The Spy Who Came in from the Cold War

By Blumgart, Jake | In These Times, August 2016 | Go to article overview

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold War


Blumgart, Jake, In These Times


FILM

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold War

WHILE THE SUN MAY HAVE set on the British Empire, it's still high noon for fiction about globetrotting British spies. Amidst speculation about who will play James Bond next, those looking for more existential angst can turn to the works of John le Carré, the preeminent spy novelist of the 20th century. His works are being adapted at a steady clip lately, from 2014's A Most Wanted Man, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final films, to two new offerings this year: the BBC miniseries The Night Manager and director Susanna White's new film Our Kind of Traitor. For many readers, the writer's name is synonymous with the Cold War; le Carré brought a keen analysis of power and the gray areas of politics to bear on a world that still seemed, to most, black and white. But this year's films are derived from novels written in the second half of his career, after the fall of the Soviet Union prompted him to explore new subject matter. In our era of heightened awareness and anxiety about surveillance and endless war, what does the spy thriller have to offer us?

Le Carrés staid, self-effacing agents have always provided thoughtful foils to the garish Bond, whom the author has referred to as a "neo-fascist" and a "gangster." The secret world of spies they inhabit is a painfully self-aware one, rendered in gritty detail thanks to le Carrés stint with the British security services in the 1950s and 60s, when its chief mission was to combat the Soviet Union and ensure a decorous retreat from empire. The writer, whose real name is David Cornwell, published his first three novels under a pseudonym while still working as an intelligence officer. The third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, achieved such worldwide success in 1964 that Cornwell's identity was discovered and he resigned.

Written in the heyday of the Cold War, le Carrés earlier novels are infused with a nostalgia for the British Empire. The author often lends a sharp eye to the social and political realities of the time, even as his characters cling to the moral and social conventions of a bygone era. They long for the days when spying was supposedly a gentleman's game and abhor the brash intrigues of their American cousins. They struggle above all with the fact that, as former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, Great Britain had "lost an empire and not yet found a role."

Some of le Carres best-known novels featuring rumpled super-spy George Smiley evince this kind of snobbish anti-Americanism, fraught with a grudging eulogy for Great Britain's days as a great power-a sometimes uncomfortable pairing with left-of-center politics. But it's this moral ambiguity that gave flesh to the most memorably rendered characters the spy genre ever generated. …

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