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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Le Carré, an English novelist, is best known for his fiction of espionage. His work is characterized by an elegant prose style and a subtle insight into human character. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

For Le Carré, who sees nothing glamorous in espionage, the spy is not autonomous. The spy is a thing, created in dull security meetings and controlled by a board of drab directors…. The double and triple agent becomes the truly absurd hero because, as a puppet, his only choice is to be a comedian, to act out his empty loyalties in order to show contempt for each of them. Le Carré is the best of the espionage lot, probably the best writer in the form after Graham Greene. His conclusions are close to what other serious fiction has been telling us about the world we have to live in, that it is physically shabby and seedy and spiritually sterile, without love, faith, or hope. (pp. 57-8)

Robert Gillespie, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Summer, 1970.

Unfortunately,… charity … is needed [in reading The Honourable Schoolboy] in order to cope amiably with this deadeningly spun-out display of unassimilated guide-book info mixed in with all the stock Le Carré ploys. The central suspense line is thoroughly ungripping, not to say lethargic, and the Research thrusts itself from almost every page in the form of huge, inert slabs of topography and local colour. There's an unbelievable amount of sheer debriefing in the book, and many a character exists solely to pass on to us some necessary piece of Eastern lore. Embedded in all this are the main characters, Smiley and Westerbury. Smiley remains as shadowy as ever; he's been cuckolded a few more times since we last met but that's about the extent of his development. Westerbury, though, does signal an attempt by Le Carré to extend and deepen his characterisation of the unillusioned agent-figure, the battered pursuer of goals that must not be too closely called in question. Le Carré has never been much good at dealings between individuals (it's a novelty when he equips a member of the cast with more than two or three identifying traits) but he has always dangled vague romantic prospects before the noses of his run-down, manly types. In this book, he makes the mistake of permitting some fruition, and thus involving the manly one in weighty introspection. The result is depressingly cartoon-like—and all the more so in the operations-room atmosphere that provides the context for these intermittent flourishes of Sensitivity and Insight.

Much of all this could be swallowed if the book had any pace, but the things that are wrong with Le Carré, at the level of seriousness he no doubt feels he's aimed for here, totally debilitate the book's appeal as a run-of-the-mill espionage yarn. (p. 415)

Louis Finger, "The Manly One," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 23, 1977, pp. 414-15.

Le Carré's contribution to the fiction of espionage has its roots in the truth of how a spy system works. If in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels we meet fantasy and embrace it with a willing suspension of disbelief, in books like "The Honourable Schoolboy" we approach a truth, or at least a plausibility that must be accepted even if we would prefer to reject it. The people who run Intelligence totally lack glamour, their service is short of money, they are up against the crassness of politicians. Their men in the field are frightened, make blunders, grow sick of a trade in which the opposed sides too often seem to interpenetrate and wear the same face; they have no notable dexterity with women, they vomit, and, when they get hurt, the hurt lasts.

Since le Carré wants to present espionage as actuality, he is not at liberty to invent fantastic schemes of global takeover, villains like Milton's Satan, mad ingenuities of torture or girls of lubricous voluptuousness…. Le...

(The entire section is 2,818 words.)