The Father And The Traitor
November 23, 2015 1:39 PM   Subscribe

The Double Life of John le Carré James Parker reviews John le Carré: The Biography, by Adam Sisman:
Writing involves betrayal, and le Carré—after his fashion and to our lasting benefit—double-crossed his own people. His Cold War novels were psychic microfilms of an Establishment hollowed out by deceit, denial, and inadequacy. They outraged his fellow spies. “I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services” was the verdict of one former colleague, late in life, on the le Carré opus. And Sisman also gives us this: “ ‘You bastard!’ a middle-aged intelligence officer, once his colleague, yelled down the room at him, as they assembled for a diplomatic dinner in Washington. ‘You utter bastard.’ ” But what else could he have done, this damaged son, this malingering schoolboy, this doubtful servant of a shrinking empire—this spiritual exile, onto whose numb body the blows had fallen—what else could he have done but make his report?
More reviews from The Seattle Times // The Guardian // The New York Times // Financial Times

Why John le Carré is more than a spy novelist
The tropes of espionage – duplicity, betrayal, disguise, clandestinity, secret knowledge, the bluff, the double bluff, unknowingness, bafflement, shifting identity – are no more than the tropes of the life that every human being lives. The fully achieved, sophisticated espionage novel works precisely because in it you find all the troubling complexities of our own lives writ large. We all lie, we all pretend, we all betray – but in the spy novel you see those fundamental aspects of human behaviour, the human predicament, under a magnifying glass. The consequences may be more cataclysmic – walls may come down, bombs explode, deaths occur – but they find their exact and pertinent echo in our own quotidian experience.
le Carre on Philip Seymour Hoffman

But what did the real 'George Smiley' think?
posted by the man of twists and turns (23 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
The mini-series, "A Perfect Spy," portrays how the psychic trauma inflicted by the con-man father makes inevitable his son's turn to a life of self-concealment and betrayal.
posted by No Robots at 2:36 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

"A Perfect Spy" is one of the saddest books I've ever read, and with that I've said a mouthful.

Weird how this is the second time today that "A Most Wanted Man" has come up in threads that I visited. I would revisit the film but I don't think I could sit through it another time... tragic. le Carré's piece on Hoffmann is one of the best I've read yet.

At any rate, I'm glad le Carré has lived this long to tell us all these stories. Soul survivor.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:41 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

It was one of the strangest moments in my life when my friend Nick finally told people that his dad was John le Carre. I was like, "Wait, that's your dad???? Holy cats!"
posted by Kitteh at 2:49 PM on November 23, 2015 [12 favorites]

I am so excited about this biography. I'm afraid to read the reviews for fear they'll spoil too much of the biography. My library has it and I'll pick it up tonight, at the beginning of Thanksgiving break. The stars are aligning!
posted by mecran01 at 3:13 PM on November 23, 2015

"We was All Bent, Son: The double life of John le Carré" by Christopher Tayler in Harper's (another very good review, and apparently also a needed reminder about cleverness in headlining)
posted by RogerB at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your friend nick is a pretty fine novelist in his own right!

That New Statesman piece was very good, clearly someone more familiar than not with le carre.

Le carre is, of course, and always has been more novelist than spy, and we are all the richer for it - though I think we should be careful, as Lee carre himself cautions - not tu read his books too seriously as either explication of shooting or spies. There are lots of ways to do both.

I thought the characterisation as "the Dickens of the cold war" was astute. Like many prolific novelists, especially tortured ones, I feel like le carre has essentially been working iterations of the same book over and over. Some are better than others. Granted his later, post cold war work lacks some of the oomph, the formula is a little more stark, the polemics more strident at the expense of character and sometimes plot.

But as a one man genre unto himself, there's nothing like le carre. I know, I've looked.
posted by smoke at 3:54 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

He reminds me a lot of Faulkner. He sucks you in and then depresses the bloody hell out of you. I never recommend either.
posted by bukvich at 4:00 PM on November 23, 2015

That should be spying and spies, not shooting.
posted by smoke at 4:06 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've only read three or four of his but The Spy Who Came in From the Cold put me in a funk for at least a week.
posted by octothorpe at 4:12 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Basically before Nick was a writer, he was a guy that had the best chocolate cake recipe known to man. I wish I still had it!
posted by Kitteh at 4:17 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had no idea this biography was coming; I saw the thread on my phone at work and immediately placed an order. So, thanks for that.

John le Carre is my very favorite author - I developed a borderline unhealthy obsession with his work in high school, with my very first read through of Tinker Tailor. It's hard to put my finger on what captivated me so - it was so understated when compared against anything else I would have picked up during my youth. But against a litany of secret agent archetypes from that era - from Bourne to Bauer - the false stakes of the modern 'secret agent' archetype felt so much less anxiety inducing than the bureaucratic Cold War dread of the Circus.

One of his main themes is the utter pointlessness of spy craft- a paranoid game fought by broken people in a larger war over nothing at all. And I think there's not enough credit given to his humor. There's a real sense of farce as your listen to Lacon prattle on about his wife's lover or his daughters boarding school as they catch up on investigations into high level intelligence breaches and murdered Russian emigres. But no matter how futile their work may be, you couldn't help but be swept up by the supposed romance of their craft. "I used to love those double-double games. All human life was there." quipped one his favorite and most tragic bit characters.

For all the hand wringing over the supposed post 9/11 shift from a public image of spies as the suave and gentlemanly Bond to that of Baur, to that of the reluctant savior pulling people's fingernails out with a pair of pliers... I think le Carre had it largely right the first time around. The spy is neither the debonair knight nor the blunt weapon standing between us and oblivion. They are the exasperated civil servants, fighting silent battles of utter complexity and complete irrelevance.
posted by the_querulous_night at 4:18 PM on November 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

The older I get, the more I realise that the one aspect of humanity that engages me the most is hypocrisy. Cruelty, greed, love, compassion, despair, courage, nobility, self-destruction... these are all fine and terrible things, and, my dears, they bore me to death. Hypocrisy still stirs me to anger, as honesty stirs me to tears.

I think that's why le Carré fascinates me, as espionage in general fascinates me. He describes - and has lived, and to some extent lives - hypocrisy in its purest form, because that's the job of a spy, as honesty is the job of a spy. It's hard, when you look back over the Cold War, to tell who ended up doing the most good and the most harm - the honest or the hypocritical, the true spy or the double-agent. So many secrets led to so many bad assumptions, so many leaked truths led to such understanding, within organisations and between them.

And it is such a metaphor for being human, as the Harpers review says. We are all alone in our heads, fighting our own corner, and so needful of the company of others, who we cannot know but must.

I doubt I'll sort this out before I die. But I doubt too that I'll stop trying. Le Carré captures that irony, and I don't think you can see much deeper beneath the skin of our scalps than that.
posted by Devonian at 4:25 PM on November 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

"The Dickens of the cold war". I'm not sure about that, but I often read writers until I get their measure. With both Dickens and Le Carre, I have read most of their books, because their measure is large. "A perfect Spy" is a superb book, and must be Le Carre's "Great Expectations".
posted by acrasis at 4:48 PM on November 23, 2015

From "A Perfect Spy," lines that have stuck with me: "Rick's spirits are back, because the flick-knife never shows for long and because he has already achieved the object that is more important to him than any other in his human dealings, even if he himself does not yet know it. He has inspired Makepeace to hold two totally divergent opinions of him and perhaps more. He has shown him the official and unofficial versions of his identity. He has taught him to respect Rick in his complexity and to reckon as much with Rick's secret world as with his overt one."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:55 PM on November 23, 2015

"The anecdote concerns a rendezvous, in an Austrian saloon, with a Czech airman who has information to sell. Le Carré and a colleague enter the bar and order a couple of beers. When le Carré picks up a pool cue and leans over to make a shot, his gun falls out of his waistband with a clang. “Abort,” says his colleague, between sips of his pint."

Moscow rules.
posted by Trochanter at 4:57 PM on November 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

It was one of the strangest moments in my life when my friend Nick finally told people that his dad was John le Carre. I was like, "Wait, that's your dad???? Holy cats!"

You're referring to Nick Harkaway, aren't you. Holy shit, that's a buried fucking lede, right there. I adore him. Not to diminish Le Carré's deservedly legendary career, but I fucking love Nick Harkaway, too.
posted by shmegegge at 6:01 PM on November 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've always thought that 'Tinker Tailor..' deserved a Nobel Prize or something like that. The intricate deliberate plotting with those cool icy little plot fragments gently falling into place...
posted by ovvl at 6:33 PM on November 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

It was one of the strangest moments in my life when my friend Nick finally told people that his dad was John le Carre. I was like, "Wait, that's your dad???? Holy cats!"

I've read two le Carre books and kind of stopped there.

I've read all three of Nick Harkaway's books and can't wait for the next.

Your friend is awesome, and I hope you tell him some random guy in St. Louis told him that next time you see him.
posted by Ufez Jones at 6:43 PM on November 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

But as a one man genre unto himself, there's nothing like le carre. I know, I've looked.

Read Graham Greene. They overlap in many ways. Both writers who spied and/or spies who wrote.
posted by Fizz at 7:01 PM on November 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I love A Perfect Spy and often think of the line, "Ideals are like the stars. We cannot reach them, but we are enriched by their presence."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:17 PM on November 23, 2015

I just reread A Perfect Spy and was reminded of how much I love the early Le Carre books. Rereading more of them is going to be one of my winter projects.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:22 PM on November 23, 2015

I already have so many things to read - this biography now among them - that I feel bad for even considering re-reading.... but.... yeah. I guess I will be pulled back into that world.
posted by rtha at 7:28 PM on November 23, 2015

I love A Perfect Spy, and Le Carre in general.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:18 AM on November 25, 2015

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