Today is British novelist John le Carré‘s birthday. Why should you care? Let me tell you, it’s not because his books used to put your Grandpa to sleep.
“I hate the telephone. I can’t type. I ply my trade by hand. I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. Three days and nights in a city are about my maximum. I don’t see many people. I write and walk and swim and drink.”
–John le Carré
In case you’re unaware, John le Carré is probably the most influential British spy novelist of all time. But if you’re my age or (gasp!) even younger, some of you might think of him as “That guy Grandpa reads.” And, more often than not, “That guy Grandpa falls asleep reading.”
So swipe Grandpa’s Kindle and read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold before you go another minute without knowing how goddamn good a spy novel can be.
Considering le Carré as one of those “old people” writers who was popular in the ’70s is all too common among readers my age, even hardcore book lovers. Even devotees of crime fiction tend to think of le Carré as a snore without ever having tried him. He’s too stodgy, too focused on espionage and politics, too stereotypically British. Who wants to read, like, fifty pages before you even get to the first fistfight?
If that’s what you think, you’re missing out. Mind you, you’re not hearing this from some tea-sipping trust-fundie writing for The New Yorker. Believe me, I’m not all that cultured in my reading tastes. I’m a reader who thinks plot can best be described in terms of body count and “character development” comes from a right hook or the barrel of a 12-gauge. But even if all you want out of a book is a good beating and maybe a hangover, or if the Hard Case Crime-Fawcett Gold Medal style of faster-harder-meaner crime novel is the highest form of art to you, then I submit that you are still missing one of the truly great psychological noir thrillers if you have not read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Yes, it “redefined the spy genre,” whoop-de-doo. Yes, it’s one of those book all those old people have read, hoo-ray. Yes, it’s one of those books that’s always there on boring peoples’ bookshelves. Don’t hold that against it; so’s To Kill a Mockingbird, people. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is tight, fast, mean, and brilliant; if you’ve never read Le Carré, or have not discovered fruitful ground in his longer, at times very complex works, read Spy and understand what genius feels like…50 years on, and fresh as a daisy.
Le Carré is one of the great novelists of his generation, and as far as I’m concerned every generation before or since. He’s a darling of reviewers, but they never have all that much interesting to say about him as a crime novelist, probably because his books are “respectable.”
But le Carré is also in many respects a very, very angry man. He’s deeply disappointed in the ways in which Western governments sold out the promise of a brighter future at the end of of the Cold War…although, to be fair, you can see his distaste for the direction the world is likely to go under the guidance of the Western governments as early as The Russia House, a brilliant novel that came out in the era of Perestroika. It is far more brilliant a novel than a film, if only because le Carré’s relentless, if low-key, experimentation is on display full-force in The Russia House, where the novel is narrated by a secondary character — who is a minor, if significant, character in the film.
In fact, The Russia House is one of three breaking points in le Carré’s career. The question with The Russia House, then and now, was prescient. Would le Carré , who in the 1960s and 1970s had virtually defined the British spy novel as smart, savvy, clued-in to world affairs and almost unbearably melancholy, change as world events changed? Would he find inspiration in alterations in the fabric of reality, or would he be a one-trick-pony like the many other espionage authors — Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth spring to mind — who turned out unbelievably brilliant spy novels during the Cold War but never really blew past the fall of the Berlin Wall and into the modern era?
With many other spy authors, their relevance in the post-Cold War World was never a likelihood. With Deighton, his spy novels are so crisp, fast and readable that I never expected him to change with the times — why would I? He was a genius at what he did, and as far as I could tell he had a disregard or distaste for greater pretensions. I don’t hold Deighton’s place in history against him any more than I would in the case of Helen MacInnes, Aleister MacLean or Jack Higgins. They were what they were, and Deighton was among the best of them. Forsyth, on the other hand, always felt like a brilliant one-trick pony to me, insightful at times but ultimately unmotivated, even shallow. Higgins was a hack from the get-go, and/or he seems to have passed his later novels on to ghostwriters, as far as I can tell. Clancy, on the other hand, sold out his franchise early, and has spent the years since 1990 fawning over the American power structure, threatening liberals like a drunk barroom brawler and anointing military hardware with his potent Republican seed. Clancy was a joke to begin with. The very idea of any of them writing brilliant and insightful post-Cold-War novels about world affairs is, quite frankly ludicrous.
But then there was le Carré, and twenty or twenty-five years ago, he was a big question mark because he had been one of the chief architects of the Cold War novel. As the Soviet Union shuddered, did le Carré have anything to say about it? Viewed in retrospect, this seems a turning point in the history of British letters. Having built George Smiley out of spare parts and warehoused Churchillian bile, would le Carré descend into self-parody? Le Carré answered with a broadside of great post-Smiley novels; The Russia House was the first, and to my reading Our Game was by far the most human, the subtlest, the most heartbreakingly beautiful, though The Night Manager gives it a hell of a goosing.
Since then, le Carré’s novels have continued to be profoundly audacious — even if, as in the case of Absolute Friends, I found the bitter ending to be a shaggy dog story that ended with me being kicked in the nuts, and the hoped-for rebirth of The Mission Song to be ultimately unconvincing. But then, those two books, alongside the brilliant The Constant Gardner, allude to what makes le Carré , viewed from the perspective of crime as an art form, a Woolrich or a Hitchcock or a Highsmith, not a Chandler or a Lawrence Block.
Here’s why I say that: the fact of the matter is that while le Carré is a genre writer, there’s something different about him. You, as a reader, may be willing to break “spy novels” into a different category than “crime novels.” I am unwilling to do that, because I believe thematically the best of both genres should be indistinguishable other than through politics. Le Carré can’t realistically be considered with political nonentities like Forsyth or foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing yahoos like Clancy. You can consider him in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton or Graham Greene, but that’s the cheap way out. Ultimately, le Carré may some things in common with Greene, but it’s his take on the bitter politics of mourning that intoxicates me, not his cleverness.
In that, I mean to say that le Carré is unpredictable in the manner of the very best “literature,” whatever the hell that is. Please don’t misunderstand me; that statement is not to disparage genre writers; this is, after all, Boiled Hard; I live for genre writers and as far as I’m concerned all the arbiters of what is or isn’t “literary fiction” can go fuck themselves. Genre writers are my primary interest. But there are the writers who lay down a crime novel with unassailable efficiency — Donald E. Westlake, John D. McDonald, Lawrence Block, Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and many others. They redefine the genre by being so good at it that they turn it into a kind of puzzle that subsequent generations cannot help but want to put back together. Their personalities and their aspirations simply can’t be ignored, but ultimately the redefine the genre within the conventions of the genre. They might do it radically and explosively, like Hammett and Chandler in particular, but they ultimately did what was before them. They were unpredictable in the way they redefined genre, not in what they did to redefine it (or, in a sense, obliterate it).
Then there are Patricia Highsmith, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson and, I submit, le Carré , whose genre aspirations are so tangled up with their deeply conflicting and deeply insightful personalities — in the case of Woolrich, almost suicidally so. Their unpredictability is as different from that of Cain’s as a hawk is from a handsaw. At first glance Woolrich might seem a weird associate for me to put in a category with le Carré ; Woolrich was among the most melodramatic thriller writers ever to put fingers to an Underwood. Willeford, on the other hand continues to convince me through his writing that he was a borderline psychopath. But what these writers have in common with le Carré is the unpredictability for the places they find doom and pain and savagery. If English is a single language — and I’m far from convinced that it is, but let’s go with that hypothesis for now — it’s the aspiration to tell the kind of stories told by Steinbeck or Vonnegut or Shirley Jackson or Harper Lee or Carson McCullers or Faulkner — that leads to novels like le Carré’s. Subtlety can be a virtue.
And none of the writers in the noir tradition ever seemed to know a thing about politics — or to care. The tragic thing in le Carré’s novels is that he does know politics, and world affairs, and he knows how royally the West fucked up. That’s why The Constant Gardener is among his most mournful works. That’s why Absolute Friends ends with a brutal nutpunch to the reader that felt totally unjustified.
Le Carré’s writing, especially his recent writing, is bitter and angry not because he’s like Woolrich or sadistic like Willeford. He seems to have watched with some measure of hope as the Berlin Wall fell, and as the West laid out its plan for a beautiful future.
And then he watched as Western leaders took a crap on everything they’d ever said they gave a damn about.
Le Carré seems to grasp more than almost any other contemporary fiction writer the deep divide between the West’s unconvincing claim of good intentions and the reality of its many, many transgressions. He portrays with a clear and terrifying vision the the tangled web of lies that sits there at the heart of Western world politics, and the slaughter of principles that has followed the end of the Cold War.
In that, John le Carré one of the few fiction writers who still “matters,” if any of us do.
Which I’m far from convinced we do, but hey, let’s go with that hypothesis for now.