John le Carré

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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2818 words.)

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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 Carré must also cling to real places, where real espionage situations are available. The world available to the British spy who (unlikely story) is not called in to assist the C.I.A. is shrinking very fast. Only Hong Kong seems to be left, and that is where the greater part of the action of this novel takes place. (p. 9)

Le Carré is so concerned with planting his story in a wide field of credibility that he spends far more time in mowing the field than in spudding in his shoots. This is a very long book for its subject, and there is scene after scene—usually back in London where the Circus operates—in which the old fictional principle of Ockham's Razor (less is more) is relentlessly eschewed. On the other hand, le Carré has learned something about dialogue that is not apparent in the earlier books. His Hong Kong Chinese sound like the real thing, as do his Americans—the Cousins, as the Brits call them—and the horrible Bolshies and Yellow Perils of the Circus (so the specialists are facetiously called) speak like many varieties of Brit. But the dialogues go on forever, as if boredom were an essential adjunct of learning the real truth of how intelligence operations are set up. Le Carré is like the film director Stanley Kubrick of "2001: A Space Odyssey": if you're bored in this fictional situation, therefore this fictional situation is real life. Sometimes, bizarrely, I seemed to be reading a novel, like those of Wyndham Lewis, in which every character is solid but not one of them moves.

From the very start, le Carré seems determined to put you off these characters: they're unattractive, therefore they must be real. The facetiousness—cliché-laden and often brutal—of much of their speech, and of the récit surrounding it, sets one's teeth aching. As we move with steamroller slowness to the dénouement, we move also toward the region of a conventional and satisfying spy story…. And before that, we've had some efficient evocations of Laos, Northeast Thailand and Phnom Penh. And, always, the marine, cartographical, ballistic and procedural technicalities are faultless….

Does [this book] have anything to do with literature? In the sense that literature is recognizable through its capacity to evoke more than it says, is based on artful selection, throws up symbols, suggests a theology or metaphysic of which the story itself is a kind of allegory, the answer has to be no.

[Le Carré remains] ingenious, veridical, documentary rather than imaginative. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is probably better for a novelist's Soul? Soul? Souls are for the running dogs' Baptist missions. (p. 45)

Anthony Burgess, "Peking Drugs, Moscow Gold," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, pp. 9, 45.

It is difficult not to overpraise [The Honourable Schoolboy], this new (and, apparently, concluding) installment of the voluminous history of the British spymaster George Smiley and his brilliant secret service, known as the Circus. It has, most certainly, its faults. It runs to well over two hundred thousand not always necessary words. Its plot—the tracing of a high-ranking Chinese turned Russian spy—is devious but essentially thin. Its opening chapter—a drunken romp at the Hong Kong press club—is embarrassing. And so is the author's fondness for stylistic mockery…. But these fade in the glorious sunshine of its virtues. It has a compelling pace, a depth beyond its genre, a feeling for even the least of its characters, a horrifying vision of the doomed and embattled Southeast Asia left in the wake of the Vietnam war, and a dozen set pieces—following, fleeing, interrogating—that are awesomely fine. (p. 163)

Mollie Panter-Downes, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 3, 1977.

John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy … has its enervating moments. Local color sometimes yawns into travelogue. Romantic interludes seem pasted in. The ending is contrived. And it's foregone that George Smiley, the failed-priest bureaucrat of the British Secret Service …, will survive….

The plot of The Honourable Schoolboy is superbly elaborate and, except for the end, so adroitly worked out that it can fool us into overrating its importance…. This is structure, scaffolding; that it's wobbly in one place doesn't matter much. The real novel is inside.

That is, inside George Smiley's head. He perceives always the anomalies of his life's work, but with a difference. The spy business may be peripheral. It is often extremely stupid, and sometimes comic in a rueful way. But he doesn't claim much tragedy for it. When things go wrong, it's a matter of circumstance. People are buffeted by ambition, physical needs, exhaustion. What might seem tragic is merely these circumstances getting in the way of the simplest (or most complex) of intellectual intentions—these and chance and the relentless passage of time. The hours and days troop by—here now, then irretrievably gone; their pace is inflexible, utterly beyond the most minor modification by man. We grow older; spies grow older.

In this context, the great questions—What is loyalty? What is honor? What rights and responsibilities go with having even momentary effect on others?—do not lose their potency, but are simply addressed within humbler dimensions. The questions, not the action, the violent skullduggery and derring-do (of which there is plenty), provide the tension in the book, are its engine of suspense. (p. 103)

This is a very rewarding tale: so much is told. It's old-fashioned in a sense—le Carré wants to intrigue and entertain, not to whine. It's an escape in the classic mode: You lose yourself in it, suspensefully but cozily. But you don't lose yourself entirely; a bit of the reader's future is mortgaged, too. (p. 105)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Thriller of Dignity, Diller of Distaste," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), October 24, 1977, pp. 103, 105.

[The Honourable Schoolboy] is about twice as long as it should be. It falls with a dull thud into the second category of le Carré's books—those which are greeted as being something more than merely entertaining. Their increasingly obvious lack of mere entertainment is certainly strong evidence that le Carré is out to produce a more respectable breed of novel than those which fell into the first category, the ones which were merely entertaining. But in fact it was the merely entertaining books that had the more intense life….

The Honourable Schoolboy brings the second sequence to a heavy apotheosis. A few brave reviewers have expressed doubts about whether some of the elements which supposedly enrich le Carré's later manner might not really be a kind of impoverishment, but generally the book has been covered with praise—a response not entirely to be despised, since The Honourable Schoolboy is so big that it takes real effort to cover it with anything. At one stage I tried to cover it with a pillow, but there it was, still half visible, insisting, against all the odds posed by its coagulated style, on being read to the last sentence.

The last sentence comes 530 pages after the first, whose tone of mythmaking portent is remorselessly adhered to throughout. "Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London's secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin." The Dolphin case history, it emerges with stupefying gradualness, is concerned with the Circus (i.e., the British Secret Service) getting back on its feet after the catastrophic effect of its betrayal by Bill Haydon, the Kim Philby figure whose depredations were the subject of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The recovery is masterminded by George Smiley, nondescript hero and cuckold genius….

This novel didn't have to be tedious. The wily schemes of the Circus have been just as intricate before today. In fact the machinations outlined in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Looking Glass War far outstrip in subtlety anything Smiley gets up to here. Which is part of the trouble. In those books character and incident attended upon narrative, and were all the more vivid for their subservience. In this book, when you strip away the grandiloquence, the plot is shown to be perfunctory. There is not much of a story. Such a lack is one of the defining characteristics of le Carré's more recent work. It comes all the more unpalatably from a writer who gave us, in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, a narrative so remarkable for symmetrical economy that it could be turned into an opera….

To start with, the prose style is overblown. Incompatible metaphors fight for living space in the same sentence. "Now at first Smiley tested the water with Sam—and Sam, who liked a poker hand himself, tested the water with Smiley." Are they playing cards in the bath? Such would-be taciturnity is just garrulousness run short of breath. On the other hand, the would-be eloquence is verbosity run riot. Whole pages are devoted to inventories of what can be found by way of flora and fauna in Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other sectors of the mysterious East. There is no possible question that le Carré has been out there and done his fieldwork. Unfortunately he has brought it all home.

But the really strength-sapping feature of the prose style is its legend-building tone. Half the time le Carré sounds like Tolkien. You get visions of Hobbits sitting around the fire telling tales of Middle Earth.

Need Jerry have ever gone to Ricardo in the first place? Would the outcome, for himself, have been different if he had not? Or did Jerry, as Smiley's defenders to this day insist, by his pass at Ricardo, supply the last crucial heave which shook the tree and caused the coveted fruit to fall?

Forever asking questions where he ought to be answering them, the narrator is presumably bent on seasoning mythomania with Jamesian ambiguity: The Lord of the Rings meets The Golden Bowl. Working on the principle that there can be no legends without lacunae, the otherwise omniscient author, threatened by encroaching comprehensibility, takes refuge in a black cloud of question marks….

Fatally, the myth-mongering extends to the characterization. The book opens with an interminable scene starring the legendary journalists of Hong Kong. Most legendary of them all is an Australian called Craw. In a foreword le Carré makes it clear that Craw is based on Dick Hughes, legendary Australian journalist. (p. 29)

Le Carré used to be famous for showing us the bleak, tawdry reality of the spy's career. He still provides plenty of bleak tawdriness, but romanticism comes shining through. Jerry Westerby, it emerges, has that "watchfulness" which "the instinct" of "the very discerning" describes as "professional." You would think that if Westerby really gave off these vibrations it would make him useless as a spy. But le Carré does not seem to notice that he is indulging himself in the same kind of transparently silly detail which Mark Twain found so abundant in Fenimore Cooper….

In his early novels le Carré told the truth about Britain's declining influence. In the later novels, the influence having declined even further, his impulse has altered. The slide into destitution has become a planned retreat, with Smiley masterfully in charge. On le Carré's own admission, Smiley has always been the author's fantasy about himself—a Billy Batson who never has to say "Shazam!" because inside he never stops being Captain Marvel. But lately Smiley has also become the author's fantasy about his beleaguered homeland….

This novel still displays enough of le Carré's earlier virtues to remind us that he is not summarily to be written off. There is an absorbing meeting in a soundproof room, with Smiley plausibly outwitting the civil servants and politicians. Such internecine warfare, to which most of the energy of any secret organization must necessarily be devoted, is le Carré's best subject….

Outwardly aspiring to the status of literature, le Carré's novels have inwardly declined to the level of pulp romance. He is praised for sacrificing action to character, but ought to be dispraised, since by concentrating on personalities he succeeds only in overdrawing them, while eroding the context which used to give them their desperate authenticity. Raising le Carré to the plane of literature has helped rob him of his more enviable role as a popular writer who could take you unawares. Already working under an assumed name, le Carré ought to assume another one, sink out of sight, and run for the border of his reputation. There might still be time to get away. (p. 30)

Clives James, "Go Back to the Cold!" in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), October 27, 1977, pp. 29-30.


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