The Real Men of England

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Everett Collection
Patrick Stewart as the Soviet spymaster Karla and Alec Guinness as the British spy George Smiley in the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Smiley’s People, 1982
Interviewer: Where does this pessimism come from?
John le Carré: From my observations.
Les Nouvelles Littéraires, September 1965

In the official morality of states, treason and patriotism are poles apart, as starkly opposed as love and hate, right and wrong. David Cornwell, writing as John le Carré, has spent more than half a century blurring that sharp opposition, making it unstable and obscure. And now, at the age of eighty-one and in his twenty-third novel, he has finally brought the poles together. In A Delicate Truth, treason is not merely compatible with patriotism. In order to be a patriot, the novel suggests, it is necessary to betray the state.

A Delicate Truth is simpler than almost any other le Carré novel because he is no longer in the swamp of moral ambiguities. He has crossed all the way over to the far side and stands, perhaps for the first time, on firm ground. There is no longer a dark and difficult game to be played. The three central figures of the book are all genuinely, almost sentimentally, patriotically British. And for each of them, that sentiment creates an unambiguous imperative: he must betray the secrets of the British state. In much of le Carré’s previous work, treason arises from personal complexities and emotional entanglements. Here it is the inevitable consequence of true patriotism. His old traitors betray the state because they are, by nature, deceitful. These new ones betray it because they are, by nature, honest.

The three main characters of A Delicate Truth are true believers in their country. The diplomat Kit Probyn—a “low flyer,” not a brilliant operative; an extrovert, not a gray man; happily married, not cuckolded; emotional, not icily cold—differs from le Carré’s most famous creation, the spy George Smiley, in almost every respect. Except one: his patriotism. Smiley, from his introduction to the world in le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead, published in 1961, is “a sentimental man” with a “deep love of England.” So is Probyn. He has, we learn in the second sentence of A Delicate Truth, “very British features.” A little later, he drives through Gibraltar, one of the last outposts of the old British Empire:

A wave of patriotic fervour swept over him as centuries of British imperial conquest received him. The statues to great admirals and generals, the cannons, redoubts, bastions, the bruised air-raid precaution signs directing our stoical defenders to their nearest shelter, the Gurkha-style warriors standing guard with fixed bayonets outside the Governor’s residence, the bobbies in their baggy British uniforms: he was heir to all of it.

Later, Probyn, in happy retirement as Sir Christopher, presides at a village festival in Cornwall and revels even in the kitschy quality of the whole affair. He is well …

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