Anti-American sarcasm has crept into his work like a cancer, eating away at its integrity
If Ian Fleming has been denigrated as a mere thriller writer, John le Carré has suffered a subtly different fate. He is widely credited with having taken the traditional English spy thriller and raised it to the level of literary fiction: a medium in which serious issues could be addressed in a sophisticated way. The trouble is that, by that benchmark, he falls short, and by some distance.
The issues with which he has grappled could hardly be more serious: they concern not just the sort of Britain we want to live in, but the sort of world we want to live in. But his dissection of that world, particularly in recent novels, can scarcely be called sophisticated. The plotlines have a cartoonish simplicity, with Uncle Sam cast as the villain, Britain as the duplicitous stooge and multinational companies as the Devil incarnate.
To the millions who fell under the spell of the young le Carré — a true master of his genre, able to write brilliantly about the Cold War from the vantage point of someone who had worked for the British embassy in Germany — his decline into a tendentious propagandist has been a sorry spectacle.
From a writer once known for his fine phrase-making plop the sort of agitprop clichés you hear in sixth-form debating societies. The Constant Gardener, we are told, concerns “the evil dealings of one of the world’s most prestigious pharmaceutical companies”. It is painful to see such an intelligent man launching such wild haymakers at his enemies.
From a master plotter come stories of cringe-making crudeness — none cruder than Absolute Friends, in which the CIA cynically stage-manages a shoot-out in order to exaggerate the threat from Islamist terrorists.
Millions have felt the same anger as le Carré at the conduct of American foreign policy under George W Bush. But a novelist should know how to channel his anger into fiction without rendering the fiction stillborn by resorting to wax-doll stereotypes. Graham Greene was as fiercely anti-American as le Carré, but he never made the same mistake; he was the truer, more dispassionate artist.
Anti-American sarcasm has crept into le Carré’s work like a cancer, eating away at its integrity. He has won plaudits for “reinventing himself” after the Cold War, finding new subjects to write about; but, in truth, le Carré Mark II, in the grip of virulent prejudice, is a pale shadow of le Carré Mark I, poet of betrayal, divided loyalties and moral ambiguity.
How long ago it seems that he gave us The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that masterpiece of taut concision. It was his third novel, dashed off in five weeks, while he was working at the British embassy in Bonn, and it had a vigour which he has never recaptured. The more he has striven for complexity in his characterisation — and, at his best, achieved it — the further he has travelled from the imperatives of good storytelling. He is still an interesting writer. He has just ceased to thrill. And in the genre that he has chosen, that is fatal.
Television has been kind to John le Carré, the way the cinema has been unkind to Ian Fleming — or at least to his literary reputation. The BBC production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, was a landmark in television history: there wasn’t a dud character or a weak scene in it. Go back to the novel and it seems flabby in comparison: crisply written passages interspersed with stodgy blocks of dialogue, and minor characters who outstay their welcome, like the tiresomely long-winded Ricki Tarr.
Even what used to be regarded as le Carré’s enduring strength — his ability to anatomise the British Establishment in unsparing detail — does not seem as impressive now as it did 20 years ago. Those alumni of minor public schools, with their quaint slang and their down-at-heel clothes, have a way of fading into each other, until you forget which is which.
Even Salvo, the Irish-Congolese hero of The Mission Song, the latest le Carré, has uncanny echoes of George Smiley, with his diffidence and his unfaithful wife.
Too many of the protagonists of the novels are stock characters, not full-blown portraits. Beneath the brilliantly observed surfaces, there is not much there, nothing to engage the reader at an emotional level.
In many respects, John le Carré is one of the most admirable English writers of the postwar period. He is a hard worker, a perfectionist, a man who has spent years honing his craft, nagging away obsessively at the same themes. Not for him the flummery of literary prizes, knighthoods, the primrose path to celebrity. He is a credit to his profession, as he would be a credit to any profession.
But, when push comes to shove, how many of his novels will be read and admired 50 years from now? Two or three, at best. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, certainly. The autobiographical A Perfect Spy. Tinker Tailor, at a pinch. Many of the others, particularly the later ones, will seem ponderous, even clumsy.