John le Carré redesigned the spy novel so it could be enjoyed by liberal anti-Communists. This was not an insignificant service. For liberal anti-Communists like a good spy story as much as anyone else does, and it would have been unfair to ask them to get through the cold war without the distraction of a few thrillers they could take pleasure in with an easy conscience.
Le Carré transformed the genre by writing quite pointedly against two of its most popular traditional elements: the jingoism of John Buchan’s spy stories and the machismo of Ian Fleming’s. Le Carré’s spies are patriotic almost entirely faute de mieux; their enthusiasm for the society they defend arises principally from their distaste for the alternative. His heroes rarely have occasion to demonstrate their skill with high-tech weaponry; they are never called upon to win large sums at baccarat; and his most successful creation, George Smiley, is a cuckold on a rather spectacular scale.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold appeared in 1963, just two years after the Berlin Wall. Its genius was to conceive of the Wall not as separating the destinies of East and West but as yoking them together. Le Carré made the Wall a symbol of the incommensurability of ultimate ends, and therefore a perpetual reminder that the struggle between the two sides must be a war to the death. “We’re both really alike” is the book’s constant refrain—meaning that the defense of liberal democracy requires, in the end, the same duplicity, the same willingness to exploit the exploitable, the same blind gamble that your side is History’s side, as the defense of the “workers’ state.”
Still, le Carré was not a subscriber to what used to be called the doctrine of moral equivalence—the belief that an open society willing to use nuclear bombs has no claim to moral superiority over a closed society willing to use nuclear bombs. He (or his heroes) hated the selfish consumerism, the idiotic class invidiousness, the pathetic remnants of the imperialist mind-set, the craven Americanism—in short, the general illiberalism—of postwar British society. But they also knew that a decadent democracy is preferable to a ruthless authoritarian state. The Soviet Union in le Carré’s novels is unequivocally the enemy, and it must, though the game is possibly barely worth the candle, be thwarted. The question of belief scarcely enters into it. “Alec, what do you believe in?” the spy’s girlfriend asks him in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. “I believe an eleven bus will take me to Hammersmith,” he says. “I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas.”
This is the voice of hard-boiled fiction, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a spare, noir-ish exercise very much in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler, in whose stories the private eye’s contempt for his adversaries tends to be only slightly greater than his contempt for his clients. It was a form that, once devised, would have been easy…
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