This morning, when my wife told me that John Le Carré had died, I realised that I’ll never get to read a new novel of his and never know what his reaction is to the latest blustering Brexit blunder by Johnson and his ilk. I will miss him.
Although his books have been around for my whole adult life, I only read him for the first time in 2017, when he published ‘A Legacy Of Spies’. I’d been intrigued by an interview he gave on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ about the book and about ideology and patriotism. I discovered that ‘A Legacy of Spies’ was a beautifully written, distinctly British story that, a year after the Brexit referendum, challenged our xenophobia.
I fell in love with Le Carré prose. He wrote with clarity and precision, capturing nuances of speech, thought and culture with deft touches that are evocative without being obtrusive. He moved skillfully from past to present, from lie to truth, from regret to rage, in a way that fully engaged my mind and my emotions.
The premise of ‘A Legacy Of Spies? was a present-day investigation into British security operations during the Cold War. It was told through contemporary interrogations by a rather loathsome lawyer, extracts from official, secret but not necessarily truthful records and intensely intimate memories of the retired spy from whose point of view the story was told.
It was a strong spy story, full of intrigue and deception and betrayal but those were really just the vehicle for the true heart of the novel, which seemed to me to be an exploration of the nature of patriotism and the inability and unwillingness of the current generation to understand the context of the actions of the previous generation. Perhaps it was just that I was sixty that year and already starting to see people forty years younger than me having no idea what life was like in the last century, but I felt that I’d found a writer whose world view overlapped significantly with my own.
I went back and read his 2013 novel, ‘A Delicate Truth’. Again, the writing was outstanding. I had the additional pleasure of hearing Le Carré narrate his own novel. Not surprisingly, he did it with great skill. I was impressed (and depressed) by how plausible the novel was. Here’s part of what I wrote at the time about the England Le Carré described:
It’s the kind of England the odious Boris Johnson and the surprisingly dangerous Jacob Rees-Mogg want to drag us all back into so that they can live the Eton dream while the rest of us touch our forelocks and hope to keep our jobs.
It’s an England where the under-funded State is preyed upon by billion dollar Private Military Corporations that are contracted to kidnap and kill with an impunity secured by anti-terror legislation that has eroded public accountability to the point of non-existence.
Le Carré describes the people of this world with great precision and insight without ever once straying into empathy. I admire that.
I pre-ordered Le Carré’s last novel ‘Agent Running In The Field’ which was a gentle, convincing, compelling story of modern spying, filled with real people, surprising twists and scathing assessments of our Brexit Blunder and Trump as Putin’s poodle.
It seemed to me that Le Carré had devised the whole plot of ‘Agent Running In The Field’ as a framework for exploring the impact on long-serving officers of being led by a government committed to delivering Putin’s Brexit and a Foreign Secretary (now Prime Minister) that the security services themselves had identified as a security risk because of his close ties to Russia, at a time when Trump was declaring Europe to be his enemy, undermining NATO and apparently doing whatever Putin asked him to do. Yet it wasn’t a polemic or a conspiracy theory rant. It was a good story about real people.
As part of the publicity of ‘Agent Running In A Field’ Le Carré did an interview with John Banville that I think gives a great insight into Le Carré’s life, work and politics.
Earlier this year, I read Le Carrè’s second novel, ‘A Murder Of Quality’ written in 1962, about George Smiley investigating a murder at his old public school. It was a book fuelled by hatred and compassion. Hatred for minor public schools in post-war England and compassion for the people who staffed and attended them. Le Carré vivisected the vanity, cruelty, mediocrity and relentless conformity of an English boarding school with an insight that only someone who has suffered through such a place could bring. He showed that the school was more concerned with instilling loyalty to one’s class and a belief in one’s superiority and entitlement than it was with either educating or caring for the boys who attended it. He captured the claustrophobia and myopia of living in an enclosed institution that turned staff and boys into inmates bound together by their shared incarceration.
‘A Murder Of Quality’ made me hungry for the rest of Le Carré’s books. So, while I shall miss him, I won’t be letting go of him yet. I still have another twenty novels of his to read. That should keep his imagination and mine in contact for some time to come.