John le Carré’s Spies Were the anti-James Bond

His novels transcended genre

Just when many of us thought that 2020 had more or less played its hand, the loss of a unique and prolific writer has added to our burden of anguish. David Cornwell, the former MI6 operative who wrote for six decades under the pen name John le Carré, died on Saturday from complications of pneumonia at the age of 89.

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He leaves behind a corpus of work that poses, as eloquently as any body of fiction, the question of whether the old distinction between literary and genre fiction has any meaning today. His murky, brooding, somber novels about George Smiley and the agents under Smiley’s command at the height of Cold War intrigue are serious works, no matter how often lesser writers may pillage the same general subject matter for thrills and shocks. In this regard, le Carré is a member of a literary club that includes eminent names like J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.G. Ballard, whom no literate reader would dismiss as, respectively, a fantasy, detective fiction, or sci-fi hack.

If anything, le Carré is too highbrow for some of today’s readers, who might pause in the middle of reading him and say, What gives? I’m two hundred pages into this spy novel and there’s not a single car chase, explosion, or shootout. That is partly the point. Unlike many writers associated with espionage fiction, le Carré actually worked for an intelligence agency, and one senses that he came away with no illusions about the type of individual who gravitated toward work in this field or about what life was like as a spook. He wrote as an embittered realist, the creator of spies who are nothing like James Bond, our most famous fictional British secret agent. le Carré explicitly said that he conceived the character of George Smiley as an “antidote” to James Bond, and this truth applies more broadly than even le Carré himself acknowledged.

The tormented protagonist of a le Carré novel isn’t the preposterous film-star spy who can charm women, deactivate bombs, scale buildings and mountains, perform skydiving stunts, win high-stakes card games, and take out well-trained and highly armed soldiers, bodyguards, and assassins without even getting badly injured, all while dispensing one-liners in an urbane accent. Yes, Bond may drink, but he’s still a relentlessly conventional hero, and for some of us, the impossibility of him dying or getting maimed or gravely injured sucks the suspense and the life right out of many Bond outings.

By contrast, the kind of protagonist le Carré brings to life is a believable character in an all-too-real scenario, not above committing humiliating blunders that may get himself or others killed. Alec Leamas, in the breakout 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a pitiful washed-up soul. The highlights of his service include taking a lousy job in a public library, drinking to excess in a rented flat, meeting a woman at the library, Liz Gold, who harbors Communist sympathies, sleeping with her, realizing too late that in doing so he has compromised his secret mission in East Germany, causing the death of another agent with whom he had hoped to frame the Communist chief Mundt as a British double agent (which, in fact, Mundt is, though he isn’t the operation’s real target), and finally getting himself and Liz killed as they attempt to return to the West. Contrast this relentlessly grim, ironic storyline with the kind of jokey and logic-defying sequence that predominates in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond outings.

le Carré spins infinitely more interesting stories than those of the James Bond fare many of us grew up with, and his influence has reached far. The reimagining of the Bond franchise evident in the recent Daniel Craig outings—the evolution from noxious, slapstick action-comedies in the idiotic Get Smart mode, full of violence so trivialized that it verges on cute, to more pensive quasi-art films with a different pacing, visual style, and sensibility—owes a debt to le Carré.

Yes, Daniel Craig is dashing, witty, strikingly handsome, and larger than life, and the films show off literally incredible stunts, yet I’ve long thought the franchise was verging toward le Carré territory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the reimagined Daniel Craig Bonds have done so well, to the point that the most recent delay in the release of No Time to Die, which now will roll out in April 2021 at the very earliest, had a hand in the closure of hundreds of movie theaters.

Even Steven Spielberg has done work in the le Carré mold. After many years of making films that were often cute or felt like generic mainstream entertainment, Spielberg in 2005 released Munich, a spy drama with protagonists whose actions in the course of hunting down Black September terrorists raise one moral quandary after another, even if you strongly believe in the rightness of their cause. “A response that may be the right response is still one that confronts you with some very difficult issues,” Spielberg says in an interview about the film, which many critics have compared to le Carré’s work.

Philosophical Overtones

As the world moved on from the Cold War, le Carré went on to find more topical subjects for his novels, like Middle East politics, the War on Terror, and the moral quandaries of detaining terror suspects, and his later work holds up well. But in a sense the Cold War never really left his work. In his vision, certain things about espionage do not change even when the antagonists do. It’s like trench warfare, with relentless struggle and waste of life over months and years, all for gains measurable in inches and lost in a flash.

George Smiley is a clever operative and he does use his wits to win victories over communist agents and moles, but even the successes, like the thwarting of Dieter Frey at the climax of le Carré’s first novel, 1961’s Call for the Dead, leave him bitter and not particularly enthused about continued service. At times one senses that there’s not enough belief in the moral rightness of the West for its clandestine missions to inspire much faith or hope even when they at least partly succeed. That’s a highly unfashionable thing to believe in these days. But the West itself may be partly to blame. Just look at all the sad and broken alcoholics, adulterers, and atheists. It’s hard to think of ourselves as united in a great cause.

For some, the book that best defines le Carré artistically and thematically may be his 1965 novel The Looking-Glass War, which relates the efforts of the British spy apparatus, here called the Department, to slip an infiltrator, Fred Leiser, into East Germany so that Leiser can gather intelligence on a suspected missile site. All the feverish planning for the mission leads to anticlimax and tragedy, as Leiser’s amateurish mistakes tip off the Communist secret police to his location and their presence tightens around him like a noose. It is clear that for all their planning, the Department’s organizers have failed to provide their man with, or even anticipate the need for, a support network within East Germany that could save him.

In the book’s final scenes, Leiser shares with a German girl his guilt over having killed a young border guard, an act that put the Communists on high alert, and his dreams of life in the West after the mission. These passages contrast jarringly with the movements of the Stasi as they draw ever closer to their prey. Leiser’s final moments with the girl are like Shakespearean tragedy filtered through the sensibility of Richard Wright. The scene made me think of a passage in Native Son (1940) where Bigger Thomas makes love to his girlfriend as the Chicago police close in all around.

Le Carré writes, “She fought him with the rage of a daughter, calling some name, hating someone, cursing him, taking him, the world burning and only they alive; they were weeping, laughing together, falling, clumsy lovers clumsily triumphant, recognizing nothing but each himself, each for that moment completing lives half-lived, and for that moment the whole damned dark forgotten.”

For that moment. With the capture of Leiser and the failure of the mission for which they planned so obsessively, the Department’s personnel vacate the farmhouse they turned into a makeshift operations center, and le Carré closes with a haunting image of the lonely building on a desolate wintry landscape, one of its shutters banging irregularly in the wind. Some may take this as an illustration of the ultimate futility of human endeavor, and they may find much in the novel to support this reading.

But others, on reaching the end of this deeply resonant book, may find a different upshot. Le Carré has processed, understood, and rendered as art the struggles of the Cold War and the mistakes of both sides. Some will come away with a message about the infinitely greater longevity of artistic and literary undertaking vis à vis the flounderings of ad hoc organizations engaged in self-important activities on the darkling plains of fragile and ever-shifting polities. There can be no question that Le Carré’s fictions will be around and will be the subject of discussion and debate long after the last men and women to have had a hand in the Cold War are gone from the earth.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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