John leCarré post:

Tinkers and Tailors


Like a lot of other people, I discovered John leCarré in 1980 when PBS broadcast the British mini-series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, featuring the late Alec Guinness in the lead role as spy-hunter George Smiley. As Guinness's biography relates the story, leCarré himself suggested Guinness and took upon himself the task of persuading him to take the role. The producers at BBC could not have chosen a better time to undertake the project. A labor dispute had closed London's famous West-End theatres, and actors were looking for work; so BBC and the film's director John Irvin signed up the cast, and filming started.

Robert McNeil, the host of PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Report introduced Tinker, Tailor and said that a  mood of "sad menace" overhung the mini-series. McNeil also interviewed leCarré, who mentioned an element of the story that no one else has touched. The characters in Tinker, Tailor—all working in national-security positions—pay a high price in their personal lives, in order to keep functioning in his professional lives.

The story begins with George Smiley's disorderly, melancholic life. For one thing, he no longer has a job. He had worked for thirty-odd years for a secret-intelligence agency, but a power-struggle for leadership at the agency forced him to resign. LeCarré never gives the name of this agency, only its in-house nickname, "the Circus," for its location at Cambridge Circus in central London, a circular intersection, or "roundabout," at the crossroads of Shaftesbury Avenue and the Charing Cross Road.

LeCarré also never reveals exactly when Smiley resigned, nor even what year it is, but readers can still date the story on the basis of the diplomatic relations between the Allies and the Soviet Union—called Détente—that replaced the hostile relations of the Cold-War era during the Nixon administration—at least on the Allied side. LeCarré also writes that diplomatic traffic refers to a "weakened U.S. President," which has to refer to Nixon after the Watergate Scandal. Tinker, Tailor came out in 1974, so it must take place in 1973.

Tinker, Tailor works like a satire of Détente, which only the Allies honored. The Soviets' endless meddling in British and American foreign policy, enabled by double-agents, and the Soviet penchant for shooting victims in the back of the neck suggest that Détente changed nothing on the Soviet side. LeCarré's subtle denunciation of Soviet thinking and methods must have irked pinkos and leftists on the Allied side, who wanted to see only positive portrayals of the Soviet Union.

After seeing the TV production of Tinker, Tailor, I read every novel by John leCarré that I could find, starting with his first one, Call for the Dead, published in 1961. As I read it, I had the weird feeling that I had seen it on the TV, too, many years ago, although I could not remember the title of the movie, nor who starred in it. Mostly I remember the climax: two men fighting on a pier beside the River Thames. One of them falls into the river and is crushed against the pier by a drifting barge.

I searched for a name for the movie in some library reference books and found that film-director Sidney Lumet had directed a movie title Deadly Affair in 1967, based on Call for the Dead, that featured a stellar international cast led by James Mason, Simone Signoret, and Maximilian Schell. In interviews, leCarré complained that Lumet had not read the book. LeCarré also said, however, that Signoret's performance stood out and that she owns the character, for all intents and purposes. 


I have watched Deadly Affair countless times since and remember it as an intelligent, inventive story about an official of the UK Foreign Office (comparable to America's State Department) who supposedly commits suicide; but as George Smiley investigates, he realizes the man could not have committed suicide. He had left a cup of hot cocoa in the sitting room, and he had asked the Telephone Exchange to ring him at 8:30 the next morning.

Smiley had to ask himself, why go to the trouble to fix the cocoa and not allow himself to drink it? Why ask someone to call you, the next morning, if you plan to be dead by that time? And although the victim's wife, played by Signoret, appears grief-stricken, he cannot rule out that she had a part in his death. Smiley cannot persuade his superiors to let him continue the investigation, so he resigns from the agency and continues it on his own, assisted by a retired police detective.

LeCarré published his next novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in 1963. Spy made him a household name in both Britain and America. Spy also appeared as a movie in 1965 that starred the actors Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. An impressively grim tale, Spy concerns the relationship of a British secret-agent and his Jewish-communist girlfriend. He leaves her and pretends to defect to Soviet East Germany. The East German secret-intelligence agency that debriefs the defector, like the British agency, remains unnamed.

Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman published Every Spy a Prince, about the Israeli spy agency Mossad, in 1990. Perhaps they could write a sequel, "Every Spy a Pauper", about the treatment of spies by the Allies and Soviets. The British agent experiences a "chilly hell," as one reviewer writes about Spy. His own people abandon him. Not even existential writers have described the lonely courage of the British secret-agent so poignantly.

LeCarré does something else unique. In both Call and Spy, he offers a critique of Jews who side with the Soviet Union against Western bourgeois liberalism. The Jews are betrayed by their own superiors—murdered in cold blood. An East German official who orders their executions secretly feels more loyalty for Nazism than he does for his Marxist government—and contempt for Jews of any stripe. Neither Artur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, nor even Joe McCarthy can equal leCarré's bitter denunciation of Soviet Socialism—up-close and personal.

Call and Tinker, Tailor may have antagonized Pinkos and leftists in the United States and Britain, but Spy surely infuriated East German leaders, especially since the East German spy-chief, Mischa Wolf, was himself a Jew. Wolf politely told Western journalists that he had read Spy and enjoyed it. One has to take his admiration with a grain of salt.

East German Justice Minister Hilde Benjamin appears in Spy as an uncredited character. She plays her part with an unsympathetic disposition, In real life, she was married to the Jewish communist Georg Benjamin, who died in the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1942. In real life, Wolf and Benjamin pursued former Nazis relentlessly and meted out harsh punishments on them.

The next LeCarré novel that I read, Smiley's People, came out in 1979. LeCarré intended Smiley as a film-sequel to Tinker, Tailor and wanted Guinness to play the title-character again. Structurally, it resembles Tinker, Tailor and features many of the same cast-members, but I think leCarré erred by trying to press Smiley's People into a sequel format. He should not have tried so hard to connect the two, but let it develop separately from Tinker, Tailor.

In some respects, Smiley is the most inventive of leCarré's stories. Considering the high quality of his Cold-War fiction, that says a lot. The story starts with a Russian refugee in Paris who works in a menial job and lives in shabby circumstances. One day, she notices a man watching her. He finally approaches her and addresses her in Russian, "in the brutal accents of Moscow officialdom." The official draws her attention to her past crimes against the Soviet nation. Then he lists the crimes of her late husband. Then he lists "a fresh catalogue of crimes" committed by the woman's daughter. LeCarré cleverly establishes the modus operandi of a dictatorial government. It turns all its citizens into criminals.

The Russian official tries to maintain a stern demeanor toward the refugee, but she can sniff out his personal weaknesses. She sizes him up as a timid man with no conscience, who would sell out his mother if he could gain favor from his superiors in the secret, Soviet hierarchy. LeCarré makes the crucial point that pathologically weak people can gain in stature from associating with a dictatorial regime.

As in his previous books, leCarré made no secret of his anti-Soviet stance. The 1979 date of Smiley surprised me. Even at that late stage, Soviet "officialdom" still pursued dictatorial control of their own people, and they still engaged in ruthless cloak-and-dagger tricks to gain influence of the U.S. and Great Britain.

One evening, weeks later, a second man visits the Russian refugee at her home in Paris. The second man also speaks Russian to her, but she recognizes his accent and knows that he must have lived in Estonia, the home country of her "criminal" late-husband. This second man pulls out a photo from his coat pocket, and she recognizes instantly the horrible official who interrogated her. The visitor grins with vindictive glee, suggesting that the official is living on borrowed time.

The visitor differs greatly from the official. Whereas the official, whom leCarré calls "the gingery giant" is certainly a Russian national, the visitor is "a hob-goblin of a fellow," with a "Levantine" face. Thanks to World War II, many people had to flee their home-countries and move to displaced-person camps. Like so many permanent refugees, the visitor has no real name and no home country. LeCarré's recognition of the dislocations add a genuine, historical gloss to his fiction that no other writer of spy-fiction can match.

An Assessment of John leCarré

To prepare this post, I googled "greatest novels of the twentieth-century" lists. Some websites rate the twenty greatest; others, the fifty greatest. The more, the merrier. Another website rates only the novelists themselves. No matter. I paid the most attention to the lists published by literary clubs and high-end publications. They consistently rate John leCarré far down the list. I think the lists show more of a political orientation than a literary one. I realize organizations heed the political niceties of the trade, in order not to offend readers and members, so I shouldn't be surprised.

To understand their position, I decided to wear a different hat, play the role of devil's advocate, and pose the question to myself, "Why should anyone want to read John leCarré?" I could pretend I did not like the guy. On that basis, I came up with some possible reasons why critics shun him:

1) LeCarré did not actually write his most recent books. He is 88 years old, now. I have not read a single novel of his since A Perfect Spy. I tried to read The Russia House, that came out next, and it bored me, It did not possess leCarré's invention, his nuanced characters, word-choices, and laconic humor. I cannot see the ghosts of Schiller, Vidocq, and Forster standing beside him. LeCarré may have done what other writers have done—let a ghost-writer do his books.
LeCarré could supply the plot-plan and the characterizations, and let the ghost-writers do the rest. Technically competent writers can do everything but sign the books. The late Doug Kenney, who wrote the script for the 1978 movie Animal House and also published the '70s magazine National Lampoon, once boasted that he could imitate any famous writer.

2) John leCarré novels never start at the beginning. Instead, they start half-way through a larger, ongoing story. So the novel has to move on two levels—recapitulate the recent past of the story and tie it in to the steadily progressing plot. Watching such a story unfold reminds me of a speeding car that I see in my rear-view mirror—watching it overtake my car and speed past. The structure of his novels requires substantial artistic and technical expertise, which leCarré obviously possesses; but the technicalities of his style do not appeal to everyone.  
You could describe leCarré's novels as multi-dimensional—bad news for people who like a simple story in real-time. LeCarré novels show how history influences the present. If you can plot the past like coordinates on a map, you can show how those coordinates lead to the present and how they can influence the future.
The coordinates show trends in the lives of his characters. The career of a double-agent may begin as an exercise in revolutionary zeal; but the zeal does not endure. All that remains is a disciplined habit, an unchallenged conviction devoid of pro-active thinking. A fully-engaged person may not like the sound of such a story. He thinks mostly about a new car, children's appointments, vacation plans, and whatnot. The "cozy" genre of fiction will appeal to him more—nothing too challenging about it.

3) LeCarré poses troubling questions for his readers.

 a. Chief among them is the sobering question, "Duty to what? Loyalty to whom?"

Call for the Dead, page 22: George Smiley's secret-intelligence agency has received an anonymous letter accusing a Foreign Office employee of disloyalty. Before Smiley can talk to the employee a second time, however, to clear up some discrepancies, the employee apparently shoots himself; and if that isn't bad enough, Smiley has to talk to his widow next. He explains to the widow that he had to confront her husband because of an anonymous letter that questioned his loyalty and accused him of secret sympathy with the Soviet Union—by now, a bitter enemy of Western democracies.

Smiley finds that the widow survived a Nazi death-camp, and that her deceased husband retrieved her from a displaced-persons' camp. He married her, and they moved to London. When Smiley tells her about the anonymous letter that questions her husband's loyalty, she pronounces "loyalty" with a sort of bitter, ironic lilt. She also tells him she has not slept in most of 36 hours.

Dismayed by the course of events, Smiley himself asks the question, "Loyalty to whom, to what?" So close to the amoral, impersonal workings of a government department, the word "loyal" takes on a cheap or hypocritical reality. The mistake that readers make is to assume that leCarré diminishes loyalty as a concept, or that he questions its utility. Instead, he questions our shallow understanding of loyalty.

Readers don't like for a writer not to give them clear answers. If a reader doesn't like it, he will tell the critics who will avenge themselves on a writer by writing unkind things about him. But no less a writer than George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans) said that popular fiction "accustoms men and women to formulate opinions instead of receiving deep impressions." She is probably right, but most readers only read books that don't challenge their preconceptions. The have their minds mad up about most things and want to know how a book ends before they even start it. Men and women who leave themselves open to deep impressions may take to leCarré like a duck to water, but they may also find the water cold and perilous.

LeCarré's darkened point-of-view may antagonize readers. Hurtful experiences with insincere government officials who spoke glibly about loyalty may have injured his personal and heart-felt patriotism; so his literary proxy, George Smiley, has to contend with leCarré's own conflicts. Smiley only does his duty as a public servant in interviewing the widow. He nevertheless asks, "Duty to whom for God's sake!" He would like to console her over her deceased husband, but he has to accept that she is also a suspect. Handling both a criminal investigation, while cosoling someone over a personal loss, presents many challenges, especially for an Englishman who believes in loyalty and Western values. The subject does not work so well as popular fiction.

 b. LeCarré also delves into his characters' "motives."

Tinker, Tailor, page 287: Smiley has to interview a British agent who had been assigned a secret mission in Czechoslovakia to help a Czech general defect. He was captured, and his repatriation to Britain came at a high price. The failure of the mission cost Smiley his job at the Circus, although he knew absolutely nothing about its taking place.

The agent explains to Smiley that he knew early on that the Czechs were on to him. They started surveilling him almost from the moment he entered the country. The agent wasted a whole hour just shaking off the surveillance because he had to help a Czech general defect and didn't want anyone to know the rendevous point. In fact, there was no general. The operation was a fix from the start; and when he was finally captured, he realized that his captors were Russian soldiers, not Czech.

Smiley admits he is bothered by this information. If the agent knew he was walking into a trap, what on earth would make him continue the mission? The agent resents the question and replies, "What the hell does my motive matter in a mess like this?"

His motive matters a lot to Smiley. Once again, leCarré describes the lonely, existential courage of a British agent. The agent knew that the Czech general could identify the "mole," the Russian double-agent who has betrayed the Circus's operations for years. The problem is that the agent is pretty sure he already knows who the mole is. Smiley thinks he knows, too. They have all been friends and colleagues since their college years. How could they not know? As a motive, the personal relationship matters more to the agent than loyalty to England or to the secret agency that employs him.

Smiley also expresses his concern about "motives" to a colleague when he learns that another man wants to be the chief of the secret-intelligence agency. Smiley knows that the man only wants the chief's position because he is ambitious. If he can become chief, he can also acquire a knighthood and a hefty pension at the end of his career.

The colleague scoffs at Smiley's concern and asks, "Since when was ambition a sin in our beastly outfit?" The reader too might wonder about Smiley's concern. You might as well ask why anyone in his right mind wants to become a U.S. President? A reader might not like so many questions about the motives of people important to him. So he will shut leCarré's book and loan it to someone on a permanent basis.

Smiley never tells his colleague that his concern grows out of the ambitious man's "shallow gift of leadership." He has thoughtlessly married two women, and both are alcoholics. He has apparently appropriated government property for his personal use, which he obviously should not do; but the colleague has a cynical presumption about leadership-class personnel and cautions Smiley not to make an issue of it.

In Spy, the British agent's Jewish-communist girlfriend talks freely about her faith in "history" as the secret of communist success. She pesters the agent to talk about what he believes. The agent's reply is classic leCarré: "I believe that the Number 11 bus will take me to Hammersmith. I do not believe it is driven by Father Christmas." For all his hard worldliness, the agent affirms with style his faith in British society, and the systems that make it run. 

4) Finally, average readers do not like John leCarré's pessimism. In his books, certifiable idiots run the government departments. They excel mostly in promoting themselves. The talented officials get sidelined by internal intrigue and cronyism. Morally lackadaisical or compromised supervisors lack the courage or moral fibre to intervene; but pass the buck and wait for someone else to rescue the situation.

The usual spy-fare features extended shoot-outs, car-chases, and the usual fist-fights. John leCarré novels do not have lots of action. Major characters do get killed however, and since leCarré takes readers into their personal lives, they react as if they know the victims. So, whether the deceased is a hero or an anti-hero, the reader knows who they are. The recognition factor give a reader a deeper sense of loss. Yeah, leCarré does not appeal to everyone.

And yet, as the lonely, stoical George Smiley, leCarré's spy-hunter, wraps up another heartbreaking case of betrayal, you put down the book thinking that you can still handle believing in the British system, in spite of the cheapening of concepts like patriotism and loyalty, and the questioning of his characters' motives. You feel all right to go on believing in the concepts and the systems that represent them. If nothing else, leCarré makes you think about them. In that sense, he leaves a reader with "deep impressions," as George Eliot described them.

The Theatre of the Real: The Little Drummer Girl

John leCarré published The Little Drummer Girl in 1983. John Grisham has written that Drummer Girl is one of his go-to books. He reads it every few years. Like cars, writers need regular tune-ups, and the LeCarré toolbox has elements of magic. I never tire of him. Grisham probably has another reason for returning to Drummer Girl—its literate, masteful writing. It may even stand a little taller than leCarré's other highly-regarded works.

LeCarré's literary peculiarities are on full display: Dummer Girl starts mid-way through a larger, ongoing story; the reader finds himself immersed in the complexity of people's motives; the main characters are hatching complex but purposeful deceptions to trap their quarry. Everything works; but missing are Smiley and any reference to the "Circus," or its problematic leaders. In fact, the main character, a young actress named Charlie (Charmian. LeCarré never gives her a last name.) is the only English character of any import. All the other characters are young European left-wing revolutionists, their Arab controllers, and the Israeli spies trying to trap them.

The novel viewpoint begins in Germany and ends in Germany. In between, it visits Greece, Austria, then back to Greece. It also visits Britain and Lebanon before returning to Germany. Until he wrote Drummer Girl, most of leCarré's books took place in England or Germany. No matter. His main-character Charlie and her pursuers jet-set across Europe and the Middle-East. Their peregrinations never throw leCarré off his pace.

LeCarré digs a little deeper into the motives of his characters in Drummer Girl. Moreover, he digs for motive in his characters' sense of self, personality, or point of view. For his character, the actress Charlie, identifying her motives presents some problems. In that sense, Drummer Girl recalls Jean-Paul Sartre's play, Kean, a study in an actor's lack of authentic personhood.

In actors, personality becomes confused with persona. They have to prepare for a dramatic role by assuming a persona. They have to, in effect, inhabit the role, store up hundreds of lines of dialogue, strut and fret their hour across the stage, and somehow remain true to their secret selves, as people on the street. I can imagine leCarré spending hours in cinemas watching Ingmar Bergman's movie Persona, released in 1966.

Like the main character in Persona, Charlie has to confront her tendency to play roles rather than act as a real person, when she is hired by the Israeli secret-intelligence agency (LeCarré never mentions the name of it.) to penetrate a terrorist ring run out of Germany. To prepare her for her assignment, the Israelis take her out of circulation and give her a very specialized training, like a movie director when he preps an actor.

Depending on the acting job, the preparations may exhaust the actor and cause him to lash out at his torturers. Andy Griffith experienced this when Elia Kazan hired him to play the main character in the movie A Face in the Crowd. Griffith's performance made him a nationally known actor, but he later scolded Kazan and his script-writer Budd Schulberg, "You SOBs are never going to do this to me again!"

Other actors and actresses have mentioned this over-controlling mistreatment by directors. Alfred Hitchcock wore down the actress Vera Miles when she played a woman having a nervous breakdown in the movie The Wrong Man. Her realistic performance added to the movie's greatness, but she resented Hitchcock making her replay the same scene twenty times. 

In Drummer Girl, the Israeli agent Marty Kurtz interrogates Charlie. He goes after her motives like George Smiley and leCarré's other fictional interrogaters. He deconstructs her pretensions ruthlessly with the same worldly, amoral composure. Kurtz realizes, like most people in his position, that she really does not know what she believes. When he points out her attendance at an openly anti-Israeli conference, led by Palestinian freedom-fighters, she said her boyfriend talked her into attending: "It was for Al!" she said.

The Israelis have kept track of her movements for months, it seems. They have listened to her every word. She keeps dodging responsibility for her careless anti-Semitism diatribes, which  she keeps explaining away: "I did it for Al."

Kurtz employs satire ruthlessly. "You oppose technology gone mad. . . . Well, Huxley did that for you already. You aim to release human motives that are neither competitive nor aggressive. But in order to do this, you must remove exploitation. But how?"

Charlie hates how Kurtz panders and humiliates her: "Stop patronizing me, will you?"

"The pursuit of property is evil, ergo property itself is evil."

"Look," Charlie admits in exasperation, "I'm superficial, got it?" She realizes that he has exposed her deception: "I'm sick of being brainwashed."

"You telling me you're recanting on your stated position, Charlie?" Kurtz asks.

"I haven't got a stated position."

LeCarré exults in steely, probing interrogations of people. In earlier works, his spy-hunter Smiley or various figures behind the Iron Curtain did the dirty work. Now he has Israeli agents probing their quarry's personal motives. It makes hairy reading.

But readers also have to remember that Charlie is an actress and, in effect, auditioning for an acting job, She needs the money, for one thing. She believes she has told them enough; so they either need to give her the role or send her home.

Charlie keeps explaining away her indiscreet comments by telling the Israelis that her boyfriend Al put her up to it. Then Charlie tumbles into despair at her lack of authenticity. The Israelis work her over like ruthless therapists. Then they tell her how she can recover authenticity by doing what they tell her. They give her a new sense of self and put her to work in the "Theatre of the Real."

Charlie explains her predicament in a way a WASP would understand. "You're a Jew, don't you see? . . . Even when you're persecuted, you know who you are. . . . But us . . . rich, suburban kids from Nowheresville—forget it. . . . no faith, no self-awareness."

I accept the truth of what Charlie says. We all want friends who know what they believe. Watch people in a social gathering. They invariably gather around the person who talks the most. Some of them have strong convictions but are modest and seldom assert themselves. Other people talk the most, act the most opinionated, but don't have any convictions. If only they can convince other people, they can fill the void in themselves. Charlie gets along in life by filling the void. Then, little by little, Kurtz and Litvak scrape her to the bone. They brutally deconstruct her until she is spinning with despair in a personal vacuum. It makes hairy reading.

But they have to do that before they can send her into the Theatre of the Real. For that kind of role, they have to give her authenticity. The term "Theatre of the Real" is so catchy and relevant, secret-service agencies around the globe must use it as an in-house designation for the sub-section that trains personnel in agent-theatrics.