From the books I had consumed by the later 1970s, and living in and around London, I had formed a picture of the British public service as a dysfunctional commune of sorts, reluctantly engaged in work not to its staff’s liking, and broadcasting the kind of contemptuous, insolent disdain for all others, including colleagues, that was in fact the hallmark of any kind of service –private or public sector – in Britain at the time. It was a deeply decadent, disillusioned, and impotent ‘quietism’ that led to the explosion of in-your-face ‘fuck you’ punk rock, and then the perfect punk Coda: Margaret Thatcher.
There was something else in le Carré’s books, though, that I didn’t put my finger on for years afterwards. It was the way he dealt with the reality that more than half the Oxbridge graduates of his generation had been, or still were, communists or socialists. Motivated not by the torrid love affair the French had with Marxism-Leninism, but by an appalled and horrified realization of the alternative, which appeared to be an American, loutish gangsterism. Awful to contemplate, for a British schoolman, with its complete lack of sophistication – down to not being able to recognize nuanced overtures made by others. I wondered whether le Carré was one of these intellectual Brits, while I was surrounded by white youngsters apparently destined to be, and remain, soccer louts, neo-Nazis, IRA heavies, or toffs. and West Indian teenagers who probably saved my life more than once, and left me with fond memories of the shit-holes I knew in Brixton and Kilburn.
In 1979 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was made into a BBC mini-series in seven parts. One of the most brilliant pieces of TV I had, and have, ever seen. Low budget. Unassuming. But sharp and so well acted by the likes of Alec Guiness, Ian Richardson, Ian Bannen, and George Sewell that the low-budget production shortfalls went unnoticed, effortlessly chiming with a lived daily experience of the British mediocracy of the times.
In 1982, the BBC followed up with a serialization of Smiley’s People (1979). It was again a superb production, and this time with budget for continental mise en scènes; not as good as Tinker, Tailor … and yet better than anything else on TV at the time.
Some part of the mysterious and unstated description of British character became clearer: it wasn’t just British character. It was a European character of the kind that FA Hayek had alluded to in The Road to Serfdom and Law, Legislation and Liberty; a shared set of cultural and artistic customs, and an interdependence that made Hayek a proponent of bringing Germany back into the fold even before Nazi Germany was defeated. For a scholar of German literature (at the University of Bern and Oxford), surely le Carré was familiar with this mind-set.
It could not be stated explicitly back then: le Carré, along with many other Britons, assumed and was trying to reflect a European intellectual character of the Western world that excluded the USA, but embraced a certain type of Russian cerebral temperament.
Arch villain ‘Karla’ was much admired. Perhaps regarded as one of ‘us’ rather than just a ‘Moscow Centre hood’. More admired, perhaps, than the permanently taboo Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, and Philby pattern; these men are unlikely to have been the only ones working on the other side of the fence.
The final insight into le Carré’s characterizations, and why they appealed so much to my own outsider’s view of 1970s Britain, came to me only days ago, when opening a new book.
Call for the Dead was the first novel by David Cornwell, who worked as a spook for the British Foreign Service between 1959-1964, in the company of personages liker Peter Wright and John Bingham, later 7th Baron of Clanmorris.
Published in 1961, the nom de plume John le Carré was partly a reaction to a suggestion from Foreign Service legal advisor Bernard Hill, to whom Cornwell had submitted the manuscript for approval. Hill did not suggest the name, just that an alias would be prudent. Carré means square. It seems pithily humorous to suppose Cornwell titled himself lavishly as ‘The Square’. He played with names, I think. In Smiley’s People he created a pivotal character, Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova. A Russian woman exiled in Paris after her husband was found guilty of treason. Ostrakova is not a very far cry from the Greek ostrakismós, or ostracism. Not a coincidental name for an exile, I think.
But I have a suspicion completely unconfirmed by any authority. George Smiley, the hero of this first le Carré novel, and some others, is an academic enthusiast for 16th century German literature. He is exposed as entirely a man of literary and high cultural tastes. In 1959-1960, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created the ‘Carré’, a work for four orchestras and four choirs. Could it be that Cornwell had heard it, and became the square by that route?
In the introduction to the 1989 Penguin edition of Call for the Dead le Carré handsomely evades the question:
I chose le Carré. God alone knows why, or where I had it from … . When people press me, I say I saw the name on a shop front from the top of a London bus. I didn’t. I just don’t know. But never trust a novelist when he tells you the truth.
In the novel, George Smiley is given to pondering the likely murder of a man the secret service would prefer to think of as a suicide, with that last, desperate act being prompted by an interview with Smiley relating to an anonymous denunciation.
Smiley’s reverie includes the following passage:
It had been natural enough that Fennan should join the Left at Oxford. It was the great honeymoon period of university Communism, and its causes, heaven knows, lay close enough to his heart. The rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Franco rebellion in Spain, the slump in America, and above all the wave of anti-Semitism that was sweeping across Europe: it was inevitable that Fennan should seek an outlet for his anger and revulsion. Besides, the Party was respectable then; the failure of the Labour Party and the Coalition Government had convinced many intellectuals that the Communists alone could provide an effective alternative to Capitalism and Fascism. There was the excitement, an air of conspiracy and comradeship which must have appealed to the flamboyance in Fennan’s character and given him comfort in his loneliness. There was talk of going to Spain; some had gone, like Cornford from Cambridge, never to return.
Smiley could imagine Fennan in those days—volatile and earnest, no doubt bringing to his companions the experience of real suffering, a veteran among cadets. His parents had died—his father had been a banker with the foresight to keep a small account in Switzerland. There had not been much, but enough to see him through Oxford, and protect him from the cold wind of poverty.
Smiley remembered so well that interview with Fennan; one among many, yet different. Different because of the language. Fennan was so articulate, so quick, so sure. “Their greatest day,” he had said, “was when the miners came. They came from the Rhondda, you know, and to the comrades it seemed the spirit of Freedom had come down with them from the hills. It was a hunger march. It never seemed to occur to the Group that the marchers might actually be hungry, but it occurred to me. We hired a truck and the girls made stew—tons of it. We got the meat cheap from a sympathetic butcher in the market. We drove the truck out to meet them. They ate the stew and marched on. They didn’t like us really, you know, didn’t trust us.” He laughed. “They were so small—that’s what I remember best—small and dark like elves. We hoped they’d sing and they did. But not for us—for themselves. That was the first time I had met Welshmen.
“It made me understand my own race better, I think—I’m a Jew, you know.”
Smiley had nodded.
“They didn’t know what to do when the Welshmen had gone. What do you do when a dream has come true? They realized then why the Party didn’t much care about intellectuals. I think they felt cheap, mostly, and ashamed. Ashamed of their beds and their rooms, their full bellies and their clever essays. Ashamed of their talents and their humour. They were always saying how Keir Hardie taught himself shorthand with a piece of chalk on the coal face, you know. They were ashamed of having pencils and paper. But it’s no good just throwing them away, is it? That’s what I learnt in the end. That’s why I left the Party, I suppose.”
Smiley wanted to ask him how Fennan himself had felt, but Fennan was talking again. He had shared nothing with them, he had come to realize that. They were not men, but children, who dreamed of freedom-fires, gipsy music, and one world tomorrow, who rode on white horses across the Bay of Biscay or with a child’s pleasure bought beer for starving elves from Wales; children who had no power to resist the Eastern sun, and obediently turned their tousled heads towards it. They loved each other and believed they loved mankind, they fought each other and believed they fought the world.
Soon he found them comic and touching. To him, they might as well have knitted socks for soldiers. The disproportion between the dream and reality drove him to a close examination of both; he put all his energy into philosophical and historical reading, and found, to his surprise, comfort and peace in the intellectual purity of Marxism. He feasted on its intellectual ruthlessness, was thrilled by its fearlessness, its academic reversal of traditional values. In the end it was this and not the Party that gave him strength in his solitude, a philosophy which exacted total sacrifice to an unassailable formula, which humiliated and inspired him; and when he finally found success, prosperity, and integration, he turned his back sadly upon it as a treasure he had outgrown and must leave at Oxford with the days of his youth.
This was how Fennan had described it and Smiley had understood. It was scarcely the story of anger and resentment that Smiley had come to expect in such interviews, but (perhaps because of that) it seemed more real. There was another thing about that interview: Smiley’s conviction that Fennan had left something important unsaid.
Le Carré’s device of putting confession of guilty little secrets in the mouth of an outsider, from a tribe so harrowed already to be beyond all reproaches, was probably effective at the time. Today, though, it seems more like a collective confession for a whole cohort of Oxbridge graduates grappling with Cold War tropes. The futility of communist party affiliation was pretty plain to see, but the alternative was so loathsome they all turned away from it. And became paralysed or treasonous.
What makes this such a striking description of a mass psychology is less about the Brits than it is about everyone else in Europe and Russia. But not in the USA. And that’s, curiously, also why it comes across as so quintessentially British. In a way now laid to waste by Thatcher and a couple of generations whose Oxbridge degrees aren’t a shade on the erudition that time in those places used to guarantee. And worse. Laid to waste, too, by a couple of generations of Germans who are more American than European.
See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.