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The Author Who Came in from the Cold (on John Le Carre’)

 

 

“We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean…one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold…d’you see what I mean?”

“I can’t talk like this, Control. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.”

                                        –Control and Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

 

On Sunday, my favorite author died at 89 years of age. John Le Carre’, born David Cornwell, wrote mostly stories of intrigue– okay, there’s no point in being coy; they were spy novels. After thirty years of reading his work I forget now how I found him. No doubt I stumbled upon his work having outgrown Ian Fleming and the James Bond stories. While grateful to the imp or muse that put the first of LeCarre’s compelling titles in in my hands, I was like a child wading for the first time into the sea: the water was  indifferent to my incursion, however, with the experience of such an imposing new realm, I would never be the same.

About fifteen years ago, having read and re-read his books many times over, it occurred to me that some of those books–some of the somber places he led me to in the world he crafted–left a pall over my mood for days after closing the back cover. As a child, the author had been betrayed by an absent mother and left in the care of a confidence-man father.  His most poignant novel, A Perfect Spy, was close to autobiographical. It chronicled the life of a boy raised by a master deceiver and  his formation into a master British spy. LeCarre’s books would reprise the same dark themes:

“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”

“The opposite of Love isn’t hate, it’s apathy.”

And yet despite the shadowy and “cold” world of espionage, LeCarre’ managed to reveal other, “warmer” themes. Nearly all the stories pitted individuals against the machinery of institutions–first it was governments and later it became corrupt forces of greed and power.

And yet despite the shadowy and “cold” world of espionage, LeCarre’ managed to reveal other, “warmer” themes. Nearly all the stories pitted individuals against the machinery of institutions–first it was governments and later it became corrupt forces of greed and power.

Fighting for honor, justice, freedom, his characters were humans at their shining best: they had found enough purpose to do whatever it took. For some, though, coming “in from the cold” meant the ultimate sacrifice. You never quite knew when the story  began whether his protagonist would survive, or what’s worse if they didn’t, whether their struggle had even made a difference.

You never quite knew when the story  began whether his protagonist would survive, or what’s worse if they didn’t, whether their struggle had even made a difference.

For the first half of his writing career, the plot mostly pitted British Intelligence against the forces of the Soviet Union. His big success was his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The 1965 movie, in black-and-white, starred Richard Burton as Leamas.  Later came Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, about the hunt for a high-ranking “mole” in MI6. By this time, Lecarre’ had a recurring hero: George Smiley.  In terms of the James Bond template, he was an anti-spy: plump, bespectacled, and with the air of a mature professor. He was, as the books described him, almost “invisible.”  Yet he was tireless, methodical and even devious in his tradecraft.  Tinker, Tailor was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Gary Oldman. My favorite film made from his books was The Russia House with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.  A later favorite book was a series of reminiscences by a veteran British spy “Ned”–a key character from The Russia House. It was called “The Secret Pilgrim” and it chronicled a career of espionage, examining through a lens of potent episodes the question of conscience: did it do any good?

About 1990, after the Berlin Wall had come down and the Iron Curtain had risen, Lecarre’ stories found new conflicts and new causes. He wrote about the global crimes before the headlines appeared: money-laundering (Our Kind of Traitor), arms dealing (The Night Manager), or the ham-handed War on Terror (A Most Wanted Man, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film).

Reading his books transported me to Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and to the fierce world of the Caucasus Mountains countries (Our Game). I visited Panama (The Tailor of Panama, later a film with Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan), and Africa (The Constant Gardner, the film with Rachel Weisz and Ray Fiennes). It goes without saying that multiple plots were set in the U.K. and on the Continent–both East and West.

If one were to go solely by this depiction, LeCarre’ was a mere genre writer, contriving complex plots and developing exotic characters. But he had the ear for language and dialect–having studied in Switzerland and later having taught languages at Eton. He was also a fan of the German poets and had the eye and ear of a poet himself.  In one interview he admitted that the lines he most often redacted out were those “bits of gorgeous prose that stuck out like sore thumb…”  But in devouring more and more of his work, the habit for me became not “reading” so much as “listening.”  One of his most romantic characters (from Our Game) was Larry Pettifer, an outspoken professor who found a cause in the people of Ingushetia, still under Soviet oppression. In the form of a letter to the lover he stole from his friend, the British agent who ran him (and later hoped to save him), he wrote:

In life, as we both know, it’s the luck of the draw, who you meet and when and how much you have left to give, and the point at which you say, To hell with everything, this is where I go the distance, this is where I stick. You know those photos of old fellows in their great big mountain capes, their bourkas? Well, in an uneven fight, when a North Caucasus warrior is surrounded by enemies, he will throw his bourka to the ground and stand on it to show he will not retreat one step from the surface covered by his bourka. Me, I throw down my bourka somewhere on the road to Vladikavkaz, on a perfect winter’s day, when the whole of Creation is sitting up ahead of you, inviting you to come in, whatever the risk and whatever the cost.

Years ago, I made a small poster of it and kept it on my kitchen wall.

They say when authors die, they become their books. I have nearly all of them.

–WRH

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Victoria M.
    December 19, 2020 at 10:32 am — Reply

    Thank you for writing this, Bill. I think I’m going to 1) watch Russia House and 2) select a LeCarre novel to read over the winter break!

    • Avatar
      December 19, 2020 at 7:17 pm — Reply

      Great! Thanks for reading. The books can take a while to get into the real action.

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