Paris – John le Carré, who died Dec. 12, may well have said he had been just a low-level official in MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, but his writing style clearly places him at the peak of the literary fiction world.
The MI6 required a junior spy, who was also a novelist just starting out, to take on a nom de plume, and so David Cornwell took on the cover name of John le Carré.
With his 26 novels, le Carré spanned crime thriller, tales of espionage, and a single story of broken love. He was a spy who came in from the Cold War, applied the craft of writing, and became a best-selling author.
That writer’s name drew commercial success from keen readers and bitter rebuke from British intelligence officers, who saw themselves as the victims of his works of fiction.
There was imagination and research in the novels, which also happened to make the MI6 look bad.
There is in the Karla trilogy, considered to be the summit of his spy novels, the voice of a knowledgeable and detached observer who tells a tale of hungry office politics, operational detail, and catches the essence of characters, major and minor.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People are the titles in the Karla trilogy, in which the reader follows George Smiley, a gifted British spy but something of a loner, a loser both in the bureaucratic in-fighting of Whitehall and in his marriage, a source of sorrow.
Tinker, Tailor, School Teacher
There is a conversational voice in the opening of Tinker, Tailor, bringing the reader to the staff room of Thursgood’s, a minor private school, and indirectly introduced to Jim Prideaux, a former MI6 agent betrayed by a mole — an agent of penetration.
Here, the narrator tells of pupils cheekily distracting Prideaux as he gives a French class. All they have to do is to make a carefully placed remark to spark his “passionate Englishness.”
“Best place in the whole damn world!” he bellowed once. “Know why? Know why, toad?
“…To the west, America, he said, full of greedy fools fouling up their inheritance. To the east, China-Russia; he drew no distinction: boiler suits, prison camps, and a damn long march to nowhere. In the middle…”
That is a snapshot of patriotism, a portrait of a character who has served his country and finds out that a friend and colleague has betrayed him and England.
This betrayal by a double agent working for Russia evokes the story of the Cambridge Five: Donald Mclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross. Le Carré appeared on a list of British agents handed over to the Russians by Philby.
Tinker, Tailor is le Carré’s second novel which refers to a private school, an institution which marks the importance of social class in English society. The dialog in le Carré’s novels capture the essence of the middle and upper middle classes which people the corridors of power, competent and less than competent.
The first novel set in a school is A Murder of Quality, a crime thriller placed in Carne, Cornwall, southwest England. In that thriller, the author sketches out Smiley’s backstory as an MI6 agent working in Germany in the second world war, with a former colleague, Elsa Brimley, evoking a close-knit intelligence community of gifted amateurs.
Perhaps le Carré drew on his unhappy, poorly paid experience as schoolmaster at Eton, the private school to beat private schools. He lived dismal days as a pupil at Sherborne private school in Devon, next to Cornwall, and dropped out when he was 16, says Adam Sisman in his biography of le Carré.
Smiley, Melancholy Man
There is a simple skill, hard to master, which brings the main character, Smiley, to center stage in Tinker, Tailor: “Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.”
Here there be no action hero.
In the world of Smiley, there is no Bentley, no Walther PPK, and the beautiful woman is an unfaithful wife, Ann, who has been manipulated to cloud Smiley’s professional judgment.
Smiley’s natural position is to be left on the shelf, both professionally and romantically. That is a tale told in a reflective, yet simple form.
That narrative voice captures a readership around the world, while pointing up the snobbery of a particular English kind, as practiced by senior civil servants.
Tinker, Tailor also introduces the reader to Jerry Westerby, a tabloid journalist with a bit part in the hunt for a double agent in MI6. Westerby is recalled to service as an active agent in the second title in the Karla trilogy and is the titular hero: The Honourable Schoolboy. That title spells out a fascination in social class and school. For school offers the start in life for pupils, a second life for wounded spies, and the little world of the staff room.
Social Class and Cousins
The opening to The Honourable Schoolboy also has that familiar conversational voice, although the reader may need a little concentration to get through that long first paragraph.
But it is worth it, not least because there is an early reference to the U.S. agencies, and how the British have come to rely on them. “…they were forced into a fatal dependence upon their American sister service, whom they called in their own strange jargon ‘the Cousins’.
Here is a concise view of Hong Kong, through the eyes of Luke, a journalist from California, delighted to arrive until he saw what made the then British colony tick: “But all he saw today was a smug, rich British rock run by a bunch of plum-throated traders whose horizons went no further than their belly lines.”
Each word drips with venom. The chance is those British businessmen with upper class accents had attended those privileged private schools le Carré knew so well.
There is writerly craft in narrating an office meeting, where the concern is whether to give Smiley remit to pursue his quarry. It takes a gift to make a gathering of Whitehall mandarins a quiet moment of drama.
The remarks by spy chief Saul Enderby after the meeting, as he and Smiley walk across the park, give true voice of class privilege. This is an ear for dialog: “Nice little meeting. Lot achieved. Nothing given away. Nicely played hand…And the Cousins will play ball, will they?” he bellowed as if they were still inside the safe room.”
In the background are the Cousins, the U.S. intelligence community which has the resources the British lack. This is a superpower which may be losing a war in Vietnam, but its agency has the means its poor relations across the pond can only dream of.
There is Westerby calling into a U.S. airbase in Thailand, to file his report to the Circus, the MI6 headquarters in London. Those are U.S. helicopters which swoop down to seize the Chinese target, Nelson Ko, and there is a joint Anglo-American committee to interrogate the seized official, who is taken and held in an armed compound in Philadelphia. The British lead the operation, but the Americans win the prize, is how the writer tells it.
One of the story strands in Smiley’s People, the last in the trilogy, is the importance of the Baltic states in the Cold War. An Estonian, Vladimir, is a key player in capturing Karla.
In today’s real world, Estonia will increase its 2021 defense spending by five percent to reach 2.3 percent of gross domestic product. That budget boost will be made despite a 5.6 percent fall in GDP this year, with a forecast rise of 6.4 percent in 2021, says a note from the Estonian RKK International Centre for Defence and Security.
Still in the real world, Estonia and Latvia are cooperating in joint arms procurement, and are working with Finland to order Patria armored vehicles, the Baltic Times reported June 16. The Baltic nations are responding to a rise in the perceived risk from Russia. The Berlin wall may well have come down, but geopolitics remain.
Back in the fictitious spy world of Smiley’s People, the British political masters have cut ties to the Baltic team in London, dubbed the Bloomsbury Irregulars, saving a few pennies and throwing Vladimir on the British dust heap of intelligence history.
The author instructs the reader on the significance of Moscow rules, the strict operational approach which Vladimir observes, and which allows Smiley to retrieve vital material. Le Carré the writer takes the reader into something akin to the procedural world of espionage, one in which he has created a glossary of terms such as lamplighter, mole, scalp-hunter, and the fictitious MI6 headquarters at Cambridge Circus, known as the Circus.
Bring on the Journos
There is a strand of journalism in the novels, and le Carré recounts how much he relied on journalists in gathering material for his novels. In The Honorable Schoolboy, Westerby uses his journalism as cover for his work as a freelance MI6 agent, to put pressure on Drake Ko, a Hong Kong businessman.
Another character in that novel is William Craw, a foreign correspondent who also works freelance for MI6. Craw is based on a noted Australian reporter, Richard Hughes.
In Smiley’s People, there is Pauli Skordeno, one of the operatives dubbed scalp-hunters, who plays a Reuters stringer and carries a fake press pass, cable cards and other tools of the trade.
In le Carré’s collection of personal stories, The Pigeon Tunnel, he pays tribute to an American journalist, David Greenway, for helping him in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Le Carré gives special mention to journalists, who gave him greater help than the pharmaceutical executives, mercenaries, bankers and spies he sat down with. “The most generous were the war reporters and foreign correspondents who took the parasitic novelist under their wings, credited him with courage he didn’t possess and allowed him to tag along.”
Beyond the Karla novels, Le Carré thanked Michela Wrong, a former Reuters correspondent, for helping him on research on the Congo for his novel, The Mission Song.
I seem to recall one of my former colleagues, a senior correspondent, musing that if it were not for journalism, then spying would be the job to do.
In the final novel in the trilogy, Smiley has a moment of reflection as he wins a decisive move that will allow wooing Karla to cross over to the West. There is nothing so crude as a gun, but exploiting a deep filial love as the chosen instrument. The British spy sees himself on moral equivalence to his Russian opponent, who has ordered the killing of two Baltic operatives.
It takes sensitivity in head and heart, and skill with pen and paper to tell a tale of ambiguity and victory.