John le Carré

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


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The espionage novel has become a characteristic expression of our time … and John le Carré is one of the handful of writers who have made it so. The fact that this form of writing has assumed this importance tells us something essential about ourselves….

Smiley's People is such a book, and what it tells us is clear enough: that we are now engaged in an intense dialectical process; that the terms on which the process operates have no regard for traditional human values except as points of leverage, and that the goal toward which the process tends is synthesis. We move, inevitably, toward a merger with that which we oppose: Karla begins to resemble Smiley and that resemblance is his downfall, because Smiley has begun to resemble Karla—which is Smiley's own downfall in another way. If this is the end of the Smiley stories (and the author does seem to have painted himself deliberately into a corner), it is an appropriately ambiguous conclusion to a series that has dealt splendidly in ambiguities from the beginning.

In terms of style and action, Smiley's People differs slightly from some earlier episodes in the series—and those who have decided that The Spy Who Came In from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Honourable Schoolboy is the ultimate model for all books of this kind may detect a small falling-off in quality, as though the author has finally wearied of his subject or feels he has said it all. The opinion is arguable either way; le Carré does sometimes get involved in people at the expense of smoothly intricate plotting in this volume, but the gains in vivid portraiture may outbalance the losses in "what happens next?" interest. And those who decide that it is not quite top-drawer le Carré should also note that this author's second-best is still better than almost anything else in the field. (p. 4)

Joseph McLellan, "George Smiley's Revenge," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), December 23, 1979, pp. 1, 4.

Richard Condon

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The Master of Stasis has returned, driving his dense herd of auxiliary words to the glue factory. John le Carré is back again with the same novel as before….

Le Carré has to be an Olympic-class sprinter but not a distance runner. In those stretches of [Smiley's People] which are the nub and reason for his story, he is brilliant. He is a gifted short-form writer who has decided that the longer form could be more rewarding…. Smiley's People seems to me to have been meant to begin at what is now Chapter 11. Before that we have the same embarrassing fill as in the first 90-odd pages of The Honourable Schoolboy—the short-form writer, worried that his novel won't be long enough for the marketplace….

Le Carré's stories are not what they seem to be about. They are about a world inhabited entirely by registered masochists. Le Carré, never a barrel of laughs, gives us George Smiley, a barrel of pain…. His antagonists suffer just as much as his associates suffer, all of them gladly…. [That] is undoubtedly what makes le Carré's novels so popular with his readers, to whom the pleasure of universal pain is as a hobby.

It is possible that...

(This entire section contains 453 words.)

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le Carré's novels are memorable because they are so repetitious. No writer of popular fiction today rings the changes on what seems to be every sentence in his set pieces in the way le Carré does….

But when le Carré is not concerned with repetitions and obfuscations and his desperate requirement to overwrite, he is one helluva writer. It may be that readers bow their heads and take the punishment of le Carré's brutal fillers just to get past the set pieces and into the haunted places where his novels leave their sweaty footprints across the memory and where he has so few peers writing in his genre today….

Smiley's People is a direct sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a novel which had all the faults of this one and which also was filled with haunting, helpless, useless pain—which said, in essence, "I am you and you are me, and what have we done to each other." It was the ultimate spy story.

Smiley's People is the subtle, wearily sophisticated story of revenge, pure revenge, eternal revenge, the sweetest and most terrible of macho motions. Le Carré takes an eternity of backing and filling and faking and padding to get to it, but when he does Smiley's People fulfills itself as a stark and moving novel.

Richard Condon, "Buried Treasure: 'Smiley's People'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 50, December 24, 1979, p. 66.

Michael Wood

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Le Carré's recent novels have portrayed, with a great deal of detail and diligently evoked atmosphere, two distinct worlds of espionage: Smiley's world in London, a domain of desks and files and intrigues and research, an awkward corner in the corridors of Anglo-American power; and the world of the active agent, the field….

In "Smiley's People," Smiley works both worlds, is both detective and agent at risk. I won't disclose the oblique, slow-moving plot, except to say that a trail of murder and camouflage leads Smiley to Hamburg and Paris and Berne, and that the stakes are especially high for him, since his old archenemy … appears to have made an uncharacteristic slip….

There is a lot of nostalgia among le Carré's spies. They hark back to World War II, or even the cold war, when people at least thought they knew who their enemies were. But, of course, the nostalgia serves to underline the pain and near-pointlessness of the peacetime trade…. [Le Carré] depicts, with subtle and complicated sympathy, the moral murkiness of the whole business [of espionage]. Smiley and his people are fighting for decency, but there is more blood on their hands than they or anyone else care to contemplate. They are beleaguered, outdated professionals, the last cowboys of secrecy. They have lost their purpose, and are left only with a job.

In some ways, no doubt, this picture of the spy is as unreal as Baden-Powell's, but the dilemma it points to is real enough, and when a popular novelist is as good as le Carré we need to ask, perhaps, not what he knows but what it is we go to him for. Le Carré's spies are certainly plausible in their behavior, and no one else has suggested so convincingly what spying might be like as a job. A cover, for example, is not a disguise, but a reality…. [Nothing] less will deceive the watchful eyes of the enemy…. But then, this already lifts us into fiction. The spy represents one of the stories we might tell about ourselves: true, but tangled in lies.

This is le Carré's special turf. We need him less for his know-how about espionage, I think, than for his skill in orchestrating the many varieties of betrayal. (p. 16)

[Neither] Smiley nor any of le Carré's other characters can quite breathe outside the air of the thriller. No reason why they should, of course: even Sherlock Holmes would look uncomfortable in "The Forsyte Saga." What Smiley and his wife suggest is not humanity and weakness, but a familiar ramification of deceit. We don't have to be spies to betray and be betrayed, and we are all double agents of a sort. Smiley wonders whether a good double agent is not in some way true to both his causes, both his loves. This strikes me as an extremely unlikely proposition about espionage, but it surely holds good for all kinds of other human relations.

The writing of "Smiley's People" is a little tired, and the whole book a little bland. It is as if le Carré had crossed this ground once too often. But it is his ground; the novel has two or three splendid moments, and retains the intricate compassion that was evident even in le Carré's first works. From the start he has been writing novels without villains, much as Thackeray wrote "a novel without a hero," and all victories in le Carré have the dingy taste of defeat. If real spies felt that way, there wouldn't be so much spying. (p. 17)

Michael Wood, "Spy Fiction, Spy Fact," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1980, pp. 1, 16-17.

[In Smiley's People, as] always, Mr. le Carré weaves a tangled web, but for once it is not quite inextricably knotted, and it is possible to experience its unravelling with understanding as well as admiration. There is also an uncommon tautness in the narration—in the fine-cut episodes by which the story moves—that holds the underlying melodrama in perfect control.

"Briefly Noted: 'Smiley's People'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 47, January 7, 1980, p. 86.

Geoffrey Stokes

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Nearly two decades ago, in Call for the Dead, John le Carre introduced us to George Smiley and began, along with Len Deighton, a reformation and exaltation of the spy novel as a literary genre. In Smiley's People, the latest and last of Smiley's labyrinthian confrontations with his Russian counterpart Karla, le Carre both completes an epic story and reveals the temporal limits of his chosen form.

Smiley has been with us for so long now that it is difficult to appreciate the huge change le Carre wrought on what had generally—and rightly—been considered an escapist genre….

[Compared to James Bond's "cowboy" idealism and disdain for organizational processes], George Smiley—"breathtakingly ordinary" in the words of his regularly unfaithful wife—was a shock. Or would have been, had he been much noticed. But Call for the Dead did not sell well in America; a country glumly struggling against accepting the routinization of charisma was simply not ready to see bureaucracy transformed into poetry. For that, after all, is what le Carre turns out to have set himself as his task.

He was a good writer when he began. His early description of the Secret Service chief as "a cloak and dagger man malgre lui, wearing his cloak for his masters and preserving the dagger for his servants," is as economic as algebra. And he has become a better writer over time. Less reliant on hardware than his only peer—Deighton—le Carre conveys certain stages of self-doubt with Conradian precision….

It is this affair with doubt, this search for a meaning, that has made le Carre more novelist than entertainer. Yet his one "serious" novel, The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), is an embarrassment. Among its many faults, it lacks what for le Carre has always been the one hope for delivering meaning from entropy; the systematic sifting of knowledge into an organized pattern. Such is bureaucracy's honorable role in a universe where intuition is no longer trustworthy….

In le Carre's masterpiece, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley is merely the protagonist; bureaucracy itself is the hero…. Without the structure bureaucracy imposes on the random accumulation of facts that assail us on a daily basis, there is indeed only "perpetual chaos."

But le Carre has, in intervening books, turned the screw further; his hero, like all great literary figures, is revealed to have a tragic flaw. The arrangement of facts, in the patterns imposed on them by the routines of organization, turns out to have the appearance not only of order, but of truth. And the honorable man—which Smiley is—must act in accordance with truth, becoming a prisoner in the process. The apparently value-free system subtly transforms itself into an ideology as constricting as the "absolutism" which Smiley ascribes to his long-time nemesis. In the penultimate Smiley novel, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the gap between logical and ethical truth suddenly yawned, and Smiley plunged into the gaping crevice. Fatally misled by the force to which he had given his truest fealty, Smiley retired.

In Smiley's People his position is ambiguous …, his retirement has put him forever outside the organization which nurtured him. So too, has politics. A Labour government eager to pursue detente has limited the Secret Service's ability to provide even its truncated version of truth. The real-world forces that propelled Smiley to the top of the fictional heap as the glint faded from the cowboys' eyes have combined to render his beloved bureaucracy literally unbelievable.

Smiley, thrown back on the intuition he had learned to distrust, is hopelessly out of place….

[In] Smiley's People it is the fact of action rather than the action of facts that gives meaning to life. Thus, though the characters are familiar and the plotting is as deft as ever, this is a new sort of novel for le Carre, and there are moments when Smiley's aloneness threatens to plunge it into the plodding morasses of the classic "armchair-detective" genre. He is a most reluctant cowboy.

In the event, Smiley's reluctance turns out wise, for his triumph over Karla is—as he and le Carre know—illusory. The novel's denouement, flat in isolation, is the necessary conclusion of the story le Carre has been telling for 20 years. In the context of history—its and ours—Smiley's People is a painfully affecting valediction not only to Smiley, but to the age in which he flourished.

Geoffrey Stokes, "The Reluctant Cowboy," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 2, January 14, 1980, p. 33.

Julian Moynahan

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John le Carré, who appears to know everything about modern espionage that there is to know, faces the problem in his spy fiction of giving a generally favorable account of British Intelligence in the very era of … spectacular betrayals and defections. And he must do this, if we are to take him at all seriously, without undue indulgence in wish-fulfillment fantasy and razzle-dazzle effects. It is an interesting problem and tension in the work of a writer whose readiness with razzle-dazzle has earned him a large popular audience and yet whose novels seem seriously to try to tell the truth about his time. Is he a serious novelist, or a mere entertainer, or something in between? Here is le Carré's new novel, Smiley's People, to help determine that question.

Smiley's People completes a massive trilogy begun in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and continued in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). It pits George Smiley … against a nameless antagonist (code name "Karla") high in KGB officialdom at "Moscow Centre," in a battle that is not to the death but to defection. (p. 31)

The trilogy as a whole enacts an exemplary tale of English tortoise and Russian hare…. In Smiley's People George pretty well makes all the running, as the English would say, when by learning of certain skeletons in Karla's family closet, he is able to pressure his opponent actually to defect in propria persona. It took a long time but, as the Spanish say, revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

The concluding scene of Smiley's People shows Karla crossing alone from East to West Berlin under the gaze of George and several of his agents…. We know that Smiley has ruined many lives, some innocent, in his tenacious pursuit of Karla; that he once sent a sadistic young killer to eliminate one of his own favorite agents whose disobedience threatened the success of an operation in progress; that many more people will die as the result of Karla's "debriefing" by tough professional "inquisitors"; and we just don't believe that the dirty tricks of one side are OK because they were ordered up by a decent little English guy with a disarming name.

In short, the book is mostly entertainment, quite good entertainment, the sort of read a half-pay KGB colonel like Philby might enjoy in his Moscow retirement, to get through the long, dull Russian winter. (p. 32)

Julian Moynahan, "Books and the Arts: 'Smiley's People'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 3, January 19, 1980, pp. 31-2.

V. S. Pritchett

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Spy stories have a good deal of the farrago in them even when they are as accomplished as le Carré's and it would be impossible and unfair to give away his elaborate plot [in Smiley's People]. Le Carré creates a manner which moves by suggestion, leaking a little at a time and gradually gathering all in, without reducing it all to a flat intelligence test or conundrum. He has got to make his implausible people plausible in their dirty and shabby game. In part he belongs to the romantic school of spy literature, and has a blokey, speculative, disabused yet fateful manner which recalls Conrad's use of Marlow; he is good at loud talk, with an occasional apologetic leaning to the metaphysical…. [Le Carré] must convey that Smiley is sad, lonely, and haunted by a gnawing sense of failure, whereas the enemy has never failed and has indeed once gypped him, has once even inserted a defector in the British Service and into Smiley's private life.

There is a tendency in the literature of espionage to create the battered Saint. One sees the metaphysical view coming in when Smiley is moving away from the horrifying corpse on Hampstead Heath….

Fortunately fat little Smiley (who so often wipes his glasses and is red-eyed because he sits up half the night) is alive at the end of the book. If he died we might get a whiff of something like the odor of sanctity…. Smiley's melancholy detachment is not godlike. He is a "case man" if there ever was one…. If he is humane in a nasty trade and has seen a lot of dead men, he does not mourn for the dead. He mourns for the living. He is patient and cunning in the minute detail; he looks into the human being first. He is a pluralist. (p. 22)

V. S. Pritchett, "A Spy Romance," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, February 7, 1980, pp. 22-4.


Le Carré, John


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