Despite, or perhaps because of, the autobiographical nature of the novel, le Carré here creates some of his most fully developed and believable characters. Unlike many domineering fathers in literature, Rick is lovable as well as despicable. Perhaps the best touch in his whole portrait is the account by Peggy Wentworth of Rick in action. Rick has swindled her invalid husband out of nine thousand pounds, including his farm, his home, and all of his property, causing, Peggy believes, her husband’s death. Defensively, she describes to Magnus, then a young man at Oxford, how she confronted Rick, who immediately said that he would “see you right.” He buys her clothes and elaborate meals, jewelry, a watch for her son. Mimicking Rick’s voice and manner, recalling his exact words, she says, “Wouldn’t you try to get something back in any way you could, and, if you were lonely, wouldn’t you yield to his blandishments?” Yet even after Rick has seduced her, she still hates him, never sees a penny of the money he owes her, and wants to destroy him by revealing his past as he is running for Parliament. Rick, as usual, manages to acknowledge the truth and then persuade his audience of his own version of it. It is this mixture of love and fascination, coupled with pain and disillusionment, that Rick instills in everyone, above all his son.
Axel is Magnus’ “other father,” and, as Mary observes (not without a bit of jealousy), influenced Magnus in many ways that a woman would; Axel “taught him his style.” She sees in Axel characteristics that Magnus has acquired from him, or, such is the force of Axel’s personality, that she assumes the influence is from Axel to Magnus and not vice versa. There are hints, too, of what one of their first agents, Sabina, calls “hommsexual” between them, though it is never acknowledged. Magnus’ first code name for Axel is “Poppy,” which sounds like a girl’s name. When the Firm, objecting to the association with the symbol of war veterans, changes it, Magnus still thinks of him as Poppy, and it is their private symbol. When Magnus marries his first wife, Axel sends, anonymously, a large bunch of poppies. The emotional tone of their relationship is that of clandestine lovers—secret meetings, secret communications, special foods they share, a code book with sentimental overtones, Axel’s first gift to Magnus. The book, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1669), is a picaresque tale of the Thirty Years’ War, a time of confused loyalties and endless changing of sides and boundaries. Grimmelshausen himself used a number of pseudonyms, all anagrams of what may not even be his real name, and of places where he lived. Magnus also...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)