John le Carré (1931-2020) — an appreciation

I’m so very saddened by the death of John le Carré – a brilliant, insightful and humane writer, whose ability to capture the personal and political complexities of our time was second to none.

John le Carré

Below is a slightly edited post I first wrote eight years ago – my homage to this great writer and his works. I never met le Carré, but we did briefly have contact once, when he rode to the rescue of my beleaguered languages department after it was threatened with redundancies in 2010. He gave his help immediately and with a generosity that none of us have forgotten. During that period, he signed off a note to me with the words “All fine. Please feel free”. It sits framed on my mantlepiece, where I can look at it fondly: I reckon it’s a pretty good principle to live your life by.

I found out later from Adam Sisman’s biography that we had both lived, at different times, in the same small town in our youth. I have happy memories of watching the TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with my dad back then – we adored Alec Guinness as Smiley, and that incredibly haunting Russian doll title sequence.

Here’s my personal appreciation of John le Carré and his works, which is shaped by our mutual love of Germany and its culture. Do you have a favourite le Carré work? Please let me know if so in the comments below.

1. I love that the author and his creation George Smiley are outward-looking linguists. Le Carré studied German literature for a year at the University of Bern, and graduated with first-class honours in modern languages from Oxford. Most of his spies are linguists, and the most famous of them all, George Smiley, studied Baroque German literature and was destined for academia until the British Secret Service came knocking — in the shape of the brilliantly named ‘Overseas Committee for Academic Research’. The profession of intelligence officer gives Smiley ‘what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions’ (Call for the Dead). And languages still really matter. Smiley’s ability to speak fluent German plays a vital role in Smiley’s People when he gathers intelligence in Hamburg, the city where he spent part of his boyhood, as well as a number of years ‘in the lonely terror of the spy’ during the Second World War. Le Carré says of him in an afterword that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’. This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international.

2. Many of le Carré’s novels brilliantly evoke Germany during the Cold War. The frequent use of a German setting was practically inevitable given le Carré’s studies, his membership of the British Foreign Service in West Germany (as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and Political Consul in Hamburg, which provided cover for his MI6 activities), and the timing of his stay between 1959 and 1964 at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was the frontline of the ideological battle between the Eastern and Western blocs, and le Carré says in an afterword to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘it was the Berlin Wall that got me going, of course’. Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the year the Wall went up, and, along with a number of his other novels, is partially set in East/West Germany (see list below). The most memorable for me are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979), both of which feature dénouements involving Berlin border crossings and evoke the Cold War tensions of that time and place perfectly.

3. I admire le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his Guardian piece marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in West Berlin, including the pragmatic but unethical protection of former Nazis, because they were viewed as valuable in the fight against communism. The difficult legacy of National Socialism in post-war Germany is most closely examined in his 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany.

4. I love le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in the form of intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. All of le Carré’s novels reveal a deep engagement with moral questions — A fascination with the themes of loyalty and betrayal – in relation to both individuals and ideologies/states – is particularly visible in the Cold War ‘Karla Trilogy’ (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy 1977; Smiley’s People 1979), which in turn forms part of the eight-novel Smiley collection. What’s always had the greatest impact on me as a reader, though, is the critique of how the intelligence services (on either side of the ideological divide) are willing to sacrifice the individual for the ‘greater good’, and the recognition of the immorality of this act. Le Carré’s third and fourth novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) – are extremely powerful in this respect, as they recount the tragic tales of those who become pawns in larger political chess games. Incidentally, I reckon the figure of Avery in the latter most accurately embodies the professional and moral disillusionment that led Carré to leave the Service. The central question for this author was and continues to be: ‘how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them on the way?’ (see Guardian piece).

6. — and their characters are fantastically drawn. Aside from the masterpiece of Smiley — the dumpy, middle-aged, unassuming, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence genius — who could forget Control, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, Ricky Tarr, Jerry Westerby, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux? All are so beautifully depicted that you feel they are living, breathing people.

Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. You won’t find more perceptive writing anywhere. In German one would say that le Carré is ‘wach’: he is awake. He really SEES the world around him and has a deep understanding of how its political and power structures work, and how individuals get tangled up in them.

8. Le Carré’s works have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, starring great actors such as Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Rachel Weisz and Gary Oldman. My favourites are probably still the two Guinness ‘Smiley’ TV series, but I do have a soft spot for the Tinker Tailor film, which was very stylishly done and featured a stellar cast including Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

Alec Guinness as Smiley, retrieving a clue in Smiley’s People (1982) The man sees everything….

9. The quality of le Carré’s work is consistently outstanding — the plotting, the characterisation and the settings are all sublime. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption in the developing world. In his review of 2013’s A Delicate Truth, Mark Lawson wrote that ‘no other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the war on terror’. The sheer range of his writing is breathtaking — and it was all impeccably researched.

10. Last but not least, le Carré was a true friend of languages, and was extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

I’ll be raising a glass of posh red to his memory tonight.

Here’s a list of Le Carré novels that reference the German-speaking world/history:

  • Call for the Dead (Smiley’s German links; Nazi past; East Germany)
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Nazi past; divided Berlin; East Germany)
  • The Looking Glass War (East and West Germany)
  • A Small Town in Germany (Nazi past; Bonn, West Germany)
  • Smiley’s People (Hamburg, West Germany; Bern, Switzerland; divided Berlin)
  • The Perfect Spy (German at Oxford; Vienna and Berlin)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (diverse, including East Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich)
  • Absolute Friends (West Germany, East Germany)
  • A Most Wanted Man (Hamburg, Germany)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (Switzerland).

25 thoughts on “John le Carré (1931-2020) — an appreciation

  1. What a lovely tribute, Mrs. P.! He was an outstanding writer who also served as a role model for a lot of other writers. His loss is a great blow, and he will be missed.

    • Indeed, Margot. His loss is particularly hard at a time when the UK is turning inwards away from Europe. He really understood the importance of languages and political & cultural dialogue, and was an incredibly articulate critic of the direction our country has taken. He’ll be missed in SO many different ways.

  2. This is truly a lovely post about le Carré and his writing. I did see (and comment on) the first version which motivated me to read or reread the Smiley books through Smiley’s People. I also read The Perfect Spy, which is my personal favorite of all his books that I have read. And have ten more of his books on my TBR pile to read.

    I once saw a brief video where he talked about his writing on a disc for one of the movie adaptations, and my impression was that he was an unassuming, thoughtful person.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And my goodness, what a wonderful friend to this blog you have been! We’ll be heading into decade territory soon!

      Ah, The Perfect Spy – such an incredible, moving novel. I can certainly understand why it’s your favourite – it’s very high on my list also. Do enjoy the others you have lined up.

      I think your impression of him was spot on. Really going to miss him.

  3. We’ll not see his like again.

    I, too, absolutely love the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; I could watch it annually and never tire of it. The novel is, obviously, brilliant, and easily my favourite of his works.

    I once went to a great deal of trouble to figure out exactly where and from what vantage point the image in the closing credits was shot. It is of the Radcliffe Camera, and it must have been taken looking south along Catte Street toward Radcliffe Square, and from a height, probably from a window up a floor or two in the building (part of New College) at the corner of Catte and New College Lane, at the end of Broad Street, where the Bridge of Sighs is located (and where you can also find The Turf, my favourite pub in Oxford).

    I love listening to those closing credits, and Geoffrey Burgon’s Nunc dimittus. Haunting and beautiful.

    • What a wonderful bit of location sleuthing, NomadUK! Next time I’m in Oxford, I’ll definitely make a pilgrimage. Thank you!

      Like you, Tinker Tailor is the one I keep coming back to – book, TV series, film. There’s something about the Russian doll structure of the plot that always draws me in, and I never failed to be moved by the ending. Truly superb.

      Dammit – I’ve got something in my eye again…

  4. Mrs P – what a wonderful appreciation of an author whose works will stand the test of time.
    I am fairly sure I recall him saying in an interview that when thinking of Smiley being in a film/tv programme, he had always had Alex Guinness in his mind as the incarnation of the man.
    The other thing that is wonderful about his books, is that they don’t date. When I read them originally (I have several hard-back 1st editions) – long ago, we were still in the Cold War and they read as being bang up-to-date. Now they can be read as historical fiction.

    • Thanks, herschelian. I also read somewhere that Guinness’s depiction of Smiley influenced how le Carre depicted the character in subsequent books. A virtuous circle!

      I totally agree with you that the novels don’t date, and I think that’s partly down to the universality of the themes. For example, Tinker Tailor can definitely be read as a Cold War spy novel, but its core themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal (personal and political) still have resonance today.

  5. I, too, was sad to hear of John Le Carre’s death. I loved all of his many fine books. I would recommend ‘Agent Running In the Field’ for a very topical book of his. He was a wonderful writer.

  6. A beautiful tribute. Point 1 particularly resonates with me, having grown up bilingual in English and German, and then having added French to the mix when I lived there for 6 years, I understand the concept completely.

  7. “Turning inwards away from Europe”, Mrs P? Please do not confuse the EU with Europe; leaving a political construct does not mean any less regard for Europe and its peoples and culture.

  8. Enjoyed this, Mrs P. I think I read somewhere that he also admired Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley – both Oldman and Alec Guinness are superb.

  9. Thanks Mrs P. for this marvellous tribute. You ask which of the novels your readers appreciate most, and I would say for me it’s the Karla Trilogy. As a child of the Cold War I remember it as a subtle presence which you were habituated too even though you knew it was utterly unnatural – a ‘defence’ policy based upon mutual exterminism – something like the fact that although we can know, intellectually, that atmosphere pressure bears down on us with considerable force, in terms of pounds per square inch, we don’t ‘feel’ it. Ideology operates in a similar way; it is what it is precisely because it is naturalised, internalised. As for the novels, what I like most is the complex way various operational and political character types (and the different sorts of betrayal and (self)deception they evince) overlap, match, interweave with, and even contradict, the emotional-sexual kind. Le Carre knows that political conviction can be genuinely emotional and idealistic in a positive, un-cynical sense, and he takes it seriously. His agents aren’t simply functions of their roles, as you point out. On a personal level, I admired Le Carre because as a traditional High Tory, rather than a venal Thatcherite ideologue could give those (like me) on the left pause for thought and a decent run for their money in any debate about how society might be improved. He was a humane man, a genuine opponent of philistinism and the race to the profit-grubbing bottom line, so while I’m slightly shocked to learn that he defended Languages at Swansea in 2010 – I never knew that, even though I was there at the time myself! – it doesn’t surprise me.

    • Hi John – I love the analogy of atmospheric pressure/ideology. I think that’s spot on. And yes, I totally agree with you about how profound emotion is shown to drive characters’ actions and their relationship to the Service. You see that especially in TINKER TAILOR – though interestingly, the author also has Smiley and Peter Guillam question their motivations in a couple of the later books.

      I felt that le Carre became more radical and politically outspoken with age – after all, what did he have to lose? He spoke truth to power with wonderful eloquence and (controlled) anger on a number of occasions. And he did have a soft spot for the underdog, which is perhaps why he spoke up for us in 2010. He wrote an incredible letter to the VC, in which he said that he was “greatly distressed” by the redundancy proposals. And: “We have only to travel abroad to be shamed by the linguistic versatility of our European neighbours, as compared with our own ignorance of their culture and language. […] As the so-called special relationship with the United States loses all practical meaning, and our membership of the European family becomes increasingly important to our nation’s future, it must surely be contrary to all good sense to reduce the modern languages resources of your distinguished University.”

      Not only that, he gave us permission to use the letter publicly, which resulted in this amazing BBC piece:

      I can’t tell you what a difference his intervention made to our campaign. It was a real tipping point in our favour and we got such a psychological boost from his support. And he really didn’t have to do it – it was such a kind and generous act on his part. I’ll never forget it, and will always be thankful to him. And now I’ve got something in my eye AGAIN.

  10. My favourite is usually the last one I read. Tye Mission Song I was reading as he died. The final one for me – I’ve now read the lot although I’ll return to them.
    His moral outrage is clear by the book’s characters, structure and. notably in the narrator’s voice which is so original and so distant from Le Carre himself that I don’t know did he did it.
    I thought it was fitting I was reading it when he died for it is everything we admire in Le Carre’s work.

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