In possibly his last novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017) John le Carré, aged 86, has done what writers and artists long to do, not for their audiences but for the sake of their own soul. He’s found the perfect form to accommodate the contrary longings of a life he hopes has been well spent but may not be quite sure. A Legacy is a great read. It sacrifices nothing of what le Carré has offered the reader since 1963, when The Spy who came in from the Cold entranced millions worldwide. The Spy struck novelist Graham Greene as the greatest espionage story he had ever read. But what exactly is le Carré’s art, beyond the capacity to tell a great story? The trick he pulls off is to hint at something quieter and more satisfying called reality, just out of reach of those intricate plots that so entertain us. That’s how I see it. What nags away in the reader’s mind is the sense that the spy is ultimately deprived of reality’s satisfactions. The clandestine, secretly brutal profession is a scourge to the souls of damaged men and women leading scarred and diminished lives. All of them suffer a chain of new identities, compromised friendships and shifting addresses that never quite seem like home.
Vintage le Carré weaves pacy narrative and urgent dialogue together so artfully that he leaves over a sense of what a real life for each of them would be like, if they weren’t in danger. But they are. As much at the mercy of their own side as the enemy. As the author embroils them in the West’s underground hostilities over much of the twentieth century, British readers at least can paste le Carré’s characters into their own experience of the last half-century of history. Were they ‘fighting’ for us? At what cost to themselves? Meanwhile the causes weren’t what they seemed, and were anyway betrayed.
For Le Carré’s men and a few women of covert action there are occasional glimpses of, if not happiness, then at least respite. But they can never secure it. Just the mere hint of a farm in Brittany and the time to attend to the needs of a delicate, introverted child, and we know this is a dream foregone, or half-lived, at best. When George Smiley is defeated he takes himself off for a week of coastal walking in Cornwall, and then never speaks of the pain again. We get, perhaps above all from landscape, signs of the peace of mind ringmaster Smiley and his acrobatic henchmen Peter Guillam, Alex Leamas and Jim Prideaux, would so relish in bucolic retirement, if only the treacheries of the Cold War, past and still present, would let them rest. What was it that stirred le Carré himself out of octogenarian relaxation, a couple of years ago, to remind us of the pain of the congested heart, sworn to secrecy and betrayal, in this perhaps final novel?We can only guess whether it’s the moral itch, or the narrative drive, or the desire to take a last bow in the limelight in exchange for a lifetime’s efforts as an entertainer. In fact, surely all three.
A Legacy darts back through the decades to when a certain Operation Windfall went horribly wrong. With three deaths on his hands, Smiley was never the same again. He had recruited these agents and viewed them as his children. When tragedy struck he silently took himself from his opaque upmarket London address in Bywater Street, Chelsea, and powered his legs and opened his lungs walking by the sea. What was he to do with the realization that there was a leak on his own side at the highest level? Late late le Carré chose a brilliant point at which to re-enter his old old story of Smiley. And in that moment he offered us a little bit of reality. This was back in the days when upmarket Chelsea meant simply civilized and discreet, while no one could begrudge the chief a holiday in Cornwall. In the meantime,though Cornwall hasn’t changed that much, the understated chic of 1950s-1970s Chelsea turns out to have provided a cover for almost anything.
Devoted le Carré readers remember how subsequently the traitor was unmasked; how he was arrested and how ultimately it was Jim Prideaux dealt with the situation. I can still hear the click of Haydon’s neck, after his quiet assassin slips inside the perimeter of an obscure detention centre for traitors of the highest order. We meet Prideaux again in A Legacy, now playing a role in the life of a minor public school, plotting revenge for a ruined life from an old caravan in the grounds.
In le Carré’s world the good men and women would follow due process if they could trust it; but trust is a luxury. A bare handful of souls otherwise out of touch with each other assemble for one last campaign. That they trust each other has surely kept them from suicide.
Smiley always had an extra consolation in his love of German literature. Goethe’s lyric poetry consoled him the way his errant wife Anne never could. In truth they were always an odd match, the cerebral recluse and the worldly beauty, and there perhaps is a bit more reality to anchor us, for all marriages are strange in some way, and in the secrets of a marriage betrayed perhaps we can feel the pathos of the spy’s life. How did George and Anne get together in the first place, we wonder, unless it was one of those marriages born at an Oxford College, featuring brains for her and glamour for him. Yes, this is upper-class, educated England of a certain generation, and why not still, and it is entirely believable.
But it’s not Smiley’s own life, but the immeasurable power of his never really expressed grief, that features as the background to A Legacy of Spies. Front of stage are Peter Guillam and Alec Leamas, polyglot masters of the pan-European disguise, and the women they love and rescue; love and betray; or, finally, lead astray unwittingly. Both are handy with their fists, but their first weapon is charm. Liz Gold, the daughter of left-wing central
European Jewish refugees in England before the war, is looking for a politically meaningful life when a partnership with Leamas is engineered. Peter Guillam, and a German woman agent codenamed Tulip, have such a physicality about them that the operation that brings them together for one snatched night transforms what is left of their lives. Tulip, run by Leamas from Berlin to be seen to provide providing a rich harvest of intelligence, is the last victim Smiley and Guillam have to count on their conscience. For Operation Windfall was a fake, from start to finish, to try to trap the traitor.
In the context of le Carré’s oeuvre one striking feature – and strikingly successful device — of this late novel is its use of intertextuality. Guillam, obliged by the latest, supremely unsympathetic generation of the security services to cooperate or else, spends the best part of 250 pages reading through top secret memos filed half a century ago. The jejune new minders who have hauled Guillam out of francophone retirement require his daily presence at a once and future safe house. They want to know what Windfall was or wasn’t.
But what do we want? To know where the house is. That Victorian pile, complete with security-cleared housekeeper and corporately accounted-for cat, where Guillam turns up to order is located somewhere in central London. Again the cover story is so topographically gripping that it seems to me every reader is ready to risk tailing the untiring professional spy to find out where that house is, in ‘reality’, in upmarket, discreet, low-key London, and thus to feel the elusive unreality of the spy’s life.
Wherever it is in the London A-Z it’s hardly a safe place for Guillam, given the sullen distrust of the latest espionage generation towards their grandfathers, and the overt dislike the old men feel for the inhabitants of the garish new headquarters at Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames. All the more welcoming then, for the reader, is the bond of trust between Guillam and that austere housekeeper who knows her trade. Having practised it for half a century, she’s a match for the bullies she now serves.
Like many writers, le Carré’s early narrative was sumptuous in the wealth of its description of the places and the people and the institutions that framed his wonderful tales of betrayal. Like most writers, the detail grows less dense in the late work. But that thinning out of the narrative texture shows just what a great writer of fiction he is. Bedevilled at various stages of his career by moderate ill-wishers who wanted to confine him to the achievement of ‘genre writing’, le Carré has deliberately avoided any confrontation with literary prizes, not to be humiliated. I remember a publisher of mine telling me ten years ago that surely le Carré was not of the top category. I should have protested more.
What A Legacy reveals is the trope at the heart of le Carré, and that’s why his work is really worth reading. It’s a trope embedded in the most ancient of stories, as when Theseus leads Ariadne out of the Maze, rescuing her from the Minataur by trailing behind him a piece of string. Couple that then with the passion of Theseus as Ariadne’s lover. The transformation, the almost Nietzschean transvaluation of all values,that Guillam and ‘Tulip’ undergo in their single night together is so intense, that, despite less than half a page of description, it is the novel’s key passage.
Supposing you believed in love and trust, and found, as you entered your final years, that your life had been devoted to betraying them. You might reach for your writerly gift one more time, to spell it out: the problem of belonging, and identity, and of the Establishment, and of the group within a group, set in a political context dependent on the rhetoric of freedom and justice, in which you have to go on believing, although life to date hasn’t exactly shown them to be flourishing, even on the better side in the Cold War.
That I suspect is le Carré’s private legacy, along with a deep, deep knowledge of what made grey, remote and mysterious East Germany tick. It was never Russia he knew, but, as a linguist, and a secret commentator and connoisseur, the GDR.