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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

A British novelist, le Carré writes stories distinguished by careful and complex characterization. Since his enormously successful espionage novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carré has abandoned the thriller in favor of the "serious" novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John le Carré's progress as a novelist has been marked by an increasingly evident dissatisfaction with the reputation he achieved as a writer of spy and crime stories. His first two books [Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality] were a spy story with a wholly individual flavour, and a well-constructed straight detective story in which he used his experience as a schoolmaster. They were followed by The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a masterly thriller based upon what was at the time the unusual proposition that the spy is generally a weak man, the tool of bureaucrats who are neither scrupulous nor particularly efficient, and that there is nothing to choose between "us" and "them" in an ethical sense. The book's immense success no doubt delighted its author, but it clearly disconcerted him too. His subsequent books have shown a determined attempt to move away from the thriller towards the novel, and in The Naive and Sentimental Lover the severance is complete.

The book is a disastrous failure. As a crime novelist Mr le Carré showed a delicate sensibility, a considerable feeling for ironic characterization, a sense of place and a sense of style. Such qualities are almost wholly lacking in this near-fantasy about Aldo Cassidy, a rich manufacturer of pram accessories, a spinner of dreams about fulfilling the potentialities of a personality confined rather than liberated by his expense-account life….

This unhappy venture into the metaphysics of love must induce the hope that Mr le Carré will soon return to what he does supremely well, writing books based in the real world which use the apparatus of the thriller, but are in their depth and subtlety excellent novels.

"Wishful Thinking," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 24, 1971, p. 1138.

Le Carré has been as good as his word. A radical departure from the spy genre, [The Naive and Sentimental Lover] is an attempt at a serious "novelistic" novel. Sadly, it is a disappointing one….

Le Carré's concern, as it has been in the past, is the search for moral values. And his ability to depict life as a tense interplay between moral courage and the foreclosing of possibilities is as strong as ever. Yet there is a good deal less to this sometimes surreal, often just plain murky, novel than meets the eye. The sad fact of the matter is that le Carré fails to convince us that his characters or the ideas they espouse are really that important.

Arthur Cooper, in Saturday Review (copyright ©. 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 8, 1972, pp. 34-5.

The special qualities of Le Carré's books are their sense of place, their sense of doom, their irony. The irony is most powerful in [The Spy Who Came in From the Cold] because there it is most closely associated with the fates of individuals. As layer after layer of deceit is lifted in the story, and the way in which "London" has cynically used its own agent is revealed, the effect is to show the two apparently opposed organizations on one side and helpless human beings like Leamas and Elizabeth on the other. Le Carré shows a strong sense, both here and in The Looking Glass War (1965), that spying is a sort of game in which, without wearing comic noses or any kind of disguise, people pretend to be what they are not. The whole apparatus of the trial in the Spy is a game, and so of course are the ridiculous, out-of-date operations in the later novel. And the purpose of such party games is betrayal; this is what is required of human beings by the players "sitting round a fire in one of their smart bloody clubs." If none of Le Carré's other admirably written novels comes up to the Spy, it is because here the story is most bitterly and clearly told, the lesson of human degradation involved in spying most faithfully read.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, p. 244.