John le Carré Le Carré, John (Pseudonym of David Cornwell) (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 758 words.)

Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.