The Essential John le Carré

The English novelist John le Carré (given name: David Cornwell) never sufficiently explained his nom de plume. Of course, we know why he needed one: He still worked for MI6, the British equivalent of the C.I.A., when he wrote his first three books. For years, he told reporters that he’d glimpsed the name on a storefront while riding a bus. That was a lie, he later admitted, a “tiny deception operation” devised to conceal an even more banal truth: that he just couldn’t remember. “I just got sick of saying, ‘I don’t know where it came from,’” he confessed.

I have my doubts. Over the course of 26 novels (and one memoir), le Carré taught his readers to mistrust cover stories, to attend to wordplay and subtext and to interrogate memory — and especially the gaps therein. After all, forgettingis a useful bit of tradecraft: A spy can’t betray what he doesn’t know.

I suspect Cornwell’s alias was a private joke, and a simple one. For English readers, “le Carré” has continental allure, a whiff of danger or sophistication. But its literal translation implies the opposite: In French, “le carré” means “the square” — the rule follower, the law abider, the fuddy-duddy.

For le Carré, spies, particularly English ones, are just this sort of perverse, paradoxical creature. The spy is a square who breaks all the rules, and for the squarest reason of all: for God and Country, to preserve a whole worldof rules.

Le Carré (1931-2020) saw himself this way, a bohemian prig and a priggish bohemian. His father, Ronald Cornwell, was a louche West Country con man and rake whose sins le Carré longed to expiate and dreaded repeating. Of the great German dramatists (Schiller, Goethe, Kleist, Büchner), le Carré wrote, “I related equally to their classic austerity, and their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.” And so David Cornwell of Dorset became John le Carré, who not-so-secretly remained John the Square.

The product of this clever, secretive, melancholy mind is a body of work extraordinary in its breadth, consistency, generosity and wit — if not always its variety. Familiar characters enter and exit under new names. Crooked fathers and anguished sons abound, as do apathetic, listless wives and love affairs with foreign beauties. These occasionally rote proceedings are elevated by his themes (loyalty, betrayal, nostalgia, belonging, fraternity and patriotism), by his plots and by his sentences.

And, of course, by George Smiley. Le Carré’s donnish, bespectacled hero arrives in his first novel, “Call for the Dead” (1961). Brilliant and dowdy, savvy but cuckolded, Smiley is le Carré’s mordant answer to James Bond. He appears in nine novels; he’s the star of five. One misses him when he’s not around. But for those times when Smiley is off the page, reading German literature in some dank Cornish study, other unforgettable characters fill his (ugly, practical) shoes. My favorites — Magnus Pym, Jack Brotherhood, Richard Roper, Barley Blair — are fixed with sonorous, Dickensian names that stick in your head long after you’ve finished their stories.

This is all to say that le Carré wrote many good books, and a handful of great ones. A spy must learn to distinguish signal from noise. Here are his best works.

Where should I begin?

For newcomers, I recommend The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963).A career-making sensation, this novel, le Carré’s third, allowed him to quit his day job as a spy under diplomatic cover in Bonn, West Germany. Graham Greene called it “the best spy story I have ever read.” It serves as an overture for le Carré’s subsequent body of work; all his themes are here, in taut, gorgeous form.

Unlike some later books, which can dawdle (charmingly) in their initial pages, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” drops right into the action, with our hero Alec Leamas, a gloomy, middle-aged alcoholic and spy, huddled at a chilly checkpoint on the Federal Republic side of the newly erected Berlin Wall. He’s sneaking nips of whiskey as he waits for his agent, Karl Riemeck, an East German bureaucrat who’s been feeding information to the West. The rest of Leamas’s network has been exposed; most of them are dead. Only Riemeck remains, and he’s supposed to cross that evening — by bicycle.

The plot that unfolds is perhaps le Carré’s most elegant, and most damning. The novel also contains some of le Carré’s most evocative writing. I’ll never forget Fielder’s description of being tortured by his rival, Mundt, the pain “like a violinist going up the E string,” he thinks. “It rises and rises, and all that nature does is bring you on from note to note like a deaf child being taught to hear.”

What is his best book?

“Though I’ve never been to a shrink,” le Carré said in 1989, “I think that writing ‘A Perfect Spy’ is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do anyway.”

In other words, as we might say today, “Men will literally write a 600-page autobiographical novel about a middle-aged double agent undone by the death of his con man father instead of going to therapy.” (And thank God for that.)

A Perfect Spy” (1986) is not only le Carré’s most florid Oedipal sublimation; it is also his greatest literary achievement. Bad dads of Ronnie Cornwell’s ilk appear throughout le Carré’s novels,as do sons desperate for the embrace of an institution, cause or lover who might make them feel whole and held, as home never did.

But only in “A Perfect Spy,” with Magnus Pym and his father, Rick, did le Carré find just the right timbre, the right balance of grandiose and farcical, of espionage plot and family romance, to nail his demons to the page. When the novel opens, Magnus is in hiding, holed up on the Devon coast with only his memories, his oblivious landlady and a “burn-box” full of British secrets to keep him company. Spy agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain are looking for him. So is his wife. But all Magnus wants to do is write rueful, ruminative letters to his son, explaining how and why Daddy managed to muck things up so bad. This is a great, whooshing thrill of a book! I recommend it constantly, the way annoying people recommend hydration.

Keep the dad stuff. I’m here for the spies.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), the secret intelligence service is a labyrinthine warren of small, defeated men, listlessly shuffling from meeting to meeting and wondering aloud to one another, “What exactly were we trying to do here?”

Enter George Smiley, the squarest square of the bunch, stoic cuckold and faithless Cold War priest, mentor and confessor to the wayward sons of “The Circus” — le Carré’s caustic shorthand for the intelligence agency. In “Tinker Tailor,” Smiley returns from retirement to smoke out a mole hidden in the upper echelons of the secret service. What ensuesis a marvel of plotting, social commentary and psychological acuity, with an unforgettable finale.

“Tinker, Tailor” is also le Carré’s most pointed indictment of the English upper classes, satirizing their imperial nostalgia, capacity for betrayal and genius for self-preservation. Even so, the novel indulges a wistfulness for wartime moral heroism and bourgeois grit. “The inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, underpaid men,” laments le Carré, “had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.” Like the best literary pathologists, le Carré was a bit sick with every disease he diagnoses; he hated the English, their timorous pride and vain self-abnegation, because he had a bad case of Englishness himself.

Le Carré’s next two books, “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977) and “Smiley’s People”(1979), complete Smiley’s chase for his Soviet rival, Karla. Taken together, the trilogy is le Carré’s early-career masterwork — the full opera. (And you should read them both.) But neither matches “Tinker, Tailor” as a stand-alone novel.

What is his most underrated book?

Le Carré believed we fight the wars we inherit. In The Looking Glass War” (1965), John Avery is conscripted into a doomed operation devised by his nostalgic superiors, veterans of World War II military intelligence, who find themselves adrift in the moral ambiguity of Cold War espionage. Gradually, it dawns on Avery that his bosses are shadowboxing with memories of greatness, avenging their own impotence, scrambling toward mutual ruin.

If “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” is tragedy, “The Looking Glass War” is farce. Cold mastery and machination are the instruments of destruction in the former; damned foolishness, hubris and sentimentality are culprits in the latter. And these frailties, le Carré suggests, are particular to men — especially men in love.

Fraternity of this sort is a source of beauty andruin in le Carré’s books. The secret world is a league of men, who deceive one another and themselves and collude in their self-deceptions. Avery and his team have a serious mission — to verify a Communist defector’s intelligence about a Soviet missile in East Germany — but at every turn, pride and credulity get in the way. As le Carré writes, Avery “was witnessing an insane relay race in which each contestant ran faster and longer than the last, arriving nowhere but his own destruction” — like so many dodos, whistling “Rule, Britannia!” as the waves crash against the cliff.

Are there any nuanced women in these books?

Our man is not easily beating the “can’t write woman who are not sex objects, nagging wives or dead” allegations. Le Carré attributed the lack of believable women in his books to unresolved resentment toward his mother, who left when he was 4. “Whenever I start to write a female character, Olive always seems to get in the way,” he said of her, “and I blame her for this, which is quite unfair.”

Le Carré managed to outmaneuver Olive’s ghost in the character of Charlie, the protagonist of The Little Drummer Girl” (1983). Charlie is an English actress in her 20s driven to promiscuity and superficial radicalism by her own miserable upbringing. Like David Cornwell and Magnus Pym, Charlie acquires her facility with deception and mimicry during a childhood under siege. And she, too, is recruited into an elaborate espionage plot — a Mossad scheme to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell — for want of a meaningful cause of her own.

“Drummer Girl” is remembered for its politics, which, while tame and in my view overly deferential to Israeli prerogatives by today’s standards, caused a stir when it was published. This was especially true, le Carré recalled, “in America, where no popular novel had presumed to suggest that the Palestinians were human beings with a legitimate case.”

But the novel’s appeal transcends its political moment. For le Carré, novelists, actors, swindlers and spies work in analogous trades. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the first half of “Drummer Girl,” during which Charlie and her Mossad operator, Joseph, collaborate on the story she will need to believably inhabit in order to prevail — and to survive in what Joseph calls “the theater of the real.” This life-or-death creative enterprise, which is also a twisted, mutual seduction, is le Carré’s most thrilling testament to the power and perils of fiction.

Did he lose his mojo after the Cold War?

The fall of the Soviet Union fragmented and narrowed le Carré’s scope. His attention turned to arms traffickers, criminal Russian oligarchs, the drug trade and the war on terror. He became more staunchly anti-American, more righteous in his moral judgments and more charitable toward his countrymen. When these instincts alighted on a suitable target — and he managed to recruit some winning, complex characters — he was capable of great new work.

The Constant Gardener” (2001)is his best post-Cold War novel. Set in Nairobi, Kenya, the novel is a withering indictment of Big Pharma’s crimes in Africa, carried along by a murder plot and a grieving diplomat’s search for the truth, not merely about his wife’s gruesome death but about their marriage.

Le Carré’s spy capers are almost always also novels of marriage and betrayal. Patriotism and fidelity, for le Carré, were as likely to summon the best in a man as trap him. His characters cheat for the same reasons they defect: because they are naïve and sentimental; because they insist on believing in something, even as they betray it.

But Justin, the protagonist of “The Constant Gardener,” is neither a cheater nor a spy. Part of his torment is wondering whether he failed his wife, Tessa, through his indifference. Only after the Cold War ended — and with it, the great drama of defection — did le Carré fully explore the narrative possibilities of love and consistency, of tending one’s own garden. Justin is a hero in this mold.

What is his most relevant political book today?

Le Carré’s depressive humanism was expressed through inconsistent politics. He admired Margaret Thatcher (despite himself), detested Tony Blair and publicly refused to vote Labour in 2019 over Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism. In a 1992 letter describing a tie he intended to wear to meet Thatcher, he wrote, “Its colors were aptly chosen: the deep blue of Mrs. Thatcher’s convictions, shot with the intermittent red of my own frail socialism, and an insipid yellowish color which I am afraid says much about my moral courage.”

Le Carré fiercely criticized the invasion of Iraq and deplored the violent excesses of the war on terror; but those critiques, too, could spill over into wistfulness for his war,. He thought Edward Snowden a hero (“a loyal American, except that America won’t let him be loyal,” as he wrote to Daniel Ellsberg, whom he also admired). And he despised Donald J. Trump and Brexit, writing in 2018 that he feared “the rise of white fascism everywhere and take the threat very seriously indeed.”

In his novels, le Carré often skewered Communist dogmatism and capitalist self-satisfaction; he rarely invoked fascism (except when writing, archly, about the cruelty of British private education). This makes A Small Town in Germany” (1968) a fascinating case.

Set in Bonn amid a rising nationalist movement, the novel is a “political ghost story,” as le Carré put it. Alan Turner, its protagonist, is sent to exorcise the ghost of Leo Harting, a missing British embassy employee suspected of defecting to the East. Turner is an unwelcome guest, not least because his investigation threatens to disinter other, even less flattering memories.

And yet, the novel’s best quality is its attention to how easily we avoid seeing grim truths about our political present. Even when darkness gathers all around, it is difficult to ward off optimism completely — especially in the morning. As le Carré writes, just before the novel’s deadly denouement: “No dawn is ever wholly ominous. The earth is too much its own master; the cries, the colors and the scents too confident to sustain our grim foreboding.”

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