Tradecraft: rightly championed for decades by genre and literary readers alike, John le Carre has written a novel that may appeal to neither camp

B.R. Meyers – The Atlantic Monthly

ABSOLUTE FRIENDS by John le Carre Little, Brown
A short and straightforward tale of espionage: today it is hard to imagine such a novel securing critical recognition for an obscure writer. Luckily for John le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963) appeared at a time when people still wandered freely between the literary and genre sectors, sometimes even forgetting where they were; it felt more like occupied Vienna than Cold War Berlin. Both J. B. Priestley and Graham Greene praised the book in the strongest terms, hardly minding that they were agreeing with people who had enjoyed Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me a year earlier. It wasn’t long before the postmodernists arrived on the scene, vowing to obscure the line between elite and popular culture altogether, and in the sense that a towering wall was erected in its place, they certainly kept their word. But by then le Carre’s good name had already been established, and both sides still respect it forty years on.
Looking back, the much vaunted break with the 007 tradition doesn’t seem quite so clean as all that. Though highly literate, and endowed with greater gifts of observation and imagery than most of today’s prizewinners, le Carre is hardly an intellectual writer. Like Fleming, he fawns over his good guys, displays a fierce pride in a conventionally imagined Englishness, and scripts foreign characters according to national type. Also like Fleming, he deals in male fantasy: Alec Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, may have been a snappish fifty-year-old operative, but he was just as interesting to flight attendants as Bond was, and his girlfriend was barely out of her teens. How strange that critics consider it escapist tripe when a dashing young man wins a pretty young woman, and unflinching realism when the young woman invites a nondescript middle-aged man home for no apparent reason at all-though to be honest, I now prefer the latter kind of book myself.
The James Bond novels abound in embarrassments, from gobbets of nonsense presented as hard-won expertise (“the smell of danger … something like the mixture of sweat and electricity you get in an amusement arcade”) to absurdly connoisseurish leering at women. Le Carre put a stop to most of these things while finding new ways to make the reader squirm. The occasional burst of iron-manliness is bad enough in itself: “And Jack–dear Jack–you have your marvellous old attache case, as faithful as the dog you had to shoot.” But it is even harder to take when expressed in the primly mournful tone of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a novel of which le Carre is an avowed admirer: “And Magnus goes. Magnus always goes. Even when a sharp smack across Mary’s chops would be the wiser course, Magnus goes.”
There are also passages that make one realize how liberated the Bond girls were by comparison:
Then she felt ashamed, because she
knew she should have cleaned and
tidied. Jumping up, she fetched the
carpet sweeper and a duster from
the kitchen, and set to work with
feverish energy. She found a clean
teacloth and spread it neatly on the
bedside table and she washed up
the odd cups and saucers … “Alec,
don’t be cross, please don’t,” she said.
“I’ll go, I promise I will, but let me
make you a proper meal. You’re ill,
you can’t go on like this, you’re … oh
Alec,” and she broke down and wept,
holding both hands over her face,
the tears running between her fingers
like the tears of a child.
The smart reader forgives these little things, because le Carre’s best novels are some of the most exciting stories ever written. They are exciting because he wrote them with this goal uppermost in mind. “I would wish that all my books were entertainments,” he has said, and to his credit he never uses that word in the shamefaced way that Graham Greene did. So why do “serious” types consider his work to be something else entirely? (An American interviewer sought to compliment him by saying that “entertainment” is “not a word usually associated with le Carre.”) The answer seems to be that the very stratagems he uses to make his work exciting have always made it seem quite highbrow as well. Take The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: the gloomy tone lends plausibility to a story in desperate need of it, as gloom has done since Conan Doyle and continues to do in Hollywood. (Fleming knew the principle, and although he couldn’t keep his writing joyless enough, one of his choices to play 007 on film was the long-faced Richard Burton–who ended up playing Alec Leamas instead.) But the fact that le Carre’s England feels as bleak as his East Germany was interpreted by some as a repudiation of the Cold War mindset and thus of the entire spy genre. Meteorological relativism was taken for the moral kind, and the hero’s grumbling about dirty methods pored over as if it betokened a Scobie-like inner struggle. Ever since then le Carre has been the “moral ambiguity” man, though his hero was really just fretting, as the best good guys often do, about sinking to the bad guys’ level. Fretting needlessly, I might add: if the author really thought it wrong to trick a totalitarian enemy into executing one of its own intelligence officials (and it sounds like a great idea to me), he would have done a better job of making us agree with him.
In the famous trilogy of the 1970s–Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979)–the gloom was augmented by an element of willful difficulty that made everything seem even more authentic for the reader, and even more serious for the critic. The battle between spymaster Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, Karla, was so complex that it all but required a foldout chart to follow, and the prose often lapsed into a dense combination of Britishisms and spy jargon: juju men were sent spare and graded Persil; they felt like Gordon at Khartoum. At times le Carre seemed not to care whether the average American reader understood him at all, an attitude that never fails to make the average American critic sit up and take notice. The books are still remembered on both sides of the Atlantic for their “sophisticated analysis of moral questions,” as a British newspaper recently put it, though one would need to have been raised on a very strict diet of Don DeLillo to find this sort of thing profound:
[Smiley] thought about treason and
wondered whether there was mindless
treason in the same way, supposedly,
as there was mindless violence.
It worried him that he felt so bankrupt;
that whatever intellectual or
philosophical precepts he clung to
broke down entirely now that he was
faced with the human situation.
Of course, moral issues do not have to be articulated in order to be explored, but at the very least a writer must make readers doubt the hero a bit themselves. Le Carre, however, will not even allow us the critical distance we feel in the presence of Bond, who is described on the cover of a new edition of Casino Royale as “chillingly ruthless’ Someone is always reminding us that Smiley is the perfect clear if not the perfect spy, and the cordiality with which his idiosyncrasies are detailed can be downright cloying. His self-doubt–if that’s not too grandiose a term for what seems largely a matter of reading German poetry and having the occasional “weep”–is there mainly to recommend him to us, like a metaphysical version of a white hat.
Sixty years ago the British writer William Sansom wrote a short story about a man climbing a very high ladder and becoming more and more afraid. “The Vertical Ladder” is a masterpiece, at once pure thought and pure action, though like most of the best short stories of the twentieth century, it is hopelessly out of print. To track it down and read it is to realize how absurd the current “serious”-versus-“genre” divide is–to realize that a tale of suspense can be as intellectually rewarding as any other. Film critics already know this; hence the esteem in which Hitchcock has always been held. But book reviewers confer honorary “serious” status only on storytellers who, like Elmore Leonard, have a sufficiently showy prose style, or who, like le Carre, are thought to have some moral or philosophical message. As with Sansom’s story, however, the true value of the Smiley trilogy is inseparable from the tension created by the plot. Because the frightened characters are all spying on one another, their awareness of every sight and sound, every nuance in their counterparts’ speech, is heightened to a level that is often poetic. Nothing is “analyzed,” thank God, but the stories bring our own lives of deception into sharper focus. Anyone who has ever worked in a competitive organization will recognize the poisonous atmosphere of the mole-riven spy agency in Tinker, as well as the paranoia evoked in its classic scene of an office meeting: Have they been talking behind my back–or do they know I’ve been talking behind theirs? Unlike the American tough guy, the English man’s man is allowed to be literate and thoughtful, so le Carre is able to assume the perspective of his spies without imposing limits on his own sensibility. In Tinker a man snooping in another’s office hears what is probably a car braking outside, and it sounds “like a single note played on a flute”–a perfect comparison that would seem wrong in, say, a Jack Ryan novel.
But if thriller writers must write well enough to keep us from skimming to the action, they must also keep our attention on the story and not the prose. Few have the combination of talent and self-effacement needed to strike this balance, and no one maintains it with le Carre’s consistency. This is an example of the standard reached on almost every page:
Last night there had been a storm,
he remembered … He had watched
it from the mattress while the girl
lay snoring along his leg. First the
smell of vegetation, then the wind
rustling guiltily in the palm trees, dry
hands rubbed together. Then the
hiss of rain like tons of molten shot
being shaken into the sea. Finally the
sheet lightning rocking the harbour
in long slow breaths while salvos of
thunder cracked over the dancing
roof-tops. I killed him, he thought.
Any of today’s up-and-coming mediocrities would know what to do with a description like that: set it off from the rest of the text, pad it out with tautology and outright repetition, link everything into one breathless sentence–and wait for someone at The New York Times Book Review to hoist it reverently into an excerpt box. But le Carre pulls back from an obtrusive display of virtuosity. He keeps things short, sets them down in a summary tone (First … then … Then … Finally …), and moves right along, the story being paramount. No wonder the merits of his prose are so often overlooked. Praise tends to focus on his uncannily authentic-sounding dialogue, which manages to bring even marginal characters to life.
His hands still in his pockets, his head
high against his shoulders, Brotherhood
turned stiffly to Nigel. “I’m
going to tell her,” he said. “You want
to throw a fit?”
“Are you asking me formally?”
Nigel asked.
“Not particularly”
“If you are, I’ll have to pass it to
Bo,” said Nigel and looked respectfully
at his gold watch as if he took
orders from it.
“Lederer knows and we know. If
Pym knows too, who’s left?” Brotherhood
Nigel thought about this. “Up to
you. Your man, your decision, your
tail-end. Frankly.” …
…Much as a beautiful woman will rush out and change her hairstyle if complimented on it often enough, so do artists hate being told that they have found the ideal outlet for their talent. It’s likely, then, that few people in the West were as glad to see the Berlin Wall go as the man who for so long had been touted as a kind of novelist laureate of the Cold War. Since then le Carre has written a succession of thrillers on subjects from the Panama Canal to the pharmaceutical industry, and his readership is still largely intact. Most fans of a fast and literate story can be counted on to give his latest a chance, and even those who end up reviling it on make a point of saying they can hardly wait for his next. His more serious readers, being serious readers, prefer to regard themselves as humble sponsors of his creative development; no matter what he writes, they try to find something in it, if only a scene or a character, to hold up as a worthwhile addition to an impressive body of work. The Smiley books, however, were the last ones everyone was able to agree on. Although each side still claims the author as its own, each routinely feels let down by him, and there is hardly a novel among his last nine that hasn’t been criticized for being either too artsy or too Clancy.
Absolute Friends (2003) stands to reunite the fan base at last, but not in a way anyone could have wanted. This is le Carre’s first truly bad novel, one that seems almost calculated to give the lie to each building-blurb of his reputation. A gift for plotting? No sooner are we introduced to a florid middle-aged tour guide called Ted Mundy, a man with a vaguely and unpleasantly familiar name and no claim on our curiosity, than we are treated to well over two hundred pages about his youth and how he became a spy. The more we hear about him, the less we care, because everything is set down in the revoltingly roguish tone of a writer twirling a moustache with his free hand.
And if [Ted] hadn’t signed up for
Wulfila, he would never have found
himself, on the third day of his first
term at university, sitting buttock-to-buttock
on a chintz sofa in North
Oxford with a diminutive polyglot
Hungarian spitfire called Ilse … he
will hang up his musket for her any
day, just as long as her impatient little
heels keep hammering his rump
on the coconut matting of her anchorite’s
horse trailer …
As for that legendary ear for human speech, le Carre has in the past shown a readiness to put his hand over it when he needs to impart some hard information. The protagonists of The Little Drummer Girl(1983) and The Constant Gardener (2001) are both lectured by characters who are obviously speaking for the author. But nothing was ever like this:
“I have in mind such thinkers as the
Canadian Naomi Klein, India’s Arundhati
Roi, who pleads for a different way
of seeing, your British George Monbiot
and Mark Curtis, Australia’s John
Pilger, America’s Noam Chomsky, the
American Nobel Prize winner, Joseph
Stiglitz, and the Franco-American
Susan George of World Social Forum
at Porto Alegre. You have read all
these fine writers, Mr Mundy?”
“Nearly all” And nearly all Adorno,
nearly all Horkheimer and nearly all
Marcuse, Mundy thinks …
“From their varying perspectives,
each of these eminent writers tells
me the same story. The corporate
octopus is stiffing the natural growth
of humanity.”

There can be no excuse for Absolute Friends, but there is an explanation. The third or so of the text that most people will consider the actual story was clearly inspired by the invasion of Iraq, which was only a few months old when the manuscript was finished, in June of 2003. Either the author foresaw the war with enough certainty to start writing about it back in 2001 or 2002, or he wrote the novel in a fraction of the two years he usually needs. Or–and this is the only way to make sense of that interminable flashback–he wrote Ted Mundy’s life story with a different book in mind, and then called it up at the last moment to do service in an anti-imperialist rant. I’m all for anti-imperialist rants, but an anti-imperialist novel would have gotten the message out to more people, and done a more subtle landscaping job on le Carre’s moral high ground. A president sells his country a war under false pretexts, and a writer allows the corporate octopus to market his shoddiest book as the one that “fans have been waiting for.” Only betrayal, to quote the man himself, is timeless.
B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

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