The year was 1963. The Cold War was entering its deepest freeze, and James Bond was the world’s best-known spy. A fantasy figure for a gloomy time, Ian Fleming’s hero was a playboy with a gun who bedded beautiful women whilst swilling martinis in exotic locations.
The Bond books and movies were fun but not, it’s fair to say, entirely accurate in depicting Cold War realities.
Enter George Smiley. John le Carré’s ‘hero’ was the polar opposite of James Bond, a scheming, shadowy figure who first appeared in le Carré’s debut novel Call For the Dead (1961). It was The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), however, that proved to be le Carré’s breakthrough book.
That title is being republished this year to celebrate its 50th coinciding with the publication of A Delicate Truth, John le Carré’s 23rd. Recently, Ian McEwan, who last year published the spy novel Sweet Tooth, called for le Carré to be awarded the Booker Prize, saying the author has long since transcended the parameters of the spy fiction genre to become one of the most important British authors of the second half of the 20th century.
“You have to always keep in mind,” agrees American novelist Alan Furst, author of the ‘Night Soldiers’ series, “that le Carré’s a real good writer.”
A former MI5 operative during the 1950s, David Cornwell had moved on to MI6 when he wrote his first novel. Forbidden to publish under his own name, he adopted the nom-de-plume John le Carré and published Call for the Dead in 1961. “We all emerged from under Call for the Dead,” says British author John Lawton, who writes the Frederick Troy novels.
Le Carré subsequently published A Murder of Quality in 1962, but it was The Spy Who Came In From the Cold that established his reputation.
“It’s interesting to remember the context in which The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was published,” says Aly Monroe, a British author whose novels feature the spy Peter Cotton. “It hit the bestseller lists in September 1963, a few weeks after Kim Philby’s defection was confirmed and about the same time as the release of the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love. Meanwhile, in nonfictional life, the class-befuddled British Intelligence services were still asking new applicants if they could give the correct ranking of aristocrats from Duke down.”
What le Carré’s novels offered to a generation of readers struggling to come to terms with the realpolitik of the Cold War was a quality of realism not previously found in the spy genre. “Do not knock Ian Fleming or Eric Ambler while I’m around,” says John Lawton, “but however much Fleming’s career in [British] Intelligence [during WWII] is vaunted, there was no sense in the Bond books of authenticity. They’re engaging works of near fantasy. Le Carré was the first writer to look as though he was the real thing, to write about SIS as an insider. It’s a world devoid of Bond glamour, as are Len Deighton’s. You don’t read him for thrills and spills.”
“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is iconic,” says Aly Monroe, “because le Carré injected a far greater subtlety and moral ambiguity into intelligence than obtained either in fact or in previous spy fiction. He also developed an attractive organisational vocabulary and etiquette of espionage, and introduced apparently realistic but still romantic characters like Alec Leamas, a burnt-out case, and George Smiley, the wise cuckold, an up-to-date Tiresias cloaked in spectacles and a tie, and a wider view than others of what wins.”
Le Carré followed The Spy Who Came In From the Cold with The LookingGlass War (1964) and A Small Town in Germany (1968), but it was the ‘Karla Trilogy’ — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979) — that cemented his reputation and inspired a new generation of writers. “I had just barely started to publish when the ‘Karla Trilogy’ came out in the 1970s,” says Alan Furst, “and I was just knocked out by it. I thought, ‘God, this is so good.’ But it was also instructive, because what I realised when I started to write myself was that no one was ever going to exceed le Carré in writing about what was essentially the Cold War. And the reason for that was his writer’s personality. I’m not talking about the man himself, I’ve never met him — but his writer’s personality, which is a kind of upper-class English writer’s personality, is cold, mean, brilliant and funny, as though you were at some table at Oxford or Cambridge. And that’s the perfect personality to write about the Cold War, the ‘infinity of mirrors’ and all that stuff. In other words, it’s almost amoral, in a funny way.”
John le Carré’s influence has been so immense that it not only sealed off the Cold War as territory for a generation of writers — Furst, Monroe and Lawton all set their novels in the pre- or post-WWII period — but also played a massive part in rendering the spy novel a ‘respectable’ genre.
“I’m not sure when le Carré said this,” says John Lawton, “and I paraphrase, but he said, “The dilemma of the Cold War is how to combat evil — that is, totalitarian regimes — without undermining the freedoms you seek to defend.” Thus he set the benchmark for us all, not just as spy writers but as novelists.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, John le Carré has adapted his spy narratives to a more complex geo-political landscape with novels such as The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001) and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Despite his enduring influence, however, not everyone is a fan.
“John Le Carré has vehement detractors,” concedes Aly Monroe. “I have heard people say that The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is about as realistic as the film Bridge Over the River Kwai, that he has pandered to Britain’s reaction to decline by adopting the world-weary wisdom of those who have lost power but still belong to an exclusive gentleman’s club.
I take these remarks as a sign of his success. If you get some readers who react as if your written world needs to be challenged rather than ignored, then you have given a lesson in the power of fiction.”
* A Delicate Truth is published by Viking. The 50 Edition of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is published by Penguin Books