A 50th anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will appear this August, John LeCarre’ providing an introduction,, ‘Fifty Years Later’, already published in The Guardian in April. Coinciding with a new novel from him (A Delicate Truth), both The Spy and its author will probably gain renewed attention fir the rest of the year. It may be difficult for people under forty to understand the likely fuss, even if they should happen to see the superb film version, in which Richard Burton gave an unforgettable performance as Alec Leamas, the burnt-out spy. But the ghost of Leamas haunts all of us, for reasons that still matter.
LeCarre’ himself has a mild preference for his later trilogy about the spymaster George Smiley, also memorably filmed as a British television series, with Alec Guinness as Smiley. But The Spy was a great deal more than a brilliant espionage novel, unlike past British spy classics by Buchan, Maugham, or Ambler, or even Graham Greene, an obvious influence. No work of Greene had anything remotely like the impact of The Spy. The only near-contemporary who made a comparable splash was Ian Fleming, whose Bond thrillers sold in the tens of millions, the cinematic Bonds long outliving the original author.
But while Fleming had his own kind of talent, even his best books, which have their own touches of irony and self-mockery, portray a conventional hero fighting conventional villains. LeCarre’ has suggested that the astonishing success of his own book (international sales of over 15 million copies), was probably because ‘I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote’. Half a century later, he sadly recalls that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the general public had instantly come to see him as a real spy who had written a book, an identification he would never later escape. He had always hoped to be recognized simply as a novelist, who had drawn a few useful things from a series of minor, and not very exciting or dangerous, posts in M.I.5 and M.I. 6 for a little over a decade, mostly in the 1950s, when he was in his twenties, But unlike other British writers who had spent some years in the cloak-and-dagger world, he was never to escape being seen as ‘the spy who wrote The Spy’.
But there was more to the book’s reception than that. If readers were really just seeking a ‘Bond antidote’, they could be as well served by Len Deighton, whose working class spy hero lived a deflation of Bond’s beau monde existence. Deighton and LeCarre’ did both belong to a much younger generation than Fleming, the one just a little too young to have taken part in World War II, but forever in its shadow. The two younger writers also wrote explicitly, unlike Fleming, about a post-imperial Britain in shabby and impoverished decline. All three never entirely lost their hostility to booming postwar West Germany and its frequent Nazi hangovers in the intelligence world, and they all accompanied this with occasional expressions of dislike for now dominant American power.
But The Spy, both as book and film, had an immense, immediate and enduring force on the overall preconceptions of the Western world that was, and remains, unique. It changed the fictional portrayals of spies forever; the 21st century Daniel Craig version of Bond has become more like Burton’s Alec Leamas than Sean Connery’s suave assassin of decades ago. But the impact in the world of ideas was far wider. The novel of past decades that most resembled it in effect had been Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s bleak Dostoievskian portrait of a Stalinist inquisition and moral dialogue. Koestler, who had himself been a Communist and sometime secret agent throughout the 1930s, brilliantly encapsulated the disillusionment of a whole generation of leftist intellectuals after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. First published at the start of World War II, the book drew limited attention in the war years of the Big Three Alliance, but became a major intellectual weapon in the Cold War after 1945. It was being read all over the Europe in which LeCarre’ worked for M. I. 6, read covertly and dangerously even in the countries under Communist control..
Koestler, a cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew turned German and then Englishman, led a much more picaresque and sybaritic life than the diffident LeCarre, a very English Englishman. But they still had a major similarity Both had written forgettable earlier books before their big bombshell, and many quite good but rapidly forgotten ones for years after it. But what gave unique power to their most famous books was not just that each writer found a historical, political, and above all, moral situation. about which they could contrive tragedies of almost Shakespearean proportions.
What they were also able to do was to transform their unhappy personal biographies into single unique moments of sublime creation. Koestler, the fortunes of his Hungarian family ruined by the First World War, was compelled to leave his planned youthful career as an engineer, never ceasing to be a scientist manque, and switching from liberal journalism on Weimar Germany to peripatetic Communist espionage in the 1930s, lived with a permanent identity crisis, never later removed by a third successful career in England as an anti-Communist man of letters. Darkness at Noon was the work of a man ‘in transit’, still able to fully imagine the dream that became a nightmare. In his later years, he pursued an odd variety of later interests, from the history of cosmology to ESP. He retained a fondness for dramatic dichotomies, his later books having titles like The Yogi and the Commissar, The Lotus and the Robot, The Ghost in the Machine.
As Le Carre’ also eventually made clear, his own tortured personal psychology owed less to his actual Secret Service experiences than to being abandoned by his mother in childhood, and raised by a father who was a personally charming but highly dishonest conman, and a war profiteer in World War II. Furthermore, while he continued to write at least moderately successful spy novels right up to the present, he has never found post-Cold War themes on which he could write with anything remotely like the power and depth of The Spy and the Smiley novels.
By the end of his life, Koestler was coming to be seen as a mildly interesting crank. While LeCarre’ has been more successful in writing novels that sell well, he has had the same difficulty in continuing to make his personal anger and confusions into the stuff of art. He was arguably justified in his 2003 explosion of rage about the invasion of Iraq (‘The United States of America has gone mad’). But he has since then come to sound more and more like standard model English left-wing curmudgeon in the Harold Pinter mold, unconvincingly integrating dislike of American capitalism, dislike of American foreign policies too glibly linked to the same capitalism, and dislike of the England of Tony Blair and his successors. He now resorts to far cruder stereotypes than could ever be found in his fine Cold War novels. In ‘Fifty Years Latet’, after first evoking the ruthless reasoning of his own fictional M. I. 6 ‘Control’ character in The Spy, he continues:
Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.’
This almost suggests that even the most ruthless real M.I.6 agents of the 1950s somehow kept a touch of decency in their bad teeth and inferior suits, and that the CEOs of modern large corporations are the same people as American gun-loving populists, among other scattered laments. It is just his variation of the eternal wail of the 73rd Psalm: ‘Why do the wicked prosper while God’s people suffer?’ LeCarre is justifiably proud of the skill with which he presented this cry in his most famous book, but does not seem to realize that it gave him no special permanent qualifications as an analyst of present discontents. He wants everyone now to meet LeCarre’ the man, but might have learned from Koestler’s warning that wanting to meet a writer because you like his books is like wanting to meet a goose because you like pate’ de foie gras.