John le Carre
Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)
A literary barbarian? Or a writer to whom future generations will turn for insights into our times?
How serious is John le Carre? There is a feeling among his admirers that he is very serious indeed, not just an accomplished genre writer, but more than that: the natural heir of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, a writer whose superb worldliness and commanding interest in the great movements of contemporary history have resulted in a postwar body of work of unrivalled political complexity. But le Carre himself, you suspect, has long felt undervalued by what he sweetly calls the "literary bureaucracy" - by which he means the coteries of critics, career novelists, agents and publishers who gather at the same London parties and events to gossip and scheme. Who's in? they ask, who's out? "If you move in these circles," le Carre once said, "you trip over connections at every point . . . I don't know the people who review me, I don't go to their parties - I never will. I have the most profound contempt for the system - a total alienation from it."
David Cornwell (le Carre was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover), now 67 years old, removed himself early in his career from this closed, airless world, when the international success of his third (and wondrously plotted) novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), offered him a route out from the British "intelligence" service into which he had stumbled as a student linguist. Since then he has lived for most of the time in Cornwall, while keeping a house in Hampstead, a self-styled outsider largely spurning the tawdry ephemera of literary celebrity - the interviews, festivals, television appearances and newspaper columns. And perhaps he was right to do so, since self-contentment and metropolitan networking are seldom compatible with radical creativity; most of the innovative writers of the century - Celine, Beckett, Conrad, Kafka, V S Naipaul - are voices from the margins, operating beyond the boundaries of bourgeois society.
Yet, in many ways, le Carre, as a former diplomat and servant of MI5 and MI6, has been at the centre of conventional society; and indeed he can be a conventional writer, enclosing himself in the prison of genre, no matter how much he attempts to stretch and bend the bars that constrain him. His new novel, Secret & Secret (Hodder & Stoughton, [pounds]16.99), about the intrigues of the bandit capitalists of the new Russia, displays his obvious weaknesses: the flat, inexact dialogue, the unhappy flirtation with cliche (people drift down "memory lane") the perfunctory description, the febrile, over-elaborate plotting, the inevitable certainty of closure.
Still, there is something mysterious and unaccountable in his ironic, low-toned style that make his best books - From the Cold, A Perfect Spy (1986), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1977) - hard to forget (his novels written since 1989 are no more than accomplished footnotes to his espionage fiction). It is something to do, I think, with his acute understanding of, and engagement with, the contemporary world in which he grew up. From the beginning, he had an urgent subject - the cold war - and a compelling preoccupation - secrecy. As a novelist, he is addicted to secrecy, as Conrad was, secrecy as a way of life and as an extended metaphor through which to understand human motivation (public and personal betrayal are inextricably bound up in his novels, as the cuckold George Smiley realises when he contemplates his marriage).
Le Carre understands that there is no one lonelier than the double agent: addicted to duplicity and loyal only to himself, he lives in a condition of acute watchfulness. His fiction, with its suspensions, narrative absences and aporias, leaves much unsaid. Even when his novels reach their inevitable resolution, as the genre demands, there is nevertheless a powerful sense of incompleteness, of uncertainty and baffled wonder, as though the spooks themselves are unable to comprehend the events that have just passed, or indeed what they are working for or against. …