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John Le Carré, giving a keynote speech, London 2017. Photo: German Embassy, London/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

John Le Carré, giving a keynote speech, London 2017. Photo: German Embassy, London/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

John Rees looks back at the literary achievement of John Le Carré, who died at the weekend

John Le Carré’s very considerable gifts as a writer rest on two foundation stones.

He was capable of great depth, especially depth of characterisation, but remained above all a popular writer. He never lost sight of plot, never lost the desire to keep his readers turning the page. 

In this he was like Dickens. Dickens never thought he was diminished as an artist by that fact that he published his novels as serials in popular magazines; Le Carré was an artist who raised the popular spy novel to the level of art. He knew that real artistic insight could be conveyed in popular form.

Secondly, Le Carré made the difficult transition from being a cynical critic of Cold War politics to an outspoken critic of neoliberal capitalism in the post-Cold War era.

George Smiley, Le Carré’s most enduring creation, embodied Le Carré’s ambivalent commitment to the West during the Cold War. Smiley is weary, his marriage is broken, his wife has an affair with the Russian mole at the heart of the secret service, and, at first, he has been sidelined by the bureaucrats in the Circus. 

More uncle than the Man from Uncle, Smiley picks his way through operations gone wrong and the mis-leadership of the secret services to a solution which could hardly be described as a victory. 

In the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the final climax is filmed in the old offices of Socialist Worker in Hackney. That paper’s most famous mast head read ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’. Le Carré appeared in a cameo role in the film. It would be poor fieldcraft if the ex-spy were unaware of the significance of the location.

But Le Carré was to prove himself to be much more that a Cold War chronicler. As he has Ned say in The Secret Pilgrim, ‘Now we had defeated Communism, we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism’.

And this is the open secret of Le Carré’s success in his later career. He saw that the fall of the Berlin Wall left all the faults of western capitalism brutally exposed. And he went about an artistic critique of them with a vengeance.

Perhaps the best of the later novels are Absolute Friends and The Night Manager, both of which deal not only with the failings of corporate capitalism but with the disastrous effects of the war on terror. 

Speaking to The Times in the build up to the Iraq War in 2003, his detestation of Bush’s regime was unmistakeable:

‘America has entered on one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War’.

Little surprise perhaps that Le Carré was among the million plus who marched on the Stop the War protest in February 2003 and appeared in Amir Amirani’s film of those protests, We Are Many.

Le Carré’s output over a lifetime was remarkably high quality. But there are some failures. The autobiographical A Perfect Spy may well be an accurate picture of his father, but perhaps hopeless middle-class spivs are not universal enough figures for a mass audience to care about their fate.

Le Carré thought of the UK as a kind of spiv nation, addicted to imperialism and lying, but the frame in A Perfect Spy seems too small for the picture.

And Charlie, the middle-class actress and Palestinian activist at the heart of The Little Drummer Girl, is a lazy caricature and unfair on left-wing actress and Le Carré’s half sister, Charlotte Cornwell. Perhaps it is too much to hope that even a very talented ex-spook would be able to properly imagine the principles and characters of the left, and this is certainly where Le Carré is weakest.

It need not necessarily be so. Eric Ambler, the Le Carré forerunner to whom he paid tribute, combined both a critique of the system, opposition to emerging Stalinism, and sympathy for the left. 

But when all is said and done no one who wishes to experience the human cost of the Cold War and its neoliberal aftermath will be able to ignore one of its greatest literary expressions.

In some sense, John Le Carré never went out into the cold in that he never left the establishment, but in a more fundamental artistic sense he never came in from the cold either, and never stopped seeing the establishment’s lies and hypocrisy.

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John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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