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Friday, December 18, 2020

John LeCarré, Historian

 John LeCarré's extraordinary career as a novelist has ended with his death.  I have learned some new things about him from obituaries and reminiscences that have been published in the last few days.  I discovered him at the same time that most of the world did: in 1964, when I was 17, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold  hit the western world with the impact of a small nuclear weapon.  From then until the end of the Cold War I believe that I read each of his books roughly at the time that it  came out, and beginning in 1978, when I taught my own lecture course for the first time, I found ways to work him into my teaching. It was in the 1980s when finally realized what the underlying point of his Cold War thrillers was--of which more later.  In the thirty years since the fall of the wall that was the scene of the opening and final scenes of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I read his books more intermittently, and I'm sorry right now that I don't have more of them in my personal library upon which to draw.  By by  the last decade, at the latest, it was clear that he had found a new theme.  He emerged, for me, as the critical western historical novelist of the 20th and 21st centuries, because he identified the  most serious human diseases of both the Cold War era and the  very different era that has succeeded it.  Both of them related to a central problem of human existence: individual allegiance to a greater good.

LeCarré's own career as a spy had soured him on the profession, and The Spy Who Came in  From the Cold (whose plot I will have to give away--spoiler alert), showed his disillusionment.  Alec Leamas, its protagonist, is a hard-drinking, burned out agent who   has watched the whole network the British Secret Service has established within East Germany (or "the Zone," as he insists on calling it, since Britain and  the NATO alliance didn't recognize it as a country), fall one by one to East German counterintelligence, led by an ex-Nazi, Hans-Dieter Mundt. I didn't realize when I read Spy that  LeCarré' had laid the foundation for it in an earlier, little known book, Call For the Dead, in which Mundt, then working in London, had killed several people, and nearly killed LeCarré's most famous creation, George Smiley, who played a background role in Spy. Back in London after watching his last agent shot at the wall, Leamas meets Control,  the never-named head of the service who became the tragic hero of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy about a dozen  years later.  Control convinces him to "take another crack" at Mundt.  To do so, Leamas plays the role of a drunken, violent, disillusioned ex-agent, whom East German agents eventually try to recruit to tell them what he can about British intelligence and its assets in their homeland.  This eventually leads him into East Germany.

The man behind his recruitment, it turns out,  is Lens Fiedler, Mundt's Jewish deputy, whose family first fled to Canada under the Nazis, but who returned, dedicated Communists that they were,  to help build the new socialist  Utopia.  Fiedler has watched  the destruction of Leamas's network from a different angle.  He has managed to identify some of these agents, but Mundt has managed to find ways to kill them before he could interrogate them.  Fiedler now suspects that Mundt is himself a British agent, the source of Leamas's best intelligence on the East German secret service istelf--recruited at the end of Mundt's stationing in Britain, when  he  had managed somehow to slip out of the country even though he was wanted for murder.   Leamas quietly encourages Fiedler's suspicions, partly by telling him that they could not be true.  This, we realize, is the whole point of Control's operation--to get Fiedler to take down Mundt by validating his suspicions.

In the novel's shattering climax, played out at Mundt's trial for treason, Leamas, and we, learn that he has been played all along by his own side. Using Leamas's younger lover Liz Gold--an idealistic, Jewish British Communist whom he met on his first job after leaving the Service--Mundt at the trial manages to show that Leamas is still working for the Service and has in fact come on a mission to destroy Mundt.  Fiedler becomes the villain of the piece in the eyes of the East Germans, and Mundt is saved from  his suspicions. In return he promises to let Leamas and Liz (who had been lured to East Germany under false pretenses so that she could testify) escape back over the Wall.  But Mundt hates Liz for her Jewishness, and guards shoot her as she climbs up the wall.  George Smiley, suddenly emerging on the other side of the wall, calls upon Leamas to jump to the western side, but he does not. Instead he climbs down on the other side, almost forcing the East German guards to shoot him so that he can die with Liz.  They are, as the last image of the book makes clear, two lowly individuals caught up in a great ideological struggle, crushed between the two great rivals of the East and West.  

When I read that book at 17 in the midst of the Cold War,  I felt that Leamas at the end had had to give up his role in the struggle, without questioning its broader purpose--which he defends, a bit too desperately, in his last conversation with Liz just before their deaths.  It was much later that I realized  LeCarré was asking whether the struggle had any real meaning for the average person at all.  The clue came from the plot of Spy, but also from that of his other masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and really, I saw, from all the Cold War novels.  The issues that  the plots turned on never had any relevance to anyone but t he spies themselves.   A British or Soviet or East German "mole"--a foreign spy within their own service--never provided any information, in these books, except information about his own spy service.  Their deadly game was like a war between Mafia families, and had even less impact on anyone else's life, except those like Liz Gold drawn in as innocent bystanders. 

That point became more explicit in The Russia House, published ironically in 1989, and based upon a key true episode of the Reagan era.  During the 1980s, the US spent billions (and planned to spend billions more) based on a gross overestimate of the accuracy of Soviet missiles--an overestimate that suggested that  the whole US deterrent was vulnerable to a first strike.  In real life, two prized agents of the US within the Soviet mission in the UN--code-named Top Hat and Fedora--had told their handlers that the Soviet ICBMs were nowhere near as accurate as we had thought. So devastating was that information to US defense planners that they concluded that Top Hat and Fedora were double agents and henceforth discounted their information.  That theory in turn collapsed when the Soviets caught Top Hat and Fedora spying, brought them back to the USSR, and executed them.   In The Russia House, an anonymous Russian operative presents a British private citizen with a manuscript revealing what Top Hat and Fedora had said--that Soviet missiles were nowhere near as accurate as US intelligence thought.  But as a condition of providing the material, the Russian--who, standing in for    LeCarré', has grasped  the secret of the Cold War struggle--demands that the Brit release it publicly, rather than turn it over to intelligence services who will find a way to pooh-pooh it because it threatens their own mission!  Alas, the novel's protagonist doesn't manage to make this happen, but meanwhile, as The Russia House climbed the best seller lists, the USSR collapsed, and we found ourselves in a new era.

Within a little more than a decade, LeCarré had found his new theme. The protagonists of his new books  became relatively ordinary men and women who, out of either idealism or simple chance, learn about some private wrongdoing.  In The Constant Gardener, (2001), a British diplomat (not a spy) named Justin Quayle suffers the murder of his wife in Kenya.  He eventually finds that she was killed by a major drug company, after she had discovered that they had conducted a fatal medical experiment on some Kenyans.  It turns out, however, that the drug company has far too much influence around the world--including on the British government--to be called to account.  (I remember one reviewer who made another interesting argument:  that such companies were so impervious to criticism that the murder of the wife would have been entirely unnecessary.)  Similarly, in Our Kind of Traitor(2010), a British academic named Perry Makepiece on a Caribbean holiday meets a Russian oligarch who wants to use Makepiece as a conduit to British intelligence.  The oligarch, Dima Krasnov, wants to buy some international protection from a rival oligarch by providing information on criminal activities.  It turns out,  however, that Krasnov's rival has more influence in Britain than he does, and the story ends very badly for both Krasnov and Makepiece.  Some of the other later books reminded me of The Wire.  Anyone who has any integrity, who takes his job seriously, and who tries to do the right thing is likely to be seriously screwed over.

The world of spies was only one small corner of the  world of the Cold War, and certainly one of the more dysfunctional corners.  The allegiance that world demanded of the spies and of us all could be very cruel, and a new generation in the western world and in the east bloc as well rebelled against it and left that world.  Yet the new world  they created,  LeCarré ultimately felt, was worse. Like Balzac comparing  the 1830s to the Napoleonic era, he concluded that without the value of service to the state, a pure selfish individualism had taken over, with disastrous consequences. LeCarré left behind one more prediction.  Donald Trump, he said, seemed to him a carbon copy of his own father, a con man whom he immortalized in A Perfect Spy. For that reason he was convinced that Trump would eventually turn out to have no assets at all.   I will be watching to see if he was right.



Bozon said...

Wonderful post.

I had just, coincidentally, posted one of your old posts, re intelligence matters.

You seem seldom to have gotten into these matters on the blog.

My amateur interest had run to European history more generally, and then to disclosures re WWII and pre WWII Soviet penetration here.

Different topics, but related.

All the best

Unknown said...

This post is one reason why your views are so interesting and unusual. From Harpers - "People like Brodsky and his cohort --- intellectuals for whom 'existence which ignores the standards professed in literature is inferior and unworthy of effort" are rare in any time and place."

Bozon said...

I never read spy novels.
What I liked was Secret Agent.
That had some episodes which savored of the betrayal of Drake by his own agency, or his friends going rogue, that one sees in LeCarre.
McGoohan really made the series. He was the kind and quality of actor that Fleming envisioned.
All the best

Bozon said...

What followed in the train of Secret Agent was, of course, The Prisoner, sounding similar themes in many ways of LeCarre, and of which McGoohan, who himself ran most of it, was justifiably quite proud.
It richly deserved the cult following it had, even though they, the cult, felt betrayed by how it ended, and by what it might ultimately have meant.
All the best

Energyflow said...

My mother read his works. I noticed over the weekend that he had died, about a year younger than her so Isuppose the worldview, silent, was the same. As he, and any intelligent person must have realized, in a corrupt society, an honest man lives dangerously. The cold war gave us simple enemies. Wealth, oligarchy and corruption seems to be the current structural problem but the masses remain unaware of this, focused on identity politics. If we go back to the civil war period we find that there are two massively variant interpretations of its origins. One focuses on human rights and the other on state's rights vs centralization of power. The idea of a Le Carre type novelist of those days might have been that abolitionism was a good pretext for cynical industrialists to consolidate power in Washington. Nowadays we see how corporations eliminate bill of rights freedoms inside the country and globally autonomy of any other country on the same pretext. So a few billionaire weapons manufacturers and internet moguls can clamp down on speech, assembly and instigate coups at will, controlling from their mansions in the name of good while the masses suffer. Lenin and Stalin were absolutist and saw themselves as agents of good.

Energyflow said...


I thought of how this plays out on a daily level. Class differences were in earlier decades as when my mother was born into an English middle class household, apparent. Nowadays culture separates nobody so that the concept of class differences due to wealth seem odd. If I can listen to the same pop music, watch the same movies, etc then I feel much the same as a billionaire who is maybe living better but hears hip hop, rap, oldies,etc too. Everyone runs around in jeans and a t-shirt and even rich people generally tend to their own households and children. And everyone has a car, the great equalizer and general modern amenities are taken for granted( frdge, electricity). These are great equalizers. Even in working class jobs the work is not as before, in 19th century, hard and brutal. 8 hour days, worker's right, paid vacation take off the sting. One feels civilized and free. Education is further understood to allow one to climb up the social lader materially. So the concept of class as a true identity with extreme hardship is nonexistent. In 1900 in England 10% of jobs were household servants, cementing the differences. With the advent of the washing machine and packaged foods rich or poor needed no house servants or washing maids. Physical work became much less a defining element in life. The class struggle obviously was the founding element of the West- East struggle as well based on hundreds of years of serfdom in Russia. As life became more amenable generally the basis of the class struggle disappeared also in the East bloc and the wall fell. In general humans need internal and external identity groups, i.e. friends and enemies. So since class is gone, due to a more comfortable existence, then we return to cultural superficialities and external markers to mark territory. Looking purely from the long term, if one were to live hundreds of years and have distinct memories of the brutality of life without amenities one would laugh at weak differences brought forth for brutal hatreds between the two sides in America's divide nowadays(gays, abortion rights, etc) or the flimsy excuses for renewed cold war against Russia( Christian capitalists minding own business). Way back when people had serious problems like starvation, freezing, 16 hour work days. Nowadays politicians can hardly talk to one another on flimsy childish pretexts and billionaires have accumulated 90% of wealth, income but that is ignored as people are too excited by watching infotainment and being lazy physically and mentally to care except for arguing about faux differences betweens two political parties advanced so we can have any identity at all. Like having a gun and going fishing is an identity way of life or doing yoga, city life is too. I mean like I can mix country western, hip hop, yoga, fishing, high literature, etc all under one hat just by changing channels , getting out a bit. As generations move on I think what seems significant barriers will simply dissolve and crumble. Younger people get used to everything together in mix and don't care. Where govt policies screw up the govts go bankrupt. Texas gets loads of wealthy inflows and Cali gets all the homeless beggars. Chicago, Illinois go bankrupt. If leftwing is failing financially then it will likely fail in fulfilling lifting minorities, integrating immigrant communities just by mouthing empty slogans and making speech rules nobody understands so a few people will avoid being offended. So things even out over time as reality plays out. Kids in the sixties rejected parent's arguments, worldview. We must hope that we stumble through the next decade without a major international war or civil war( or perhaps that would solve some differences for awhile). The kids born now will see us all as hypocrites anyway and turn to drugs and sex or similar in twenty years to forget politics just like hippies did.

Energyflow said...

Cold War was so meamingless at local level of spies. I recall in recent years a similar shady phenomenon which reflects dirty dealings at a high level, suiciding of bankers. People with inside information on corruption who work in middle management get disposed of. This is the current cold war, corporate style.

Energyflow said...

Cold War was so meamingless at local level of spies. I recall in recent years a similar shady phenomenon which reflects dirty dealings at a high level, suiciding of bankers. People with inside information on corruption who work in middle management get disposed of. This is the current cold war, corporate style.

Tar MacAdam said...

David, I remember reading Le Carre, Orwell, Fallada, Solzhenitsyn, and Pasternak under your guidance at CMU for a seminar. It was wonderful to read so much great lit with a historian. The class was serious but also joyful. I live in Paris now and Balzac is everywhere here - at least in my mind when I walk around town. I wish I had had the opportunity to read him with you. Maudlin bs aside, I'm grateful for your insights past and present. Kind regards, Dennis

David Kaiser said...

Dear Dennis,

I opened your comment now on Christmas Day, and it was a lovely Christmas present. That course, of course, was about the 20th century, and I hadn't read much Balzac then--I've read more now. And books like La Cousine Bette are more similar to the America of the 2010s than that of the 1980s! Please give me more of a report at KaiserD2@gmail.com. And full disclosure: I'm not coming up with a face to match your name. My autobiography, by the way, has a lot to say about Carnegie Mellon.