It is sometimes said that David Cornwell, known to millions of readers around the world as John le Carré, there were his droll, the dry observer, against dry hero George Smiley: “small, podgy and middle-aged at best, he was apparently one of London’s most unassuming quiet people of the land. ”
On the other hand, the author could not have been more different: lankily elegant, with a twist of humor and anger, and – especially late – given to a fire anathema against the heads of the forts and the crooks who have somehow, in a sad way the world, come to call shots nations. The British masters, no matter how their terrible influence on accent and manner, turned spiv, the last signs of common methods that struggled with spies better than the famous father of conman and the man- Ronnie Cornwell’s permanent escape art – immortalized Perfect spy.
It was a mystery, then, that Carré had the last thing – at least in the later oracular years. Instead he was a signatory of letters, a writer of jeremiads against the transatlantic scoundrels of the day, prodigal squanderers of common European history and culture with whom he was deeply attached.
Dean Acheson’s famous British character in 1962, who had “lost an empire but has not yet found a place” was once forced into a literary translation. But until Carré came up, no writer was the poisonous mixture of bad faith and blundering, confused about ingenious morality with strategic wisdom, with such deadly precision.
Whether he recognized it or not, his writing had some precursors – at least in a bladelike literary temple, and the constant sense of dignity persisted in a world of dishonesty. He belonged to the same “middle-upper middle class” as George Orwell (another nom-de-plumer who had the moral sludge of a falling empire clinging to the pen); has been living in the halls by the name of Eton (Orwell as a schoolboy; with Carré as a teacher) and likewise became an acerbic connoisseur of loss. Again, as Orwell – who now and then appeared as a poetic performer in deep England – Carré had a perfect ear for the deceptive hypocrisies sustaining those who mocked him. Getting away with it ”for a national cause.
Another literary surname Le Carré (though it may come as a surprise) came from Anthony Trollope: the harsh sense that institutions had common personalities and psychologies, as if they were extended families. As such, they were theaters of deadly dramas, high of loyalty and betrayal. Trollope’s Barsetshire was a MI6 Circus, in which there were tight layers of fatherly duty, filial rebellion, homosexual lust and miscarriage, wounded around old grievances and suspicions.
The Smiley books, in particular, were the building blocks of a true saga: his characters were forever circling, beady-eyed and fretful. “Control”, which he loses; the average climb of integrity that Peter Guillam; Jerry Westerby, who makes a quick but crucial appearance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but it is the honorable schoolboy of the book who could be a masterpiece by Carré. They are quiet anti-heroes, living in ratty lodges of peeling wallpaper and cold toast; terribly persistent, even when they were as dead as Alec Leamas entered The spy who came in from the cold, dragging a subsequent generation of New Spooks in pencil skirts and loose-fitting shirts subtly thinking that their new glass-and-steel environment somehow provided post-imperial clarity.
Le Carré excelled at many things; which others do not quite have. His athletic acumen and rituals were designed to stand out. The opening of his last book, European tourism adventure Agent running in the field set in a badminton club and for le Carré aficionados, commenting on the dénouement of the whole story. No one from Dickens or Waugh has made the social atmosphere better. The view at the beginning Honorable schoolboy in the Hong Kong Foreign Letter Club, where there was “a score of journalists, especially from old British colonies. . . betrayed and drunk in a violent abominable mood, a heroic chorus ”is one of the great set pieces of Carré’s writing. At the center is one of his Dickens-Modern creations: the old Aussie, “old Craw” based on someone with Carré familiar from that field trip to South Asia, and “who had shaken more sand out of his summaries than most of them would Walk over. ”
But Carré also had that British problem: the flipside of the easy with which he evoked the sweaty comradeship of clubs and guilds of every type – that the women who tell his stories, even when they at the center of the case, as The Little Drummer Girl, seen, sized and decorated, rather than realistically represented. They speak from the outside, not from the inside. Lots of waifs are turned hard in the plots, attractive victims like Liz Gold’s horrible tragedy Leamas, “her face, like her body, had large parts that seemed to linger between plainness and beauty ”and ordinary women without faith such as Smiley’s Anna. The richest – take Connie Sachs, the old-fashioned pirate whom Smiley sees when he’s on the Tinker Tailor mole – they are mothers. Good suggestions of yesterday’s meaty playtime are given with small pictures of scotch boots and chuckling in the ribs as if they were moving old squash games.
The way Americans speak was somehow sifted through his basic contempt or pity, and his ear for the lingo of the volatile classes sometimes pressed on curiosity like Professor Higgins. Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor the creation was astonishing as long as he did not open his mouth and say “Mr. Smiley”. Len Deighton is the real culprit on the inappropriate plebeian sputum.
But as a sketch artist of a deceptive landscape, Carré, among British postwar writers, had no peers. That was the hook on which readers, myself included, were immediately and gratefully captured. So, the British embassy in Bonn, that A small town in Germany, the first book of what I read:
Think of a sprawling factory block without merit, the kind of building you see in dozens on a western bypass, usually with a symbol of its product laid out on the roof; paint about a sullen Rhenish sky, place a vague hint of Nazi architecture, just breathe, no more, and build in the rough ground behind it two winding post-offices for the entertainment of those who have not been let down spread, and you have certainly shown the mind and force of England in the Federal Republic.
Like Trollope and Orwell, Carré’s writing is usually characterized as a sharp depiction of age; engaged in the manipulative misunderstanding of power, living in the light holes where underground creatures scrape around, stepping over old bones and various debris, in order to accomplish the dirty business of the state, as best they can.
But more than that, Carré ‘s writing in the vast pantomime of English literature survives as the work of an incomparable language keeper: often surprisingly tender among the flesh, very attentive, pressed with conscious fullness. , even on the streets of a city with water, and with the bloody blow of life pressing away on every leaf.
Simon Schama is an editor who contributes to FT
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe
Listen to our podcast Call Culture, where IT editors and special guests discuss life and art during the coronavirus. Subscribe him Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen
More on the great author
John le Carré, 1931-202o
The decline of British imperialism, and the dubious strategies of the political classes and intelligence services to wage that decline during the cold war, are the backdrop to many of John 25 Carré’s deceased novels. at the age of 89
LE Carré’s five favorite novels
From the Soviet deceptive landscapes of his spycatcher series George Smiley to a scandal that leads to a murder in Kenya in the bestseller of 2001 The Enduring Gardener, his canvas was wide and his main subject – the human condition – was universal