Lynn Beene

John le Carrè

The most popular British espionage novelist of the twentieth century, John le Carré writes a hybrid fiction. He merges romance and thriller formulas with the experimental techniques prevalent in contemporary literary fiction. In the tradition of John Buchan and Eric Ambler, le Carré assesses the political and moral vitality of his society. Moreover, he redefines the borders of genre fiction by exploring the dark sides of contemporary life, while giving temporary solutions to the pervasive chaos of moral uncertainty. Throughout he reminds readers that agents committed to secrecy are capable only of societal and emotional subversion. Intelligence agencies and their employees anxiously delude themselves. Agents are fragmented antiheroes fighting ambiguous battles against boredom and drudgery in decidedly unglamorous and unappreciative worlds. No one wins in a le Carré novel, because no victories are possible.

His novels turn on themes of betrayal. He contrasts private morality and public accountability, thought and action, duty and love, and ideological commitment and personal betrayal. He mixes characters' interjections, opinions, and insider's information into sometimes confusingly sequenced dialogues. Double agents are le Carré's primary vehicles for exploring spiritual and moral bankruptcy. They serve two masters but are true to neither controllers nor themselves. Their assignments reproduce the perpetual disloyalties endemic in most human relationships. Treason is nurtured into habit and inevitably kills the human spirit.

With great skill le Carré integrates this basic theme with several secondary themes. He insists that characters question fascism, the authority of political institutions, and the nature of ethics. His more developed characters know that love must underlie and unify an individual's sense of moral rules—a fairly romantic and sentimental viewpoint. Repeatedly, he argues that failing to question adequately means continuing a duplicity that invariably defeats both betrayer and betrayed. Yet despite their questioning, his characters cannot redirect democratic or moral ideology —symbolized in the collectives they serve. Honorable questioners like George Smiley, Barley Blair, and Ned stumble, resort to a means-ends position that meets their private moral codes, and survive only because they force themselves to walk away from sure manipulation.

A second variation on betrayal arises when individuals evaluate themselves by how well they conform to their collective's values. These agents attribute to their unworthy institutions motivations similar to their own dreams and, without adequate justification, adopt the institution's goals as their own. Institution men, realizing the power they hold, encourage individuals to take Leclerc's "second vow" and relinquish their humanity for the institution's suspect goals.

Le Carré presses the issue further by suggesting how various institutions mirror the ethical nature of all society. Because a collective cannot survive without subsuming individuals, it follows, then, that Western society is hypocritical for praising individualism while devaluing individuals. Throughout the novels honorable characters -the individuals who question and those who love -find that their triumphs are, in practical terms, meaningless. The balance of power stays with institutions; individualism ensures only existential anguish and empty theatricality.

Love, the opposite of apathy, finds expression in the virtues of friendship (i.e., Peter Guillan and Smiley), companionship (i.e., Hilary and Connie Sachs), and family (i.e., Drake and Nelson Ko, Katya and her family). Love, however, makes a character vulnerable to betrayal. Seemingly admirable intentions lead to tragic consequences as heroes pursue their quests for true love. Yet repeatedly "love is what you can betray," the last illusion of illusionless agents. The redemption love promises comes to nothing, and those innocent bystanders who become the objects of agents' affection suffer unjustly.

For all the intricate variations Ie Carré invests in these themes, his characters frequently come across as one-dimensional eccentrics or Dickensian caricatures. Gestures rather than slowly developed motivations clue trained professionals that a character's intentions are furtive. How characters speak betrays them more than what they say. Repetition numbs these subtleties and denies even major figures like George Smiley true psychological depth. Character types recur because Ie Carré restricts his attention to variations of divided loyalties. There are goodhearted patriots (i.e., Jim Prideaux, Jerry Westerby) who share both physical characteristics and a vulnerability born of patriotism and comradeship. Variations on patriotism gone wrong set up other characters. Maston, Leclerc, Bill Haydon, Saul Enderby, and Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw, though enhanced with individual eccentricities, are sycophants whose sophistication makes their patriotism suspect. To trained eyes their loyalty is as studied as their clothing or manners. Smiley's professionalism and constant questioning are disingenuously restated in Kurtz, who easily balances reason and feeling and reconciles ends with means. Reality is endlessly distorted to meet immediate purposes.

Contrasting characters and parallel plot lines are fundamental to Ie Carré's narrative technique. Le Carré wants readers to accept his fictional world as plausible and his judgments about that world's immorality as sound. He releases ambiguous fragments of information piecemeal, until a protagonist finally assembles the jigsaw puzzle in full view of readers. Random events and contrapuntal flashbacks fragment reality, interrupt anecdotes, and invite realistic digressions. Agents invest small matters, courtesies, or incidental encounters with great significance. Offhanded comments, gaps in interrogations, and subordinate clauses buried within a character's forced admission provide key information. Characters' abbreviated explanations and skewed memories pervert past events. These atypical genre techniques force close attention on characters' motives. Uncertain agents replicate the chaos that so frequently is a part of contemporary existence. Their involvement promotes questioning, the sort alien to a Leclerc or Kurtz but compulsory for conscientious thinkers. . . .

Selected Works

Nonfiction Essays
Solving Problems in Technical Writing
"An excellent text....Suitable to the student budget, and I especially like the problem-solving approach. Well-done!"
--Paul S. Burdett, Jr., The College of Staten Island, City University of New York
Nonfiction
John le Carrè
In this comprehensive study of one of Britain's most prolific novelists and former spy, LynnDianne Beene identifies le Carre's considerable talent at manipulating the espionage genre to bring it in line with his relentless moral vision.
Bibliographic study

Quick Links