Almost everyone seems to like the novels of John le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell)—to enjoy and to admire them, two different things. One after another, they arrive at the top of the best-seller lists; they are made into movies, TV dramas, paperbacks by the ton. Such success can often incite critical derision, but derision has never been le Carré’s fate. He is considered both readable and intellectually respectable, with a philosophy of life and meaningful things to say about politics. It is interesting to wonder how he leads this writerly double life, as convincing as the double lives his characters lead, all of whom—like writers—are caught up in disguise and charade.
That is, most of le Carré’s books have involved spies and spying, based on his own career. After taking a first in modern languages at Oxford, he worked with British intelligence for over five years, and thus fortuitously provided himself with a subject and a world view that have served him brilliantly ever since. It is by this subject, most of all, that he distinguishes himself from mere popular writers of detective stories or romances, but therein lies a question: Why exactly do we admire genre books about spies, those improbable beings embarked on projects of dubious value for debatable political ends?
These ends became even less clear when the Berlin wall came down: people predicted that after the cold war, le Carré would have a hard time finding newly relevant subjects. But this was as naive about the nature of novelists as it was about the world itself. In a revealing bit of dialogue in his 1988 novel The Russia House, the protagonist, Barley, speaks to his Russian counterpart:
“What do you do for a living when you’re not drinking and listening?”
“I’m a moral outcast,” he says. “I trade in defiled theories.”
“Always nice to meet a writer,” I say.
Luckily for us and for le Carré, the thuggish purveyors of discredited theories and the forces of law mutated at the same time. Le Carré’s new novel, Single & Single, has moved on from spying to international crime, the domestic menace replacing the collapsed Soviet military and ideological menace. Money laundering and drug smuggling define today’s world, and are not without their Russians, to be sure, for the masters of le Carré’s underworld in the universe of this new novel are still Russian, though their goals now are personal gain or village philanthropy.
The hero is Oliver Single, heir to his father Tiger Single’s multimillion-pound venture capital enterprise, the supposedly respectable, if adventurous, banking firm Single & Single. Tiger Single is a well-known but actually shady and pragmatic associate of drug lords and entrepreneurs of questionable projects in emerging nations. Tiger and Oliver are a typical le Carréan pair, in which the hero or narrator, who has a serious, anxious nature perceived by himself as a little colorless, is contrasted with a more brilliant, flamboyant, and unreliable nature (Oliver/Tiger, Tim Cranmer/Larry Pettifer in Our Game, George Smiley and various others in A Perfect Spy, and so on). We are told in interviews with le Carré that this is a reworking of his own relationship with his flamboyant father, Ronnie Cornwell.
When we meet him, Oliver, as an heir with principles, has opted out of this giant money-laundering operation. After a try at coming into the firm, he doesn’t feel he can get mixed up in the ugly, morally compromised world his father has groomed him for, and is now lying low, estranged from Tiger and separated from his wife and baby daughter in the way we have learned to expect of all le Carréan heroes. Where love is concerned, they are burnt-out cases; relations with women are seldom satisfactory and sometimes the source of their Weltschmerz. Domestic life is beyond them, and even less appealing to the faithless women characters. “‘There is no loyalty without betrayal,’ Ann liked to tell [Smiley] in their youth when he had ventured to protest at her infidelities.”
Unable to do things he disapproves of, Oliver has settled for a modest life as a children’s clown and party entertainer. Suddenly he learns that his father has put five million pounds in his child’s account and disappeared. This disappearance is considered to have something to do with the execution of one of the bank’s lawyers by unknown people in Turkey (the subject of the somewhat irritating sixteen-page tour de force with which the novel opens, unfolding in the mind of the victim, Alfred Winser, before he is shot, during which he finds himself thinking with futile panic about how he has failed to satisfy his wife sexually, and should he have dyed his hair).
Oliver learns that Tiger has fallen into a scheme with the biggest criminal lord of Russia, a rustic, comic-book villain, Yevgeny Ivanovitch Orlov, and his brother Mikhail. Yevgeny has the idea of acquiring donated Russian blood and selling it to the US, with some drug smuggling thrown in, the upfront costs of which will be borne by Single’s. But the scheme goes awry when somebody sells the Orlovs out, and Mikhail is killed by law enforcement officers boarding one of the Orlovs’ suspect vessels. Alfred Winser’s murder is an act of revenge, and a warning to Tiger, who the Orlovs think is the traitor. Oliver’s ambivalent love for his father, who has never understood him (a recurrent Cornwellian theme), prompts him to try to find and rescue the missing Tiger.
The Orlovs, though thinking up villainy on a large, modern scale, are still driven by the down-home Georgian ethics of the family, tribe, and village. They live the simple life:
To drink there is sweet red wine that Yevgeny mysteriously proclaims to be homemade from Bethlehem. On the birchwood dining table plates of caviar, smoked sausage, spicy chicken legs, home-smoked sea trout, olives and almond cake are precariously heaped on top of one another….
Their earthy, smoldering womenfolk eye Oliver. Something about the peasant exuberance of these rustic villains renders them almost likable—all except the young, Westernized Alix Hoban, symbol of a new Russian generation, cynical, unscrupulous, and deadly.
Le Carré’s segue into post-cold war civilian crime is smoothly and plausibly done. He has a lot of wonderful Russian detail about the lairs of the loutish, primitive, and scary new masters of the Soviet world. It turns out there isn’t too much difference in mentality between the old spies and the new crooks, the intelligence networks and the criminal networks. Just as his spies are always people locked in a complicated love/hate personal conflict, with the final actions unfolding in a mano a mano struggle, so with Oliver here. He tracks the Orlovs, who indeed have kidnapped Tiger, to their lair in Tbilisi, aided by one of the spymaster Brock’s agents, Aggie, who has fallen in love with him. There, as evidence of his innocent good nature, Oliver helps the archcriminal’s wife set the table—she who will provide the violent denouement. Tiger is rescued, posturing the while, his emotional hold over Oliver at last diminished when Oliver realizes his father is not really omnipotent. The British agents move in to clean up.
Oliver is like a lot of, or most of, le Carré’s protagonists: disillusioned, principled, flawed, has something of a drinking problem, is irresistible to women, and somewhat unbelievable to an American reader, for instance when he presents himself to rent a room, “looking crumpled and enormous in his overcoat, two days’ beard and just a small suitcase in his hand.” The American landlady would have her hand poised to dial 911, but Mrs. Watmore thinks tenderly, “How can she leave him standing there on the doorstep?” and says, “You’re not on the run, are you, dear?” To see Oliver is to desire him, apparently. In the course of the narrative, nearly every female, whether his father’s mistress or the daughter of Yevgeny Orlov, the agent Aggie, or a few others, will make a pass at Oliver, who usually accepts, though there are no explicit sex scenes in these most primly British and reticent of narratives.
And there is usually something peculiarly British, or at least not American, about the relations between women and men in le Carré’s tales. For Oliver, as for the rest of his characters, love has happened already and gone sour or banal, and by the time we meet them, ancient pangs have become mitigated by a wistful sense of personal irrelevance. Le Carré’s women are faithless, restless, complicated, and kept, the men mistrustful and always forlornly adoring of some unworthy woman who has gone off with another male, like a cat. The tension between the sexes is based on a mixture of mutual need and mutual dislike that seems a little different from our own prevailing gender war climate, maybe because it is based on a social structure where women, apparently, have less economic independence than in the US, and still rely on the old-fashioned adultery route to extricate themselves from bad marriages.
Books are designated (usually not by their authors but by publishers or posterity) for children, or for young adults, or women, or men, or boys, designations that encode certain assumptions about the expected group of readers, and certain conventions to be followed by the writer. The conduct lessons embodied in children’s stories are put in more sophisticated contexts for young adults, for example, and “women’s fiction,” expected to deal with affairs of the heart, is often sad. There can be something harsh about women’s romantic fiction, which, by convention ending with marriage, is tacitly dedicating the heroine to a future of serious concerns—of motherhood, of work and responsibility, and possibly, our experience tells us, of misery. Her life of hope and fantasy is behind her.
But everyone loves boys’ fiction because it confers magic powers on the protagonist. In boys’ books, the hero braves dangers and does things helpful for his society—rescues others, often, or finds the solution to problems affecting his group. In doing so, he earns the admiration of those who have underestimated him (a feature of much such fiction); in versions for older boys and men, his admirers include women, who also form part of his reward.
Viewed in this way, Single & Single is a boys’ book of romantic adventure, with villains as picturesque as the villains of Treasure Island. The hero has a powerful billionaire father who misunderstands him, and his pick of women, all of whom respond to his looks and charm. He journeys into danger (Orlov’s hideout in Tbilisi), rescues his father, destroys the villains, restores order, and emerges unscathed. A fairy tale.
But because spies really exist and le Carré was one, knows the inside story, and has a commitment to the importance of such undercover enterprises, he earns for his writing the cachet of realism. This was particularly true during the cold war, when the intelligence establishments of various nations were convinced they had a dangerous enemy in each other and le Carré’s own conviction that they did was part of the sincerity and gravity of his work. There seems to be another, and more serious, subtext, too, that produces this effect.
Besides spies, there are spymasters in le Carré. Single & Single, like his other tales, has a representative of an intelligence agency, in this case, Brock, a man who feels
no fatigue, no slackening of his habitual quest. In the last seventy-two hours he had slept at best for six, on aeroplanes, in taxis, on his way to hastily called meetings—Whitehall in the morning, Amsterdam in the afternoon and, come evening, the twilit gardens of a drug lord’s hacienda in Marbella, for Brock had informants everywhere.
Brock might be Control in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or the narrator in The Russia House, where Brock also appears, or Lacon in Smiley’s People. Brock “runs” Oliver, compelling him to seek his father, and helps him and monitors his progress. But the spymasters are also capable of deceit and duplicity against their creatures. No one trusts anyone in le Carré’s world, in a profession based on trust. In Single & Single, however, Brock is a benign father to Oliver where Tiger Single is not, ready with helicopter surveillance and omniscient agents to turn up in deepest post-Soviet Georgia at the showdown.
Like most of his readers, all of le Carré’s characters feel some ambivalence about the fathers or authority figures they owe allegiance to, here represented by Brock as well as Tiger. And like most fathers and authority figures, those in le Carré’s books are unreliable, mysterious, capricious, unfathomable. One serves them, therefore, on faith, a faith born of a need to feel that behind their reasons for doing the inexplicable things they do lies a larger sense of order, beyond our comprehension. The controllers, the spymasters in le Carré’s world, are like the gods of our universe, or the God of our universe, in not telling the obedient, or occasionally rebellious, servant their reasons, and in not caring what the servant thinks, either.
When we read le Carré’s stories, we have a sense of being excluded from a parallel universe to which only the faithful are initiate, a universe beyond us where spies are like angels, emissaries of the Above, and, as in Graham Greene, the spymasters are priest figures intermediary between God and ordinary mortals. “In the religious light between dawn and morning his black waistcoat and white collar had the glint of the soutane,” we learn of Lacon, the spymaster in Smiley’s People, and there are many more passages like this, sometimes using a vocabulary of apocalypse and sometimes of absolution. Smiley, himself a spymaster, was “vicar” to lesser spies. Ordinary mortals, the heroes, are tormented by doubt, are finding or losing faith, but they are in the game. The long debriefing scenes, or interrogations, occurring in almost every novel, are like scenes from the confessional.
It seems we read these spy stories at some level as metaphysical allegories, which is perhaps why we respect, or at least hesitate to mock, them, sparing them the suspicion we reserve for merely fleshly tales of earthly love, lust, passion, murder—things that le Carré’s characters get involved in, but that are always beside the point, tossed in like a sop to the literal-minded. If in a detective story the satisfaction for us as readers lies in seeing the murderer punished, as he must be, it is because punishment resolves the social disorder that murder introduces. In an allegory of man’s relation to the Higher Powers, we often give up following every one of the sinuous plot turns; it’s enough that it soothes us to perceive the humanity of the chosen functionaries elected to die for us, and we like hearing that there is such a thing as omniscience, even if we call it Control, and that a higher plan exists, even if we call it the Circus or the KGB.
May 20, 1999