A Different Sort of Englishness
John le Carré has defected. His new novel, his twenty-second, Our Kind of Traitor, finds him in the hands of a new agent and publisher. Penguin’s deal-clincher seems to have been their offer to bring out his back catalogue in their UK Modern Classics range. Le Carré, entering his ninth decade and “concerned about posterity”, couldn’t refuse. It’s a win-win for both sides. Penguin secures a writer who can still sell to the masses and attract critical praise; le Carré gets admitted to literary Valhalla whilst showing no sign of running out of steam. For some it might feel more than a little off-putting: still at work and watching your own mausoleum being erected around you.
But le Carré is a writer who has never been unnerved, despite setbacks of his own making or those caused by the then-current political status quo. For the former there is the problem he faced of having peaked too soon – his third novel, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, performed the double trick of both nailing and transcending the spy genre. Thereafter he had to weather a couple of semi-flops (including an almighty belly-flop with The Naive and Sentimental Lover, where he ditched the spooks and tried his hand at something…worthier?) before finding his feet again with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The prime case of the latter was the fall of the Berlin Wall – an end-game with the Circus versus Moscow Centre would surely signify game over for the writer. But in all cases he has consistently proved the sceptics wrong by bouncing back, refreshed, hunting out new arenas of conflict.
And it is conflict which lies at the core of a le Carré novel, but what elevates him above his peers is his aptitude for reflecting the conflict that plays out on the global stage – conflict which besieges the consciences of his battle-scarred heroes. His American readers know this and consequently have always had him sussed. Stateside he is high-brow, a practitioner of literature no less, his finger on the pulse of geopolitical turmoil and governmental machinations – a writer who skewers political hypocrisy while homing in on the little people caught in the crossfire, agents and innocents alike.
In Britain that would be considered too generous an assessment. For all his strengths, he is viewed by UK readers as a genre writer through and through, lumped in with the crime and detective fiction and never troubling a Booker shortlist. Philip Roth famously called A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war.” Salman Rushdie infamously slated The Russia House for its “stick-figure-like” characters and, worse, its literary pretensions: “Le Carré wants to be taken seriously…close but – this time, anyway – no cigar.”
There will be dissenters who disapprove of Penguin’s latest addition to its Hall of Fame, perhaps the same voices who sneered at Eric Ambler’s anointment last year. However le Carré is assessed, there seems to be a unanimous chorus that proclaims him peerless in his chosen field: his mentor, Graham Greene, passed the baton and then his crown after heaping superlatives on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Len Deighton ploughed his own furrow, producing an admirable catalogue whose strengths lie in his historical treatments – world war rather than cold war, and the magnificent family saga, Winter. Of the present crop, no young pretender to his throne is in danger of leapfrogging him, let alone within head-height of snatching his crown – Charles Cumming and Daniel Silva’s spy-by-numbers lacking their master’s depth, forever ill-lit in his considerable shadow.
It is tempting to believe that le Carré doesn’t care about critics or competition. He is already on record as saying he has no time for the “literary bureaucracy” (his Cornish retreat being a redoubt and therefore a rebuff to London’s literary hegemony) and that he has never been au courant with his fellow stable-mates. As ever, the clues are in the writing: there is no niggling suspicion on the reader’s part that over the course of his career he has been forced to up his game to cater to new trends and markets, or dumb down with Spooks-style gadgetry and pyrotechnics. And yet the Rushdie quote must have stung, in the same measure that the Roth one would have delighted. Peer pressure carries the same weight as peer praise. And what else other than pressure is behind this talk of posterity? Whenever artists refer to their posterity, of the possibility of their work living on after they have gone, we know that lurking somewhere is an anxiety of accomplishment – a questioning of worth. One feels le Carré is inviting arraignment from his critics, that their knives are once again being unsheathed for the whetstone. It might have been better had his motive for defection been financial gain, revenge or plain old vainglory.
Turning to the book that made the deal, Our Kind of Traitor’s very title instantly tells us we are on familiar le Carré turf. This is spy-speak. But as with his better titles there is ambiguity. What kind of traitor are we dealing with and who, indeed, is the ‘our’? In this respect it is reminiscent of 1995’s Our Game – who is the ‘our’ and what game are they playing? (It might be no coincidence that his underperforming novels are those with the leaden, too-literal titles – The Naive and Sentimental Lover, The Night Manager, The Tailor of Panama – which seem to be slapped on as an afterthought.) Treachery, of course, has been explored and excogitated from the early novels on, but for the first time we see it get top-billing.
There is a final quote from Roth that is of interest here, the line that purportedly killed his first marriage: “In my imagination I am unfaithful to everybody”. Le Carré’s treacheries come in all shapes and sizes (“betrayal is a repetitious trade,” he has said), but his traitors often go the whole hog and betray everything – not only their state and their friends but also their partners. Sophie, in The Night Manager, betrays her lover, the villainous Roper, by bedding our hero Jonathan Pine and providing him with secrets concerning Roper’s arms dealing. The cuckold, George Smiley, is betrayed twice by the same character, Bill Haydon. And Magnus Pym in le Carré’s magnum opus, A Perfect Spy, is unfaithful to everybody, including, ultimately himself. “Love is whatever you can still betray” runs the novel’s bleak message. Infidelity becomes a leitmotif but a mutable one, one that gets the kaleidoscopic shuffle throughout the course of le Carré’s career, or when he is at his best, throughout a single book.
Our Kind of Traitor opens with a thirty-something couple, Perry and Gail, meeting Dima, a Russian, on holiday on Antigua. Dima has a bejewelled Rolex and a dolphin smile and enjoys a game of tennis. During a match with Perry, Gail and the reader get to meet his family on the spectators’ stand. They are nouveau riche Russians in the sun, their house on the island bought with cash-filled laundry baskets. Dima’s wife is devout (“God-smacked”) rather than the traditional peroxide moll, and his teenage daughter is no loud spoilt brat, instead happy to shun conversation and immerse herself in Turgenev. Yes, so Dima, on the other hand, is partial to vodka and chess and belongs to an “outlaw band of Russians” but he has to be to be believable. Le Carré has said that “every fiction writer would rather be credible than authentic”, and so consequently it should be allowable for Dima to speak English like Tony Soprano doing pidgin, and to use “pussy” and “suicide” as verbs. It certainly lessens the blow when we learn that when taking a break from his criminal activities he loves to read Charlotte Brontë.
We get to the crunch when one night Dima confides in Perry. Dima’s protégé, Misha, has been murdered by The Prince, a Russian kingpin with more power than Dima and his brotherhood. He also happens to be “the traitor of traitors”. Dima’s time is running out. Perry must broker a deal between British Intelligence and Dima, the Russian who is coming in from the cold. The spies will get the lowdown on a new bank being set up in the City funded by laundered cash, plus a list of the venal British grandees who have acquired a percentage to turn a blind eye or green-light the go-ahead. Perry is sure to help because he is Dima’s “professor of fair play”. Gail may be the lawyer but Perry is the real crusader for justice. We are told that physically Perry has “a different sort of Englishness” to Gail, and that to Dima he is, character-wise, thoroughly and decently English: he has taught cricket to Dima’s kids, and during the tennis match he overlooked one of Dima’s out-balls. There is reciprocal admiration here: while Dima is a sucker for Perry’s “Englishness”, Perry is attracted to Dima’s “differentness”. But after a life of crime, Dima now wants a piece of that fair play: once in Britain the spooks must arrange for his sons to go to Eton and his daughter to Roedean. Respectability can be purchased, just like everything ever since Dima hit the big time.
Crucially, though, Perry must know that Dima isn’t a “bitch” or a “dog” or even a “woodpecker”. Dima is no traitor. He’s selling secrets, not for profit but preservation. Le Carré challenges us to analyse the many motives for betrayal, what fuels the spies we lose and those we gain. If we forget the spies we recruited because they realised they weren’t being paid enough in their own, enemy lands (cash-for-secrets is unsavoury) and airbrush out the Cambridge Five (ideological grounds for betrayal are complicated), then if the English represent fair play, does that make him, Dima, our kind of traitor? After all, what cause could be nobler than that of protecting your family from imminent danger? There is another motive of course, namely betrayal as a means of resistance to an abhorrent and repressive regime. In Penguin’s other recent publishing coup, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, Otto Quangel fights the state in his own, small way, and is labelled an ingrate for being a traitor by Judge Feisler. Quangel should be grateful to the state. The point of his “treachery” is to stand up and be counted, to resist, even though Inspector Escherich compares his futile struggle to that of a gnat versus an elephant. Quengel retaliates with: “You see it doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.” Le Carré has given us one-man armies before, both good and bad; Barley Blair in The Russia House cut his deal with the Soviets in order to get his beloved Katya out; and Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor, reputedly modelled on Kim Philby, is on Moscow Centre’s payroll due to a deep-seated loathing for the Americans. This time round le Carré doesn’t give his traitor any cause to fight for or believe in, but that doesn’t reduce his impact as a character, for as a marked man his plight is different. With little chance of being able to take on The Prince and his mightier crime syndicate Dima needs to escape, not resist.
The Antigua scenes in the book are spliced with Perry and Gail’s debriefing in London. Antigua is past and the events are being reported now, in a Bloomsbury basement. Their interlocutors, Luke and Yvonne, are only lightly sketched and deliberately so. Like many of their predecessor these spooks have to stay wraith-like in order to flesh out the main players. The bouncing back in time and tense is a le Carré trope. But while previous books employed this non-linear narrative with regular interspersed flashbacks, Our Kind of Traitor relies too much on back-story blended with present story. In recent years le Carré has opted for short blocks of text separated by asterisks – a series of jump-cut sequences, sometimes mere paragraphs. This is useful when signifying a time-shift or place-change, but as the plot of this book unfolds the reader realises there is no need to carve up the narrative in this way. Conversations peter out just when they are getting interesting; drama stalls on the verge of great discovery or development. To give le Carré his credit, he is remarkably adept at ending a segment on a strong note – the last sentence sometimes being the equivalent of a plosive drop-shot, unable to come back on, and by turn terse, trenchant, pithy or intriguingly mundane. But when the scene dies prematurely we are left wondering why. Did he get bored with it? Was he keeping to a regimented daily word-count, not daring to go over? When they are too short and refuse to connect with the bigger picture they are nothing more than vignettes. At their worst we are even put in mind of Nabokov’s disinterred The Original of Laura with its fragments of text arranged in perforated boxes to rearrange at the reader’s whim.
There is another potential problem with the structure of the book’s opening. Again, there is nothing new in his choice of structure – an event, a tantalising premise, followed by an interview or interrogation or debriefing. The story unfurls for us and the characters and their motives are unveiled – with us, the reader, sometimes able to see what they reveal and what they choose to hold back. But The Looking Glass War (1965) started with the death of an agent in Finland and then moved onto Fred Leiser’s reactivation and briefing for his assignment to East Germany; Tinker Tailor gave us the failure of Operation Testify in Czechoslovakia, followed by Smiley being brought up to speed about a possible mole in the Circus; and The Little Drummer Girl (1983) began with “the Bad Godesberg incident”, the bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s house, and then moved on to Kurtz questioning and priming Charlie for her mission. And the event in Our Kind of Traitor before Perry and Gail’s debriefing? The tennis match on Antigua.
But le Carré pulls it off. It is a lesson in understatement. Perry doesn’t cheat and Dima doesn’t vow revenge. Also, unlike the stultifying squash match in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and the tennis match in Sebastian Faulk’s spy-lite Devil May Care, both of which comprise a whole chapter, this one, and the later one in Paris, is all the more effective due to its brevity. The prose is stripped back, bordering on prosaic, and the lack of drama only leaves us hungry for what might follow.
Perry has served four aces in a row, just as he did against the Indian couple, but he’s overhitting, knows it, doesn’t give a damn. Replying to Dima’s service, he does what he wouldn’t dream of doing unless he was at the top of his game and playing a far weaker opponent: he stands forward, toes practically on the service line, taking the ball on the half-volley, angling it across court or flipping it just inside the tramlines to where the baby-faced bodyguard stands with his arms folded.
Where le Carré becomes unstuck is with the actual debriefing. “Every last dreary detail” is what Yvonne wants from them, always a risky statement to put in a character’s mouth – akin to someone mouthing “My story is long and I fear you may find it tedious”. “Florid, but accurate”, Perry tells Gail after one description. The reader settles down and knows he is in it for the long haul. Admirers may love the detail and a character’s every twitch. Detractors may think they have been sold a thriller under false pretences. Only after a hundred pages have the couple unloaded their tale and agreed to undergo training in preparation for their next rendezvous with Dima. Like a tennis match, the exchanges vary – sometimes frenetic, sometimes sluggishly mechanical. Essentially, this large section of the book reads like a prologue – meaning we are in roman numerals for an extremely long time. But le Carré doesn’t do telescoping, as we witnessed with the lengthy conference in 2006’s The Mission Song, and at this stage in his career no one is going to tell him what to do.
Meanwhile we have met Hector, the spy-chief who will mastermind Perry and Gail’s mission. Le Carré introduces him gradually, a little more of him surrendered with each utterance. He has recruited Luke, and so we are slyly informed that Luke hasn’t been completely in control during Perry and Gail’s interview. This is spy territory and so the characters as well as the readers are only fed information on a need-to-know basis. With this pass-the-parcel power-shift we are forced to revise our opinion incrementally as to who is really in the driving-seat: Dima calling the shots? Perry and Gail playing ball and weighing up whether to go the extra mile? Luke and Yvonne as the charming puppet-masters? No, it is Hector who is in control, at least until, with even more salami tactics, le Carré presents us with his boss, Billy Boy Matlock, with the clout to veto everyone and everything.
As the greater picture is revealed our confidence in Hector slides. This espionage business is volatile and the good standing he once had in MI6 is now on the skids. In an unwelcome foray into cliché he is portrayed as a self-confessed “maverick officer”, and worse, a “loose cannon”. Gail thinks he is “a man on a mission”. The hackneyed monikers pile up, and only when they are scrapped are we made to feel the import of what is at stake and the last chances involved. Hector and Luke, already past their use-by date, could end up “two failed whistleblowers”. Hector’s weaknesses appear, perhaps only hair-line fractures in his own confidence, but still enough to leave the reader doubting his success. Perhaps le Carré has his classical antecedent in mind when, as the mission begins to go awry, despite his “rallying cry” and his valour remaining intact, his trust is deeply misplaced. In which case who is his Achilles? Who will bring him down? Dima or the fourth-floor spy chiefs?
Needless to say, a thriller needs tension. Le Carré has always been more interested in boardroom backstabbing than car-chases and shootouts. He learned early on that skulduggery need not mean stasis, and he has an unrivalled talent at making dialogue threatening and energetic. The gritty realism of The Looking Glass War (said by its author to be the most true-to-life of his spy-world depictions) jarred his reading public, and The Night Manager’s action-packed derring-do lost points with the critics. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy worked because of their intricate, often labyrinthine plots, and always there was the accompanying burning question: who is deceiving whom? (It doesn’t help that Roper, the Fleming-esque villain of The Night Manager, is repeatedly called “the worst man in the world”, even before we meet him. A character who doesn’t deceive anyone but simply does very bad things – exactly as it says on the tin.) The reader is led up the garden path in much the same way as when reading a detective novel – one reason why ‘spy’ and ‘detective’ get haplessly grouped under the general heading ‘crime’. Both these le Carré favourites are sophisticated whodunits, parlour games for the mind, but there is more scope for subterfuge and trickery in his world than the in detective world. And you can be sure your traitor’s motive is never going to be as straightforward as that of your cut-and-run murderer.
The tension, such as there is in Our Kind of Traitor, invites similar guesswork on the reader’s part. Its sister book could be The Russia House. Here we have Dima wanting sanctuary in the West in exchange for a secret document. Ditto Yakov or Goethe in The Russia House with his dossier on Soviet atomic secrets. In both cases we wonder: are they real? Is this a put-up job? Are they leading our characters and therefore us on a merry dance? Traitors lie and the reader must sift along with Hector and Luke to find questionable bumps in accounts and tales that don’t tally. (During one exchange with Yvonne we get the perfectly worded “Luke protested truthlessly”. Everyone is suspect. Even the pros forget how to lie convincingly.) But if Dima is lying and cannot deliver his goods then what else is going on? Lying or possible lying is at the heart of the espionage novel. Hector tells Perry that it is diplomats and politicians who lie, not spies, but of course in doing so he is lying.
If lying is about the delivery of language – what to say, how to say it, how much to manipulate – then it is also worth looking at le Carré’s choice of language for, at least in this novel, it is both a strength and a weakness. Firstly, it is reassuring to hear the standard, almost obligatory terms: a book is a “tome”, a jail is always a “gaol”. Characters don’t speak languages, they “have” them. Rugby is “rugger”, whether in the writer’s mouth or a public school character’s, and our spies have to be “hugger-mugger” with one another. In this outing there were no boxers or boxer-lookalikes so “pugilist” was kept in cold-storage, and for all the references to Dima’s big bald head, le Carré resisted the impulse to use “pate”. There is something charmingly quaint about this language, perhaps because we instantly recognise the author. It acts as a sort of watermark to authenticity. For le Carré, for all his bluffs and double bluffs, cannot conceal himself, and in his own way is as instantly recognisable as, say, Wodehouse or Austen. Only when his characters are at their most irate or voluble are we unable to forgive them, for by flagrantly espousing their creator’s opinion they unwittingly tear down the fourth wall and so go against the rules of fiction. A case in point is the now-infamous Bush-bashing rant in Absolute Friends (2003) where he bewails “America’s post-Nine Eleven psychopathy” – soapbox fury which seems to be cribbed from his essay of the same year, ‘The United States of America has Gone Mad’; or Bachmann’s disquisition (aka “Bachmann’s Cantata”) to his team in A Most Wanted Man (2008) on Hamburg’s role in 9/11 and the new terrorist threats – a redundant exercise as Bachmann’s spy-team audience already knows this.
What le Carré is doing in both cases is teaching us, and as a result he is far too present, and can be seen pulling his characters’ strings whilst thumping his own tub. In Our Kind of Traitor, he treads more softly and loses the loudhailer. He gets the right balance during Hector’s state-of-the-nation speech by wisely maintaining the invective but jettisoning the didacticm:
“We know what you think of us. Some of us think it too, and we’re right. Trouble is, we’re the only show in town. Government’s a fuck-up, half the Civil Service is out to lunch. The Foreign Office is as much use as a wet dream, the country’s stony-broke and the bankers are taking our money and giving us the finger. What are we supposed to do about it? Complain to Mummy or fix it?”
Consequently Hector comes more alive to us; this “late-onset, red-tooth radical with balls” being far preferable to one that foams at the mouth.
Another use of language is le Carré’s spy jargon. When he talks of “joes” and tradecraft techniques like “dead letter boxes”, we can see and trace a direct line back to George Smiley and his Circus. But this is the Circus with a new spin. Ollie is Hector’s “back-door man”, but might earlier have been a scalphunter or pavement artist or lamplighter, or even all three; Basil Flynn would have been a spy “talent-spotter” but now “I baby-snatch”. (Interestingly, Dima has “a baby-faced bodyguard”, whereas the Circus’ bodyguards were called babysitters.)
Unfortunately these last examples are problematic. Descriptions become tags with which to identify characters and are repeated every time the character reappears or opens their mouth. Thus Ollie is always the “back-door man;” the bodyguard is every time “baby-faced.” Lest we forget it, Yvonne is “Our Iron Maiden,” Natasha is engrossed in her “leatherbound tome,” Dima is “the world’s number one money launderer,” he of the “dolphin smile” and “soulful brown eyes,” and our spies are “A-list Hector” and “B-list Luke.” Either le Carré has turned structuralist semiotician and is too pleased with each signature or sobriquet, or he has no faith in his amnesiac readers to remember who is who. We know we are in trouble when even jokes get more than one airing: a gun is “family-sized;” the MI6 building is, according to Luke’s French wife, “la Lubianka-sur-Temise;” and Perm is Dima’s hometown, “not the hairdo, darling.” The reader hasn’t forgotten who each character is and the jokes which were mildly humorous the first time round fall dismally flat the second or third. Le Carré drops his guard and all his richly imagined characters with their credible dialogue begin to grate, sometimes even before they speak, because each of them carries their own little self-identifying flag in their lapel. The preachy sign-posting language of Absolute Friends has been reined in, only to be replaced by sign-posted characters.
There is another form of repetition at play, a kind of recycling of scenes and character tics which we have seen before. This is less incriminating, as a writer of twenty-two books that by and large hug the same genre is bound to retread his step. Therefore it seems churlish to accuse him of repetition; better would be to point out a general interconnectedness. It is like he is unconsciously paying homage to his lifetime’s work. There is the book’s structure, already touched upon, the flashbacks and interrogations as prefaces to the main action, along with the parallels with The Russia House. In addition Perry has a “divided heart”, just like Sandy Woodrow on the first page of The Constant Gardener (2001). “The question was never asked. It is an ex-question!” exclaims one of Dima’s sons, redolent of the “This gun is not a gun” speech from 1999’s Single & Single. Dima’s soul-searching with Perry takes place in his wind-lashed “crow’s nest” on Antigua, and again we have been here before, from our perfect spy Magnus Pym writing his tale of treachery in an English guesthouse, to Tim confronting Larry’s duplicitous past in a priest’s-hole in Our Game, via George Smiley himself in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), recounting a life of espionage into the night to rapt audience and reader alike. And is one of the novel’s dubious Whitehall mandarins, Giles de Salis, a distant cousin of Doc di Salis, Head China Watcher in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)? More importantly, we have learned to expect a deeper cynicism from this writer and so suspect Dima will share his fate with a stream of le Carré heroes and antiheroes such as Alec Leamas, Fred Leiser or Justin Quayle, either for relying too much on “perfidious Albion shits” or, like Otto Quangel, for attempting to betray with too many odds stacked against him.
In the book’s final pages in Switzerland we return to the theme of betrayal. Dima surely can’t get out of the country in the same way Alec Leamas can’t get over the Wall. Fred Leiser was abandoned – and thus betrayed – by the British in The Looking Glass War, left to fend for himself in East Germany, so we have a second option for Dima. Le Carré deftly keeps back his ultimate trick until the very last pages. Will Dima make it? Can Hector’s team get him out? This is a typical le Carré device, tension felt through lack of momentum. As Dima and his family sweat it out in the Swiss safe-house we never get a glimpse of his watchers closing in on him, nor do we witness a single car pursuing him on his escape to the airport. Nor do we need to; this is the iceberg threat, and every time the unseen enemy instils more claustrophobic menace than the visible one. When we close the book, it is a testimony to le Carré’s skills as a writer that the shock waves from the denouement start to ripple out. A good le Carré ending is terse and tightly-packed, and resists the temptation to dwell on any trauma. That becomes our job; le Carré has done his bit. Our Kind of Traitor’s finale is no exception, and in this way belongs with the best: the conclusion is not an end because it has consequences, even repercussions, leaving us little option but to consider just how many lives the fall-out will affect.
Our Kind of Traitor is a novel of relating, of unburdening, with confession playing a key role. Le Carré moves with the times and tells a topical tale with a twist. The Oxford recruiter, Basil Flynn, connects us with le Carré’s earlier spy books, but when Flynn goes on to inform us of MI6’s other recruiting methods, namely its website and “cretinous advertisements…in the heritage press”, we know we are also operating in modern and more open times. This is precisely why le Carré is still relevant and well loved. We need a foot in the past as well as in the present. Therefore we smile on hearing that Hector is the member of a club in Pall Mall, because so too was every senior spy before him, and there is delight at hearing of Dima’s fear of being “whacked” – for surely not even Rushdie would grudge a Russian gangster being allowed the argot of a Scorsese mobster. Thankfully we have moved on from Justin Quayle, the constant gardener, who at the beginning of this century was unable to use a computer. The book takes off when le Carré finally removes his collection of appended labels which thwart character growth and development. Once the characters are free we can properly hear them. In his literary criticism Harold Bloom talks of “overhearing” characters who are perfectly realised, but, and perhaps more aptly, with good le Carré creations we can successfully eavesdrop on them. Hector, in particular deserves a mention, and it would be a crime not to encounter him again. But as the coda to The Russia House says, “spying is waiting”. We must wait and see.
Finally, for a novel with overrunning scenes which often outstay their welcome, Our Kind of Traitor, coming in at just over three-hundred pages, is not an overlong book. And this brings us back to Roth and the idea of posterity. The last decade has seen both writers remaining prolific, perhaps even increasing their productivity. Old age won’t slow them down. However, their novels have become slimmer than those of their prime, if not slighter. But this refusal of the authors to sit tight on their laurels is of interest: it is as if there is a crisis of faith in the quality of their output. Further, with his take on the War on Terror and extreme rendition in recent works, le Carré continues to embrace topicality, digging deeper behind news headlines for dark truth and concealed information. William Boyd, in his last novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, deliberately eschewed any form of contemporary references so as to avoid “built-in obsolescence.” This has never troubled le Carré. On the contrary, for to remain our foremost chronicler of contemporary conflict he needs to cite current battle-fronts and existent political and cultural gurus and demons, or at least allude to them in the form of his own crafted or warped creations. While Absolute Friends name-checked Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, Our Kind of Traitor gives us Beryl Bainbridge and, bizarrely, Roger Federer. Names and events might slip and slide out of fashion but not out of history, so le Carré’s Modern Classic status won’t be bruised. Perhaps he was unaware of this, but posterity was assured even before he signed the Penguin deal.
He once said that A Perfect Spy was his favourite of the lot, the book he would like to be buried with. If ‘classic’ means a work of art that lasts, that is imperishable, then we can only be grateful that none of his books will be interred with him, but instead are here to stay.
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.