SOME years back I set myself a pleasant task: to systematically re-read the books of my favourite authors. Without being morbid, approaching late middle age it’s realistic to acknowledge that this is something to indulge in while the opportunity still exists. So I read again the eight espionage novels written by John le Carré that feature, to varying degrees, his famous MI6 intelligence officer George Smiley. A thoroughly enjoyable and nostalgic past-time, it set me wondering why we attach ourselves to and identify with the work of certain writers.
Le Carré is not the greatest of writers and sometimes his narrative is somewhat pedestrian, but the ambience of his novels is what counts. They are all unmistakably anti-Soviet, but largely through the persona of Smiley they betray a necessary ambiguity and scepticism. In the penultimate story Smiley at last entices his eternal protagonist at Moscow Central, Karla, to defect. Standing at the East German border and congratulated exuberantly on his success, he avoids triumphalism and voices mixed emotions. A reticence at such moments seems entirely appropriate and, indeed, a sign of high intelligence. The crasser utterances and the more spectacular operational cock ups in Le Carré’s novels are left to the cousins, the Americans, and in his most recent story to the cowboys of privatised security.
The fortunate antithesis of James Bond, Smiley pursued a quiet, disciplined trail often through the archives; skilled, subtle and assisted by a prodigious memory. Always his own man in a moral sense, he distrusted politicians, believed in a greater good, and had the ability to inculcate lasting loyalty; a heroic anti-hero, in other words. Le Carré outlined Smiley’s fictitious but plausible biography and admitted that he was a composite character based on an Oxford don and his own recruiter. Of Smiley’s recruitment, Le Carré wrote that he was advised ‘they pay badly enough to guarantee you decent company’, a sentiment from a long-departed world. Above all, Smiley is man of rationality and mature reflection.
The only time I came anywhere near meeting anyone who might have been a character in a Smiley novel was as a university student and professional trainee. Some of my lecturers and then older colleagues had worked in intelligence operations of various levels of obscurity during World War Two. And by sheer chance I had grown up in places that had definite connections to the Cold War: first the home town of Britain’s government communications and eavesdropping headquarters; then later a country literally next door to the Cuban missile crisis.
There is something compelling about reading fiction on an exciting and interesting topic against the background of the times, in this case the sixties and seventies, in which one grew up. Nostalgia is invoked. Indeed, Le Carré wrote of Smiley that he behaved ‘much as old men will look at the houses where they were born, the schools where they were educated, and the churches where they were married.’ Novels set in the time of one’s youth can have a similar effect.
Le Carré’s books also contain gems of description that resonate with experience. Of Inspector Mendel, Smiley’s policeman collaborator, it is said that ‘he knew how intelligent men could be broken by the stupidity of their superiors’. Le Carré is a shrewd observer of the damage done by bureaucracy and ideology and the fact that humanity depends not on the grand idea and visionaries, but on ordinary people defending and promoting necessary aspects of civilised life.
The fundamental struggle of the twentieth century was that of democracy against authoritarianism: communism, Nazism, fascism and lastly apartheid. All of them, to varying degrees, held to the accusation the Soviet authorities made against Le Carré’s character Tatiana: ‘The people should not attempt to change history. It is the task of history to change the people.’ As Smiley admits in his valedictory appearance at Sarratt, the MI6 training centre, ‘The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in’, a sentiment that will resonate with anti-apartheid activists. The totalitarian ideologies of a dark century were indeed eventually defeated, but Le Carré does not accept facile conservative ideas about the end of history that suit the advocates of globalisation. He has publicly declared that having sorted out communism, now capitalism has to be reformed in the interests of justice. It is a truth forgotten by too many.
A novelist talks to us in many ways, entertainment being just one. Evoking the atmosphere of a departed age is an ability that complements the work of the historian. Incisive capture of general experience of life makes the writer a valuable social commentator. If newspapers are, as some people argue, the first draft of history, so some novels provide representative sketches of individuals who populated those same times. Neither Smiley, nor anyone precisely like him, may have existed, but this is not the point. He represents the spirit and purpose of part of a particular age. And in the process of entertaining, the novelist allows those who lived through particular times to look back with greater understanding and insight.
This piece first appeared in The Witness on 13 March 2014. It has been (slightly) amended subsequently.