John le Carré’s Spook Cynicism: Taking the Measure of George Smiley, 56 Years On

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Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

For a recurring hero who would go on to become an iconic character on the page and onscreen, George Smiley received a harsh introduction. In his wife’s eyes, he was “breathtakingly ordinary”: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

The amphibian metaphor has fit Smiley for 56 years. Since John le Carré introduced him in his first novel, Call for the Dead, Smiley has ever been hopping between his preferred haunts on dry land — rare bookstores and university libraries, where he conducts his amateur studies in early modern German literature — and the murky waters of counterespionage for the British intelligence service. It’s always seemed to me that le Carré — a.k.a. David Cornwell, an ex-spook who worked under diplomatic cover in Bonn in the late 1950s and early 1960s — at first relocated the offices of MI6 from Mayfair across central London to Cambridge Circus in order to put Smiley closer to the booksellers off Charing Cross Road. In the later novels, “the Circus” came to be a colorful shorthand for an agency constantly plagued by splintered personal loyalties, vendettas, and of course moles — those double agents who climbed the ladder in London the better to serve their real masters in Moscow.

It’s not much of a spoiler to point out that when we meet him in le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies, Smiley is spending his retirement in the stacks of a library in Frieburg, Germany. He offers a brief reflection on his Cold War career: “If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one, beyond our business with the enemy — it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable vision, it was of leading Europe out her darkness toward a new age of reason.” It’s easy to read this in 2017 as an implied comment on last year’s Brexit referendum, perhaps the first step in the undoing of a new vision of Europe decades in the making. But it tracks with Smiley’s record of working across borders, flipping Germans, Russians, Hungarians, etc., in the course of an international ideological conflict that blurred national loyalties and reduced both sides to ruthless tactics. As Smiley’s boss Control puts it in: “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”

A Legacy of Spies is in part about the echoes of that ruthlessness for the generation that inherited a healed continent. Recall that in the final scene of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold — le Carré’s third novel and his first blockbuster, published in 1963 and adapted for the screen in 1965 with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom — the hero Alec Leamas and his lover Liz Gold are shot dead as they attempt to climb over the Berlin Wall. In Legacy it turns out that Alec and Liz were both parents of children they didn’t raise. Now having obtained Stasi files on their parents’ deaths, Christoph Leamas and Karen Gold want justice and money from the government that put them in harm’s way. The fuss may go as far as a parliamentary inquiry, and aging spies are being called out of retirement to dig up their secrets and account for their sins.

The truth and reconciliation structure is a clever conceit on le Carré’s part, a plausible gambit for resurrecting dead characters and examining them with enlightened eyes. And as longtime readers know, le Carré isn’t concerned with consistency across his books. After The Looking Glass War (1965) le Carré abandoned Smiley for a couple of novels and then took him off the shelf for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1974, to fictionalize the story of Kim Philby, the high-ranking MI6 officer who was outed as a Soviet double agent in 1963. Smiley’s age had to be reset in that novel and the two that followed, as he continued to pursue the Russian spymaster Karla. He’s always existed on the edge of retirement anyway: If the old timelines were abided by, he’d be 97 or 107 in the new novel. Trafficking in characters with false names, fabricated biographies, and secrets they keep from themselves, spy stories are mutable things.

Le Carré has always attributed his popularity to the fact that “I was writing for a public that was hooked on Bond and wanted an antidote.” It’s the difference between cynicism and sadism. Le Carré’s prose was from the start mandarin and his characters adults; both his sentences and his spies could migrate to the pages of a Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh novel undetected. Ian Fleming’s heroes and villains are juvenile fantasies, and he writes like a teenager. (See the opening lines of Goldfinger: “James Bond, with two double bourbons in him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death. It was part of his profession to kill people …”)

Unlike Bond, Smiley never had a license to kill. But he’s always done two things well, occasionally in combination: unravel plots and set traps. He’s a sometime detective and ever a bureaucratic infighter, pursuing each end with scholarly precision. And while it’s true that le Carré’s books eschewed the kitschiest elements of Ian Fleming’s work — lethal gadgets, sports cars, cartoon villains, and femme fatales with puns for names — his intricate, exquisitely tight plots and sentimentalized matrix of motives have made for something that isn’t exactly realism. Betrayals of old friends and spouses spiral into complete moral inversions until no one seems as sympathetic as the enemy himself. What competent spy chief would, as Control does in Tinker Tailor, send an agent into the field to learn the identity of a traitor when the prime suspect was the agent’s best friend and former lover?

The spy as scholar and toad swims among thugs and dandies, sharks and snakes: his cranky and paranoid boss Control; his loyal right-hand man Peter Guillam; the surly, hard-drinking field men Alec Leamas and Jim Prideaux; the sardonic and caddish bisexual traitor Haydon; the taciturn and ascetic (aside from the chain-smoking) distant nemesis Karla. A Legacy of Spies returns to all these characters and performs a second reset, reconciling the narratives of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor by inscribing suspicion of Haydon’s treachery onto Leamas’s fatal mission to East Germany as a false defector. Smiley, Guillam, Leamas, et al. are the same as ever, but le Carré shuffles timelines, job titles, and other accidental details with deliberate disregard for what comic-book fans refer to as canonicity. You wouldn’t know from A Spy Who Came in From the Cold that the East German agent serving the British who dies at the wall in the opening scene, Karl Riemeck, was a doctor because in that book he just was a party hack and member of the Praesidium. The comic (and mildly kitschy) pleasures of Circus jargon — lamplighters, scalphunters, gold dust, chickenfeed, the reptile fund, etc. — remain unchanged.

With Smiley’s whereabouts at first unknown, it’s Peter Guillam who narrates A Legacy of Spies, summoned back to the Circus — now relocated like MI6 itself to offices off Vauxhall Bridge on the south bank of the Thames — to answer for an all-but-forgotten mission gone wrong. The lawsuits from the children of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold occasion the narrative and serve as its frame, but the bulk of A Legacy of Spies is taken up by an episode that predates the action of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, told through Guillam’s flashbacks and through documents he sorts through at the behest of government lawyers. It concerns Doris Gamp, code-named Tulip, the assistant of a high-ranking Stasi functionary who coerces her to be his mistress, and the wife of a GDR Foreign Office hack who beats her. Drawn from documents copied from her office and her husband’s briefcase, her product is gold dust, as they say, but eventually she’s compromised by her suspicious husband and ready to defect. Shepherded from Berlin to Prague by Leamas and from Prague to France by Guillam, she’s separated from her 6-year-old son Gustav, and that’s not the worst of it.

It would be an exaggeration to say the Tulip story ranks with classic le Carré, in part because its suspense is mitigated by the reader’s knowledge that her story is only a lengthy footnote here. Tulip is a vivid character, torn up by her bitterness toward the men who mistreat her, her love of her son, her lingering loyalty to the communist cause, and her hatred of America. Spying for and defecting to Britain is a compromise she makes out of desperation. The adventure allows Leamas to flaunt his tradecraft through a series of cock-ups; Guillam to indulge in a memorable romantic dalliance; and Smiley to display his skill in cleaning up a mess and turning the tables on the enemy. There follow new details about Leamas’s mission and the machinations of Control and Smiley to enlist Liz Gold unwittingly in their double-double-cross plot to protect their own mole in East Germany. These bits are superfluous, since the issue of Smiley’s culpability in their deaths lingers unrevised. Reconciliation may be too much to ask anyway. As Jim Prideaux once told Smiley: “They told me to forget it … and that’s what I’ve been doing. Obeying orders, and forgetting.”

John le Carré’s Spook Cynicism: George Smiley, 56 Years On