a full recovery, which in many ways consolidates Le Carré's career. (p. 1)

Le Carré's originality and distinction as a popular novelist lie in his use of the conventions of the spy novel for purposes of social criticism….

However, are not Le Carré's novels, even at their best, falsely comforting? For all their angry social criticism, they always offer us the pleasures of imagining the world as it was portrayed in the good old-fashioned English novel of class and character, manners and morals: the surface details of the physical and social world are clearly seen; people's looks and voices are immediately categorized and brightly reproduced; the plots are complex, suspenseful, full of historical details, but they are always triumphantly concluded, all mysteries and ambiguities neatly resolved. The psychology is straightforward; motives tend to be unmixed; the tangles of sex and family life are simplified….

Quite inadvertently Le Carré's novels reinforce the sodden liberalism they claim to condemn. They are nostalgic and given to self-pity; they offer two-dimensional models of human experience, melodramatic or sentimental answers to political dilemmas, and the simplistic and self-comforting suggestion that good men (and readers) should give up politics for lost and—like the victimized boy Candide—go cultivate their gardens. Le Carré's books repeatedly express a horrified, morally outraged but essentially naïve retreat from the full imagination of politics and society…. When Le Carré tried for depth in his last novel, he failed; modernism and the ironies of the literary novels of the 1960's are beyond him; but when, as in this new book, he shows the surface of experience in that good old-fashioned way, he is thoroughly entertaining. (p. 2)

Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 30, 1974.

[In le Carré's spy novels, not] only human motives, but the mechanics of history itself, are lost in an infinite regression of wheels within wheels. The machinery, set in motion in the past by some unknown hand, is everything. Why, you may wonder, do these unhappy men continue with their ridiculous power game? The answer, it seems, has to do with conditioning.

Bred on illusions, they have neither the equipment nor the desire to overcome the loss of these, and must find new forms of illusion. Patriotism mutates to sentimental homosexuality, to an irritable departmental esprit de corps, to a bureaucratic rationale which demands the appearance of action even if it is all about nothing. Besides, to shut up shop would be to concede victory in the power game to the United States, or the Soviet Union, or both—a fait accompli which these bloody-minded civil servants admit only to themselves, and in defiance of which they fight tooth and nail. Hence the aura of superannuated gentility, the feeling one gets from le Carré that time stopped in about 1950. Le Carré creates a very plausible, but finally unreal world. Is there really a British Secret Service, one finds oneself asking, and if so is it anything like this? Has the sophisticated, seedy version any more documentary value than the vulgar, glamorous one of Ian Fleming?

Derek Mahon, "Dolls Within Dolls," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Derek Mahon), July 4, 1974, p. 30.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy … marks [Le Carré's] return to the spy thriller after a brief and disastrous excursion into the pseudo world of the modern so-called 'straight' novel with the appalling [The] Naïve and Sentimental Lover….

The first-mentioned novel marks the return to the centre of the stage of Le Carré's finest creation, George Smiley, brilliant spy and totally inadequate man. Smiley becomes involved in a plot of unbelievably complex proportions…. This story—which is brilliantly complex, and makes The Spy [Who Came in from the Cold] look like a gentle Henty romp—is, moreover, apparently only the first in a series of rounds between Smiley and [a] new Russian mastermind in which, it seems, Smiley is himself to become Control….

Le Carré claims that the popularity of his work depends on a human fascination with deceit, and with treason as a capital from of deceit. Everybody in his books is a deceiver, almost everybody a potential traitor. James Cameron, in a recent brilliant critique of the books, stresses their fascination as novels of manners, in which the style and world of the characters—the obscure code-names, the apparently impenetrable but easily explained obscurity of the professional spying jargon—come to have a sufficiency of their own.

I am not sure that Le Carré altogether sees the implication of his own generalisation about his own work; nor that the critics … see the real and simple quality of the affirmations of the Le Carré characters. One speech of one such character that will ring for a long time in my ears is a passage from A Small Town in Germany in which a Foreign Office official makes a deep and bitter pronouncement, markedly nostalgic in character, on the decline of British power, the horror of that event, and the righteous anger to which human complicity in its occurence should give rise. It is this feeling, lying behind all the taradiddle of complexity, psychologising and shabbiness which gives the Le Carré spy novels their power.

And I want to develop the argument a little further. In the new book there is a whole series of characters—Jim, the battered, physically crooked, morally integral, ex-spy schoolteacher is the principal one, and a fulcrum of the action—who are modernised and more complex versions of the larger than life heroes of Buchan and his followers. Beneath the hatred of his country's decline, and the hatred of those responsible by their lack of vitality for it, and beneath his dark and seething regret for the past, John Le Carré is an adventure story writer in the grand British tradition. By his skill, and his extension of the range of his models, as much as through his own confused understanding of his heritage, he surpasses the general run of the modern novelists, and achieves, with this book, which is the best he has written, a great thriller.

"Crime Compendium", in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 6, 1974, p. 21.

Enthusiasm is not the best tactical posture. For a reviewer alive to the sophisticated attractions of jaundice it's also an abdication. All the same I find it difficult to be temperate about saying how much I enjoyed John Le Carré's new novel. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marks his return to the spy format after an exploratory peep into the straight world. Straight but parallel also: the contours of Le Carré's densely imagined, filthy landscape of deceit and murder are complementary to the features of normality, one reason why his descriptions of the underworld are so cogent. With no journalistic accumulation of technicalities in the manner of Forsyth, none of Len Deighton's obsession with gadgetry, Le Carré concentrates on inflections, submerged mannerisms, the elliptical shorthand of an obscure professionalism.

Here he plays the values of ordinary life off against 'trade' values, not to shock or to differentiate but to point out how close the spy is to the citizen. George Smiley, the shambling, paunchy hero of this novel and also of Call for the Dead is a top-class intelligence man, yet his responses remain profoundly conventional. So far from behaving like a spy in private life he tries to behave decently in the professional life, with disastrous consequences. It is precisely this vulnerability which makes him such an engaging figure. The same goes for his colleagues, despite their heavily meaningful names (autocratic Control, aloof Alleline). One is shocked not by their capacity for deceit but by their inclination to trust….

A perceptive reader [is] entranced not so much by the ramifications of the plot, beautifully engineered though it is, as by concern for the characters, a rare thing in thrillers. (p. 52)

Timothy Mo, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 12, 1974.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy … [is an] outstanding novel, based on England's Kim Philby affair, by the man who gave depth and dimension to the agents lurking behind the headline stories of the Cold War. It would be a mistake to describe this as merely a thriller; there is a fullness of characterization here that is found in few novels of any sort today, and the felicity of expression alone would justify reading it. Not to mention, of course, that Le Carré tells an absorbing story. (p. 1)

Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 8, 1974.

John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy … is a detective story about spies (a Russian agent has burrowed deep into England's intelligence service), rooted not in extravagant fantasies but in the realities of bureaucratic rivalry. Through its vapors of nostalgia, bitterness and understated pessimism, we learn a lot about mendacity, greed and complacency, the self-delusion that governs the lives of able and intelligent men. (p. 62)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1974.

[Le Carré] … is really dull and really pretentious in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, plodding and gloomy. Eric Ambler gave the spy story good plots and well-observed exotic atmospheres; Le Carré offers only boring shoptalk, in the name of telling it like it is, presumably, the spy business is just a business, see, so who is to complain if he sounds like Sloan Wilson in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Where Joseph Heller tries, and tries and tries, to find edges and sadnesses to the clichés about big company bureaucracies, Le Carré accepts them, literally, gloomily. I kept wondering if he were trying to find some way to fool all the people all the time. (p. 626)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.


Le Carré, John (Pseudonym of David Cornwell) (Vol. 3)


Le Carré, John (Pseudonym of David Cornwell) (Vol. 9)