Through a glass darkly – 18

John le Carre

Our  son gave me a copy of John le Carré’s latest book, Agent running in the field, for my birthday.  I am delighted, as Le Carré has given me more pleasure than any other writer over the past fifty years. For the moment I’m reluctant to start on the book; it’s a question of enjoying the anticipation or perhaps of saving the pleasure. But I have sneaked a look at the first couple of chapters. Nat is in his late forties, the son of a father in the Scots Guards, seconded to NATO in Fontainebleau, who died when Nat was just twelve, and a white Russian mother. After twenty five years in the Secret Intelligence Service he is back in London with Prue, his long-suffering lawyer wife, and Steff, his rather stroppy daughter. In his Battersea club he is challenged to a badminton game, or series of games, by the solitary and introspective  Ed,  who hates BREXIT and Trump with an equal passion.

As [both] readers may well know, David Cornwell [le Carré is a pen name, significance unknown] was born in Bournemouth in 1931. His father, Ronnie,  was a fantasist, a wheeler-dealer, a confidence trickster on an industrial scale, a one-time parliamentary candidate, a serial bankrupt, a lover of fast women and less speedy horses. His mother left home when he was only five. Unhappy at his public school [Sherborne], he ran away to Berne. There he enrolled in classes at the university and was  enrolled locally as an occasional by the Secret Service. After national service and a Modern Language degree at Oxford he taught languages, including a spell at Eton. Which would have supplied some of the background for his second book, A Murder of Quality. Unusually he then worked for both MI5 and for MI6. [The relationship between the two services is complicated. MI6 were thought of as upper class, public school poseurs, with generous living allowances; MI5 were lower middle-class, grammar school boys, with biros in their top pockets and chips on their shoulders.]

If a gun were held to my head and I had to choose a subject for Mastermind, I guess the answer would be the novels of John Le Carré. And if  a gun were held to my head and I had to choose a topic for a DPhil, an extremely unlikely scenario, I would probably choose to write on Circus to Control: Love and Loyalty in the le Carré corpus. But I can’t now remember exactly how and when I first came across his books. 

His first book, Call for the Dead, came out in 1961, shortly after le Carré, then working for MI6,  had been posted to Bonn. The book introduces several characters who would reappear in later books: George Smiley, the owlish and unobtrusive intelligence officer; his wife, Lady Ann [Sercombe], the policeman Mendel, and the villain Mundt. On his own in Bad Godesburg, waiting for his wife and children to arrive, he returned to an earlier book, A Murder of Quality, a rather old-fashioned murder mystery set in a classic English public school. [Le Carré himself had been unhappily at Sherborne, and had taught Modern Languages for a short time at Eton.] This was published in 1962. The first two books were published by Gollancz, and received favourable notices from the reviewers Julian Symons and Maurice Richardson. Penguin paid a modest advance for the paperback rights, and both books appeared in their re-vamped ‘Penguin Crime’ series with the distinctive green covers. I was at school at the time, preoccupied no doubt with medieval history and Greek irregular verbs, and didn’t notice either book. My first encounter with le Carré came with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was published in September 1963. It was his big break-through. My recollection [memory is fallible] is that I read the book in the hard cover edition during my first year at uni, possibly borrowed from the Union library. Then as now I would be extremely reluctant to buy a novel in hard covers !

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It is the early 1960s. Alec Leamas, fifty-ish, part-Irish, fluent in German, more-or-less fluent in Dutch, one ex-wife, one unacknowledged, illegitimate son, has been out in the cold for many years, spying for his masters in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. His networks have been rounded up and his agents have gone silent. Then his best agent is shot at the Wall, crossing into the west. Leamas is recalled home to the Circus, and is given an inferior role. He is downgraded to a clerical job in accounts. When some money goes missing, he is out on his ear without reference or pension. He struggles to find a job, and ends up in a batty library, at the Institute for Psychical Research. 

At the library he is befriended by Liz Gold,  an unassuming dark-haired colleague, a member of the local branch of the Communist Party. The job is unrewarding. He drinks too much, assaults a local shop-keeper, and does a spell in prison. When he comes out he is picked up by the opposition; and flown with a fake passport to Holland. After interrogation he is escorted east to the German Democratic Republic, where he finds that he is a key witness in an internal power struggle within the East German Intelligence Community; between Mundt, the ruthless head of the department, an unreconstructed Nazi, and Fiedler, his bright, young Jewish assistant. What is Leamas’s role ? Who is on which side ? And what happens when Liz appears unexpectedly in the Tribunal ?

It is a bleak book. Spying operates within a dour, chilling world, where motives are unclear and things are not always what they seem to be. It is light-years removed from the glitzy glamour of James Bond. The bleakness of the book is maintained in the black-and-white film of Martin Ritt [1965]. The greyness works well both for the London back-street corner shop where Leamas assaults the owner and for the East German prison camp where the concluding  tribunal takes place. 

Claire Bloom is excellent as the naive young Liz, Oskar Werner is well cast as Fiedler, and Richard Burton at his best as Alec Leamas, betrayed, hoodwinked, and terminally fatigued. [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, in my opinion, the only le Carré book that has translated well to the cinema screen. The Deadly Affair [1967]  looked like [was ?] an average British low-budget film of the period, in spite of the presence of James Mason and Simone Signoret.  And The Looking Glass War was a disaster with a mis-cast Christopher Jones and a badly re-hashed plot.The much acclaimed BBC television productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, are both wonderful. But that is another story.]

I have just been re-reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for the first time for a decade or two. The book stands up very well. Le Carré is a superb story-teller. [Incidentally I am reading the Penguin Classic edition of 2010. In which there is an Introduction by William Boyd which gives away the complexities of the plot. Which seems senseless.]  The book conveys equally well the brutalising, depersonalising effect of the English prison and the confusion and fear of the later imprisonment in East Germany. Re-reading the book I understood better things that I hadn’t really understood before. The collusion of the Circus in brutality and murder. And the significance of the title. Leamas comes in from the cold, from the world of lamplighters and scalp-hunters, to one final job for the Circus at the centre. And ultimately he comes in from the cold emotionally to sacrifice himself for a girl who loved him. It is, according Graham Greene, the best spy book ever written.

A Legacy of Spies

Some fifty years later came A Legacy of Spies. Peter Guillam, ‘young Peter’, a protegé  of George Smiley and one-time colleague of Alec Leamas is living in retirement on his second-generation farm in southern Brittany. From where he is abruptly summoned to a meeting in the new brutalist Secret Service building on the south bank. He negotiates the armoured glass welcome desk, and is greeted in a distinctly cool manner by two members of the legal team. Bunny is a fresh-faced public schoolboy of indeterminate age in shirt sleeve and braces, the Service’s chief lawyer; Laura an expressionless young woman with short hair and no make-up is his side-kick. Estuary English is their common language. Their concern is to pump the uncooperative Guillam about a long-ago Operation Windfall. Bunny explains that legal action is now being brought by the legal descendants of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold. Their civil-rights lawyers allege a five-star cock-up by the Service, and specifically by George Smiley and by Peter Guillam; and are insisting on full disclosure, punitive damages, and a public apology. With full press coverage.

Under pressure from the service legal team, Guillam reluctantly offers up some of what he recalls. In a left-over safe house, whose existence was not publicly known, he re-visits the files that he had filched from the Circus five decades earlier.  He is led back into the days of the internal schism between H/Covert Marylebone [George Smiley] and Joint Steering [Bill Haydon et al]. He is also forced to recall his exfiltration of Agent TULIP via Prague, and their short-lived passion. The book moves backwards and forwards between a long-ago Circus operation and present-day London where Guillam is being harassed by his own memories, by the service lawyers, and by Christophe Leamas, a bulky, potentially homicidal, man in a long dark coat and a black Homburg hat.

For a le Carré fan A Legacy of Spies is a late-flowering delight. I owe my copy, and my thanks, to Peter Ludlow who gave me his second copy. It is an exciting story in its own right. And it also throws new light both on Alec Leamas’s ill-fated last mission, and on the highly disruptive search for the Circus mole that followed. That story is told first in Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy, and is then developed further in The Honourable Schoolboy and in Smiley’s People. Together the three books make up what has been marketed as The Karla Trilogy. The books range across the Circus building in St Giles Circus, Chelsea, South London, North Oxford, Czecho, Hong Kong, and most of South East Asia. But the overarching presence is the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Abandonment, the intelligence struggles of the Cold War, latent anti-Americanism, British class distinctions are all there somewhere. The books might be said to reflect the search for Britain’s new role in a post-imperial world. Or they might just be about love and loyalty.

If this lock-down goes on for ever, I may well have more to say about Le Carré. Meanwhile I am enjoying putting off starting on Agent running in the field. While at the same time looking forward enormously to reading it.

August 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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