Tradecraft. The Circus. The Cousins. John le Carre, the British writer who recently died at 89, changed the vocabulary of how we speak of spies – and if he hasn’t changed your words, he’s changed the language of other novelists and directors everywhere. He had the chops to know his subject as an ex-MI5 and MI6 spy himself whose books almost to the end, were vetted by the British Secret Service pre-publication to make sure he hadn’t given away any secrets. The British, the Americans, and even the Russians nonetheless felt he opened a door they wished had remained closed.
Le Carre is the pen name for David John Cornwell, Oxford educated, but of a far sketchier background than that sounds. His father was such a con man and grifter that he and his brother had to be always on their toes for sudden shifts. Life with Ronnie Cornwell was characterized as “an apprenticeship in espionage.” His mother left when the kids were young. Years later, le Carre looked her up and met her at a train station. There was no warmth. Furthermore, she let it be known she wasn’t crazy about his books. (That seems a bit gratuitous to me.)
If you’re like I was and spy novels aren’t even on your radar screen, you need to make an exception for Le Carre. I easily could have missed my favorite author. But a number of years ago, I had just finished a book. Right beside me on an end table was a copy of Absolute Friends that my husband (a le Carre fan since the 60’s but I still ignored his books) had finished. I picked it up with no intention of reading it, turned to the first page, and didn’t stop. From there, I made up for my cultural deficit by reading the le Carre canon. It is a haunting treat.
In the world of literature, there’s “genre fiction” (spy novels, mysteries, romances) and there’s “literary fiction,” books that are culturally significant, exceptionally well written, worth rereading, and simply important. Without getting into the whole false dichotomy in the literary world, one sign of le Carre’s significance is that immediately following his death, every publisher who has a books section (the NYT, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and so on) had an extensive obituary ready for print. I’ve seen presidents get less ink.
Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, le Carre’s third and breakout book, was published in 1962, ten years after Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel. And Bond – James Bond -- was my idea of spy novels. Entertaining for many but not for me.
Le Carre instead gave us George Smiley. The Smiley books are a pretty good place to start a love affair with le Carre: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable School Boy, and Smiley’s people, are a good start. There are other Smiley books. His most perfect book, though, is often considered The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where Smiley appears as a supporting character. Reading chronologically helps.
Smiley is intentionally the anti-Bond. Where Bond flashes, Smiley disappears. Where Bond shoots the cuffs on his tuxedo jacket, Smiley is short, balding, disheveled, wears glasses. Smiley is so non-descript, even his wife doesn’t notice him. He is an observer, keenly adept at detail and piecing together a bigger picture out of seemingly unrelated parts. He is brilliant, meticulous, and highly regarded by spies in the know. The reader is often in Smiley’s mind, a great place to be. He is both sympathetic to his enemies and cynical about his friends. Smiley is good with ambiguity.
Le Carre kept writing up to the end, publishing his last book in 2019, Agent Running in the Field, showing his anger at a Brexit-think world.
I was hoping he would hang in there for just a little longer and sort out for his readers our current world stage weirdness. But he gave readers sixty years of the highest quality writing. One thing about a le Carre book – for all the lack of black and white, we see the world more clearly when we see it through his eyes.
See you at the Library! But not on Thursday or Friday this week. The Library staff wishes you a healthy, happy Christmas holiday.
(Published in the Dec. 23, 2020 Frankenmuth News by Roz Weedman, Library Community Relations Coordinator)