The Secret Pilgrim
George Smiley, John le Carré’s melancholy spymaster, has the right take, I think, on the British taste for spying. It has much to do with class; specifically, with that great institution where class is instilled: the British public school, with its arcane rituals, its lifelong loyalties and resentments, and its cloistered cabals, where intrigues thrive.
Early on in le Carré’s latest book Smiley gives a speech to young secret service recruits (a speech, by the way, which recurs at the beginning of each chapter, sparking off another story, narrated by Ned, the world-weary, Anglo-Dutch intelligence agent on the verge of his retirement). In this speech Smiley wishes his audience to remember that “the privately educated Englishman—and Englishwoman, if you will allow me—is the greatest dissembler on earth…. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool…. Which is why some of our best officers turn out to be our worst. And our worst, our best.”
I once met an Indian in Delhi, a distant relative of one of the grander Rajput maharajas, who explained to me what he had learnt at Mayo College, the Indian equivalent of Eton. “Dear boy,” he said with a most charming smile, “I learnt how to eat with knife and fork—a most bourgeois accomplishment, don’t you think?” And what else did he learn? “Ah,” he said, smiling to himself this time, “I learnt how to be cunning.”
The art of survival through charm and if necessary deceit is an accomplishment eminently suited to diplomacy and spying. But there is, as always, a price to pay, a price which is at the core of Smiley’s character and le Carré’s art. It is a vague sense of inner emptiness, of having dissembled for so long that only the mask remains. The Secret Pilgrim is about the spiritual longing of men who have mislaid their passions, lost their moral anchors. The cold war, despite all its moral ambiguities, provided some kind of anchor, but even that’s no longer there, now that the cold war is apparently over.
The alleged lack of passion among bourgeois Englishmen is another thing that helps in the spying trade: one can resist temptations and the mind is unbound by serious commitments to anything much, least of all to an idea. Spies an be tripped up easily by their passions (they often are). Cynicism offers more protection. You might argue that the notorious Cambridge spies were both consummate professionals and committed ideologues, and that their very seriousness was one reason for turning against a country (and a class) that was so unserious, but one wonders how committed even they were to their political ideals.
There is an interesting line in An Englishman Abroad, the superb television film about Guy Burgess, written…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.