John le Carre

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), February 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

John le Carre


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.