John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell, a born-and-bred Englishman whose father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a notorious confidence man. Today we would describe his boyhood as dysfunctional: sudden extreme reversals of fortune; frequent moves between luxurious mansions and squalid flats; and instead of loving and responsible adults, a revolving cast of shady characters, from loan sharks and card sharps to gold-diggers and temporary “mothers”—David’s own mother having abandoned the family when he was five.
Parked in a succession of posh boarding schools, only to be pulled out when Ronnie reneged on the bills, David decamped at the age of 16 to Switzerland, where he studied German. He then worked in Austria vetting refugees from Soviet-occupied countries. In 1952 he returned to England and graduated from Oxford in 1956, with first honors in German literature and a job with domestic British intelligence (MI5). Four years later he joined the foreign intelligence service (MI6, also known as the Firm) and began writing fiction as John le Carré.
Success came with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), about Alec Leamas, a jaded MI6 agent who agrees to stage his own defection to East Germany in order to entrap Mundt, a high official in the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). Mundt is a former Nazi, so when Alec encounters a Jewish Stasi agent named Fiedler who hates Mundt, the two join forces. Their plans go awry when they discover that MI6’s real target is not Mundt but Fiedler, and Alec must flee for his life, accompanied by his girlfriend Liz, a naïve fellow traveler who has followed him to East Germany. Both are shot and killed trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.
According to le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was “written in great heat” shortly after the Wall went up, because “the imminence of world war” moved him to say, “a plague on both your houses!” The war stayed cold, but the book got hot. An international bestseller, it even reached the desk of Markus Wolf, head of Stasi foreign intelligence, who later praised its accuracy. In 1965 it was made into a stylish film directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton.
The distinctive style of that film was a function of its having been bankrolled and distributed by Paramount but also subsidized by the British government. There were similar subsidies throughout Europe, all intended to rebuild war-damaged national film industries—and push back against Hollywood’s dominance. Things didn’t work out that way, because Hollywood (with an assist from Washington) made sure they didn’t. But artistically, the result was an impressive body of austere, black-and-white “foreign” films that captured the imagination of the postwar generation with their gritty, authentic locations and their top-notch British and European casts.
Success bred overconfidence, though, and the next two le Carré films, The Deadly Affair (1966) and The Looking Glass War (1970), strain to be sexier and more exciting than their austere predecessor. One reason for this straining may be the box-office success of the new James Bond franchise, with its ritzy settings, high-tech wizardry, and fantastic derring-do, all shot in glorious Technicolor. But another reason may be le Carré’s own straining after literary—as opposed to commercial—fame.
Reviewing The Looking Glass War (1965) in the New York Times, literary critic George P. Elliott compared it unfavorably to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which he praised for its lack of literary ambition. “[A] thriller,” Elliott wrote, “does not—by its very form it cannot—explore the depths of personal relationships, as realistic fiction does.” This is, of course, a variation on the old adage that bad books make good movies and good books make bad movies. There is plenty of evidence for this, if we are talking about the big screen. But the small screen is different.
Adversaries and Allies
In the next few years le Carré published two novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and Smiley’s People (1979), that in addition to making the bestseller list were applauded as serious fiction, connected to the thriller genre the way Madame Bovary is connected to the romance genre. These two novels were also made into TV series that, largely because of Sir Alec Guinness’s performance as the sagacious, sorrowful spymaster George Smiley, are themselves considered works of art.
The 1979 BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens with a scene not found in the novel: four middle-aged men enter a drab meeting room one by one, and sit down without exchanging a word. The scene is just slow enough to crisply delineate the four agents suspected of being the Soviet mole inside MI6: Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) with his candy-colored shirt and tie; Roy Bland (Terence Rigby) with his rumpled appearance and chain-smoker’s cough; Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge) with his massive ego in danger of bursting; and Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) with his natty suit and carefully balanced teacup.
The director, John Irvin, invented this scene to keep the four characters from becoming, as he put it in a later interview, “blurred.” No such pains were taken by Tomas Alfredson, director of the 2011 film based on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The characters in that film are so blurred that their fate is a matter of indifference, not only to the audience but also, it seems, to Smiley as played by Gary Oldman. To measure the difference between a great actor and a mediocre one, we need only compare Guinness’s handling of this role with Oldman’s. Smiley is supposed to be unprepossessing and poker-faced. With Guinness, the effect is bewitching. With Oldman, it is taxidermic.
Hands down, the best screen adaptation of le Carré is the 1982 BBC version of Smiley’s People. It has all the virtues of its predecessor, plus better production values, a brisker pace, and more comic grace notes provided by Guinness. It also has a magnificent performance by Michael Lonsdale as Anton Grigoriev, a venal Soviet apparatchik who under Smiley’s sober interrogation becomes so intoxicated by the chance to speak freely that he confesses to things no one is asking him about.
This series ends powerfully, with Smiley’s long-time Soviet nemesis, “Karla” (Patrick Stewart), crossing an icy bridge from East to West Berlin. Karla is defecting not because he has changed his politics but because he is being emotionally blackmailed by Smiley, who after years of probing has found Karla’s vulnerable spot: an illegitimate daughter hidden away in a Swiss mental hospital. In the halo of a sodium arc light the two rivals face each other in silence until Karla is taken away. Then Smiley’s loyal subaltern Peter Guillam exclaims, “George, you won.” Instead of exulting, Smiley says, “Yes, I suppose I did.”
Smiley has met Karla before. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a much younger Smiley tries to get Karla to defect while the latter is rotting in a Delhi jail. But Karla resists—and, in an added flourish, makes off with Smiley’s engraved cigarette lighter, a gift from his wife, Ann (Siân Phillips). In this earlier novel, the focus is on Smiley’s isolation as he pursues the Soviet mole. None of his peevish, backbiting colleagues can be trusted. And neither can Ann—her infidelities are as visible as the mole is hidden. No wonder Smiley considers Karla a worthy adversary.
Smiley’s People offers a striking contrast. Instead of eliminating suspects one by one, the story moves in the opposite direction, with Smiley gradually putting together a team of trusted agents capable of catching Karla. This process takes time, which may be the reason why no filmmaker has been foolish enough to cram Smiley’s People into the narrow compass of a two-hour movie. Watching the TV series build slowly and deliberately to its denouement, the viewer realizes that the best thing about Smiley’s People is Smiley’s people.
An Autobiographical Masterpiece
If le Carré’s great theme is betrayal, then his other great theme is loyalty—or love. To quote Magnus Pym, the protagonist of A Perfect Spy, “Love is whatever you can still betray.” Magnus should know, because of all le Carré’s characters, he is the one who most closely resembles David Cornwell. It is probably no accident that A Perfect Spy was published in 1986, shortly after the author’s fame got turbo-boosted by the two TV series. “[U]ntil then,” le Carré wrote later, “I had lived with the unexpressed memories of an extraordinary childhood, endured and sometimes enjoyed at the hands of an extraordinary father whose zigzag life is mirrored in my fictional character Rick Pym, father to my hero Magnus.”
A Perfect Spy is worth the wait: a Cold War thriller turned inside out to expose the inner workings of a soul at once treasonous and noble. As a narrator, le Carré has always been good at zigzagging through space and time, etching one vivid scene after another without losing the reader. But here he outdoes himself, zigzagging not only through space and time but also through the shifting layers of Magnus’s consciousness as he struggles, in the wake of his father’s death, to make sense of his own countless betrayals. By turns hilarious and chilling, the novel avoids self-indulgence by setting Magnus’s voice against those of the people who know—or rather don’t know—him best: Mary, his loyal but bitter wife; Jack Brotherhood, his mentor in MI6; and Axel, a.k.a. Poppy, the Czech spy who is Magnus’s best friend, worthy adversary, and (if you believe him) fellow double agent.
Then there’s Rick, Magnus’s father, whose repeated question to his son—“Love your old man?”—begins over time to sound like a loyalty oath. Rick’s duplicitous soul is nicely captured in this passage:
It is recorded that in October 1947 he sold his head. I chanced upon this information as I was standing on the steps of the crematorium, covertly trying to puzzle out some of the less familiar members of the funeral. A breathless youth claiming to represent a teaching hospital waved a piece of paper at me and demanded that I stop the ceremony. “In Consideration of the sum of fifty pounds cash I, Richard T. Pym of Chester Street W, consent that on my death my head may be used for the purposes of furthering medical science.” It was raining slightly. Under cover of the porch I scribbled the boy a cheque for a hundred pounds and told him to buy one somewhere else. If the fellow was a confidence trickster, I reasoned, Rick would have been the first to admire his enterprise.
Because I consider A Perfect Spy le Carré’s masterpiece, I had high hopes for the TV version. But here we encounter the truth of the old adage that good books make bad movies. Produced by the BBC in 1987, the seven-part series has a stellar cast, led by Peter Egan as Magnus, Rüdiger Weigang as Axel, Alan Howard as Jack Brotherhood, and (last but not least) Ray McAnally as Rick. The screenplay is by Arthur Hopcraft, who adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the BBC, so the lines of the plot are laid out much more clearly than in the novel. But missing from this dour series are all the things that make the novel so wonderful: its profusion of color and detail; its powerful waves of emotion, pathos, and irony; and (unforgivably) its humor.
A Perfect Spy makes stimulating reading these days, because Magnus’s tragic flaw is that he desperately needs someone he can trust, but because of his upbringing he only feels at home in what is now called a “post-fact” world. This is the key to his relationship with Axel. As hinted above, Axel may not be the double agent he claims to be. This we learn from a retired MI6 agent and amateur ichthyologist with the Dickensian name of Membury, who, while taking a break from pulling the weeds out of his fishpond, tells Jack Brotherhood that, in his judgment, the intelligence coming from Axel “looked good on the plate, but when you came to chew it over, nothing really there…. Same as trying to eat a pike.” The tragedy—and comedy—of Magnus Pym is one that should ring familiar nowadays: his need for a friend and worthy ally is greater than his respect for the truth.
One Black-Hearted Devil
Thirty years later, le Carré has produced no more masterpieces. But he has written a dozen more books, several of which have been made into movies. For authentic locations and satirical humor, I recommend The Russia House (1990) and The Tailor of Panama (2001). For timely post-Cold War topics and high production values, I recommend A Most Wanted Man (2014), about covert counter-terrorism in Germany; Our Kind of Traitor (2016), about money laundering in London; and the BBC TV series The Night Manager (2016), about illegal arms smuggling.
Unfortunately, the further le Carré’s work gets from the Cold War, the less subtle it becomes. He is not known for his memorable female characters, but one of the few is Connie Sachs from the Smiley novels. Formerly head of research at MI6 and now an alcoholic pensioner, Connie is still feared—and sought after—for her prodigious memory. In both BBC series, this role is enlivened by the renowned comic actress Beryl Reid, and in one of the many scenes Reid manages to steal from Guinness, Connie says, “Oh, give it up, George. It’s not a fighting war, like in our day. It’s gray, half-devils versus half-angels, and nobody knows where the goodies are.”
Thus does Connie conjure the shadowy realm where her author feels most at home. Le Carré made his name rendering the black-and-white certainties of the Cold War in infinite shades of gray. At the same time, his Cold War novels make clear that to have gray, you must also have black and white. Some of the characters talk about moral equivalence between East and West, notably Bill Haydon, the Soviet mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But these characters are rarely the heroes.
Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré has had trouble exploring the gray because he has had trouble identifying the black and white. A low point would be his 2001 novel The Constant Gardener, made into a film in 2005. Handsomely shot in South Africa, alluringly directed by Fernando Meirelles, and starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, the film depicts a Manichean struggle between the pure evil of Big Pharma and the pure goodness of a beautiful young NGO worker. This makes it feel less like a le Carré story than a politically tendentious melodrama of the sort that Hollywood illuminati crank out in their sleep.
To be fair, most of le Carré’s recent novels are not this morally simplistic. In keeping with the world we now live in, they feature many shades of gray and very few angels. But in recent years they have also featured a black-hearted devil that can very conveniently be blamed for all the cruelty and injustice occurring around the globe—and the name of that devil is the United States of America.
Le Carré has never been fond of the United States. In his Cold War novels, the Americans are satirized for all the usual things: lack of subtlety, crude taste, offenses against the English language, infatuation with technology. Some of that satire is pretty good, as in the scene in A Perfect Spy where a semi-articulate CIA agent named Wexler is described as having “embarked on a disastrous paragraph about ‘incorporating our general awareness of the Czechoslovak methodology in regard to the servicing of and the ah communication with their agents in the field.’”
But it is one thing to satirize, quite another to demonize. Most of the bad guys in these novels—the Russian mafia, the scheming bureaucrats, the incompetent police, even the crooked politicians—are given some shading of all-too-human gray. But not the Americans. In most cases the mere mention of the United States is sufficient to drive out all moral nuance. For example, this essay was inspired by the 2016 film of Our Kind of Traitor (published in 2010), which dramatizes the collusion of British banks and politicians with Russian organized crime figures seeking to launder their ill-gotten “blood money.” The topic could not be timelier, given the Russian government’s current efforts to undermine confidence in Western political institutions. But in typical le Carré fashion, both the novel and the film depict the “Russian mafia” as something separate from the Russian government, when in fact they are one and the same—while losing no opportunity to excoriate America for its backstage role in most of the world’s evils.
It would not be pleasant to defend America to le Carré right now. The world order sustained by America is in a parlous state, and so is America, But I do wish he would stop ranting against America while giving Russia a pass. It is dispiriting to read his rants, because they are indistinguishable from those of a million bottom-feeding pundits who, like poor benighted Rick Pym, are more willing to sell