Tinkering with conscience

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To propose that John le Carré’s zenith was the 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I have to retrace my steps through his body of work, and my own historical connection to it. Why bother? Because my bedside reading for a couple of weeks now has been a journey of discovery and re-discovery as I make my way through his collected works. And because I realize more clearly now why Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy always seemed so memorable.

In reading some novels for the first time, I realized that my memory is faulty, according le Carré (the pseudonym of David Cornwell) greater status as an influence on me than is merited. It’s really only three novels I was fond of over time: The Spy Who Came in Form the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), and Smiley’s People (1979). I didn’t know the earlier Call for the Dead (1961) or A Murder of Quality (1962) until much more recently; they are fine novels in their own right, but not quite as significant.

The Looking Glass War (1965) struck me as bland and aimless years ago, and still does today. I didn’t read A Small Town in Germany (1968) until last week, and though I found it engaging, I thought the agonizing about rehabilitated Nazis running West Germany for the Allies was affected, and the accent on a British betrayal of Jews to the unreconstructedly brutish Germans was far too self-righteous to sit well. It was much better done in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, though I suppose the trope might have gone over well at the time, especially as an expression of le Carré’s class-based angst, being increasingly guilt-ridden for the failure of Britain to be a more fitting home for liberal freedoms and its heroes.

I suspect that I shall pass on The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971) altogether, since it deals with the heartache of le Carré’s own failed marriage. I think, in some ways he touched on those themes in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), which seemed to me somehow self-indulgent and meandering back in the later 1970s, when I read it, expecting a return to a more thorough Smiley story than it offered. I never liked The Little Drummer Girl (1983) or A Perfect Spy (1986). They struck me as faddish novels.

I have some time for The Russia House (1989) for its suggestion that not all ‘traitors’ are silly ideologues or other kinds of rogues, but not for what I saw as an increasing wordiness, and a cryptic kind of self-reflection that I felt I was supposed to understand by way of membership to some elite club or secret society. Perhaps the secret society of an educated and anguished class of Englishmen turned sour and mournful with disappointments and age?

The Secret Pilgrim (1990) was a return to old form, of sorts, though I thought it was a little disjointed. It is one of the few novels by any author that ought to have been slightly longer to present greater clarity about the anecdotal stories, told by way of a raconteur’s low tales. Having Smiley need the interpretation by the wistful Ned in recounting past exploits seemed unnecessary, and maybe I missed some point to that contortion.

In Our Game (1995), which I read in the past few days, I first became aware that le Carré’s sense of responsibility to speak for those who could not do it themselves made him possibly noble and responsible, but less interesting as a novelist. After an involved love story dealing with betrayal and the coarseness of the state, having the retired spy join the long-suffering rebels against all the indifference, enmity, and power of the secret world was just too nihilistic a message for my liking, and too remote. As if abandoning a concern for close neighbours in favour of crusading for far-off strangers. And making those strangers the Sunni Muslim Ingush might have been fashionable, but not really very sympathetic. I couldn’t help wondering what should make me more sympathetic to the plight of remote victims of neo-imperialism than to the much more visible fate of its local victims? And why would I be more sympathetic to the cause of religion than to ideologies less hateful of me? What is noble about enforced hatred, ignorance, and misogyny even among oppressed people?

The answer, I think, is that I benefited less from the imperialism he decries than he did. It reminded me of the reasons why I turned away from le Carré in the 1990s.

In a repellent essay, ‘A Book Not Worth the Bloodshed’ (The Guardian, 15 January 1990, apparently not available online) le Carré seemed to endorse the murder contract issued by Ruhollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, which he had not read before finding it blasphemous (I thought of it as soporific enough not to persist with it past a few dozen pages). Le Carré, less well known as David John Moore Cornwell, was pusillanimous enough to call murder reprehensible, but astonishingly wrong enough to argue that Rushdie had brought this upon himself. I read that essay in 1992 or 1993, and it seemed to me that le Carré had lost his mind in arguing that barbarism was somehow to be exempt from civilised norms if it had the cover of religion. I have changed my mind about a lot of things since the 1990s, but not that.

In 1997, there was an acid exchange of letters in The Guardian between le Carré and Rushdie in which le Carré again appeared to side with what I then, as now, thought of as Islamofascists. Islamofascism is a term describing a nominal Islamism used to mobilise an otherwise materialist, nationalist authoritarianism. The term was popularised, but not invented by Christopher Hitchens, who took part in The Guardian exchange. There were transcripts of the letters, or as images offered by The Guardian itself (the links I had are dead now), and also an epitaph about the ending of the ‘feud’ in 2012, and an American perspective from The New York Times.

I can understand that an establishment Englishman might feel guilty about the causes for third world anguish, its consequent anger, and its militance. But I cannot see virtue in justifying what is plainly cancerous and hateful ideology. It seemed to me then, as now, that there is no merit in arguing that we should see the ‘other’ side of an argument in which murder, torture, slavery, misogyny, and institutionalized intolerance are the key characteristics. In some arguments there are no conscionable ‘other’ sides. In some arguments there are no conscionable arguments at all, but that situation is not ameliorated by taking sides regardless. Arguing tolerance of intolerance strikes me as a form of psychosis, particularly when I’m being asked to tolerate potentially fatal intolerance of me.

In some senses le Carré had begun to sound like John Pilger, a journalist I once admired, until I came to suspect he was motivated more by a narcissistic white knight principle: being seen to be championing the ‘right’ and usually remote causes (what is now called virtue signalling). The fashionable ones for people wealthy and comfortable enough to talk about while ignoring the atrocities they vote for at home. ‘Look at me, I say all the right things. You must applaud my spirit and offer your material worship. Just don’t expect me to do anything difficult, or with any chance of changing things.’

It was as if le Carré relied increasingly on a guilt-ridden rentier class as his readership. Perhaps in direct correlation to his transformation into an unassailably successful and wealthy public figure.

Although I read The Tailor of Panama (1996) before the earlier Our Game (1965), years ago, I realized the novel was suffused by a similar guilty sophistry. This made me stop seeking out his more recent novels. Until now.

In fairness, I had occasion to rethink my disdain for the later le Carré in 2003, after a short comment by him in the establishment UK newspaper The Times hinted at a man whose ethics were not irredeemably compromised—at least not by the solipsistic narcissism of white knight syndrome. Part of that comment said:

America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

With hindsight, who could argue with that assessment?

I didn’t re-visit le Carré’s novels until after seeing a much underrated film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Robin Wright (as the most scary CIA operative I have yet seen on screen). It made me read A Most Wanted Man (2008). The novel struck me as well characterized, well written, and yet oddly languid and unappealing. Attempting to explain too many perspectives leaves them all hanging in limbo, and comes across as too anguished about the denouement, which could have worked without the overly empathetic treatment. Only fools now think of the Bush legacy of authoritarianism, waited on by an Uncle Tom president, as anything but the actualization of world terror, rather than as its nemesis.

David Cornwell, in late career.
David Cornwell, in late career.

And there I come back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I am re-reading rather than picking a more recent novel, with the following still unread, and maybe never to be read, as the mood strikes me: The Night Manager (1993), Single & Single (1999), The Constant Gardener (2001), Absolute Friends (2003), The Mission Song (2006), Our Kind of Traitor (2010), and A Delicate Truth (2013).

At the current signpost on this road, along with revisiting the 1979 seven-part BBC television dramatization of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I think this novel is le Carré’s magnum opus.

He captures the complexity of personal, professional, organizational, and international betrayal with an ease of language and clarity that makes the novel transcend the spy genre. It reveals a wider consideration of dishonesties linked to life-long pursuits that turn out to be less than the ideals they once seemed, and, on the other side, less the absolute villainies they once seemed.

It is an ageless tale of age as sinful in itself, the new as unquestionably better, and the hypocritical rewards for mediocrity, while duty, honour, and intelligence are despised and ostracized.

All of these themes converge in the person of George Smiley. A pudgy, ungainly, ageing little man none of us would spare a second glance in a public place. Alienated from his peers, like the pompous Roddy Martindale, and betrayed by others, like the somewhat younger Oliver Lacon, but especially Bill Haydon, a lover of Smiley’s serially unfaithful wife, and the ultimate cause of Smiley’s discontents.

Yet Smiley becomes necessary again, when the edifice of the new, and the credulous attitudes of the young come unstuck, revealing the theology of novelty to be corrupt, barely concealing the rotten center no one wants to see. When Haydon talks of his motives for betrayal, it seemed to me that the entire theme of old and new is a metaphor excoriating American imperialism—cultural and material—as the corruptor of all that was valuable in British traditions.

But it is also method: Smiley’s success depends on delving into the past, methodically like the Oxford don on whom he is styled, with careful interviews conjuring up the wonderful character of the discarded Connie Sachs, once an authoritative, indisputable lexicon of British intelligence; the dipsomaniac Jerry Westerby, now reduced to yellow press journalism (but elevated to protagonist in The Honourable Schoolboy); and Sam Collins, sacked from the service for doing his job well, and running a casino now, for even more questionable masters.

Smiley’s method isn’t merely bookish, though. It includes the mercenary cruelty of disinterring the recent past, intruding painfully on Jim Prideaux. The agent shot and tortured behind the Iron Curtain in a desperate last mission mounted by the deceased ‘Control’, the former chief of the ‘Circus’ (MI6), who had suspected the conspiracy Smiley now uncovers, and whose disgrace for pursuing that conspiracy so embarrassingly helped to maintain it.

I can’t help but see in this theme the evergreen lesson about the dangers of forgetting the past, and the folly of discarding the old, along with its memory of how things came to be, in favour of a naïve and ignorant replacement, as if by a blank page. It is a way of talking about liberal education, culture, heritage, and the value of tradition that is entirely missing now from all public debate, no matter how much nominal conservatives seek to wrap themselves in its virtues, or Millennial idiots propose that it can and has been superseded by the shiny baubles of consumer technology.

Le Carré delves into subjects taboo at the time, like the sexual relationship between Prideaux and Haydon that makes the former’s betrayal by the latter doubly pungent, and the wilful collaboration in Britain’s decline by faithless civil servants (and their masters, though by implication only) who have become grey accountants and hypocritical moralists without knowing the first thing about economics or ethics. It seems like a mournful mea culpa by a former civil servant regretful for having not been more effective.

If the lesson was obscure in the 1970s, it becomes more clear as I grow older: appearances of delightful modernity are ideology entirely indifferent to truth or principle, but even the appearance of tradition should not be taken as read rather than re-examined in each new circumstance.

The BBC television production of the story was a brilliant spark in a sea of sludge when it was shown in 1979, just before the onset of Thatcherism forever changed Britain, inverting its traditional status to make it a colony of the USA. At least in some eyes. Including, probably, le Carré’s.

Made on a characteristically low BBC budget, its sets and production techniques looked impoverished in comparison to contemporary television like The Rockford Files, Battlestar Galactica, or even MASH. More so today than almost forty years ago.

But the scripting was superb in its faithfulness, and the acting shines in a timeless fashion, with Alec Guiness personifying Smiley, Ian Richardson (later Urquhart in The House of Cards) dazzling as the duplicitous Bill Haydon, and the entire ensemble superbly characterizing not just people, but the verité of a culture and an era, the end of which I witnessed personally.

Everything about the execution of the seven-part television mini-series was and remains a Zeitgeist reflection of le Carré’s novel, the Britain of the day, and the theme of betrayal. I can discern its palpable reality even in the antithetical rise of the punk rock ethic it paralleled.

It is no small tribute to writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, director Tomas Alfredson, and a brilliant cast, that the 2011 film did no violence to the novel or the earlier BBC dramatization.

With the Cold War gone, and its utility as a fulcrum for a morality tale degraded by decades of propagandistic trivialization, I suspect the story just doesn’t make sense to younger audiences today. They may not be able to see past the period setting to discover the timelessness of their parents’ neuroses, nor their own ideological shallowness.

See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.

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