Commentary Magazine


Le Carr'e's Fantasies

Many years ago Jacques Barzun noted that the representative figure of our age was not the statesman, the soldier, or the divine, but the spy. I doubt whether he was right at that time, and the observation seems even less true today. The public image of the spy is largely a product of fantasy; there are, needless to say, real spies among us, but their methods of operation are quite different from the way they are popularly depicted. In contrast to, say, pop musicians or other entertainers, spies are not role models or trend setters of any kind. Their exploits, to the extent that they become known, provide grist for the newspaper and television mills, and inspiration to thriller writers, but on the whole they are less newsworthy than movie stars, members of royal families, or natural disasters. Barzun may have had the traitor rather than the spy in mind when he made his comment, but even so the proposition would be debatable.

The notion of the spy as a contemporary prototype, riddled with anxieties, dissatisfied with his work and with life in general, neurotic to the point of masochism, has been popularized by a school of writers unhappy with the limitations of their genre. Most are simply looking for a new angle or two as a way of holding on to their readers; others, on a higher level of sophistication, have made a conscious effort to transform the spy story from its legitimate function of providing entertainment into a cultural and moral critique of our time. In pursuit of this aim they have violated one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing: never complicate the story unnecessarily. Raymond Chandler’s advice to colleagues—when in doubt, bring in a man with a gun—has been disregarded by a new generation of spy-story writers who, when in doubt, bring in not just another triple agent, but a whole host of extraneous elements—psychological, cultural, technological—thereby retarding the action and confusing the reader to the point where he can barely follow the story. This is not to say that the spy story has lost its appeal—it seems to be virtually indestructible—but as a result of trying to turn it into something it is not, the quality has deteriorated. Today’s bestsellers will certainly be long forgotten when vintage thrillers like John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps are still being read.

The most successful and most interesting practitioner of the contemporary spy story is John le Carré. His novels have not quite reached the ten-million-plus level achieved by such runaway bestsellers as The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Jaws, but they have sold millions of copies and received critical acclaim far in excess of what is usually accorded to bestsellers. Most often this acclaim takes the form of praising one or another of Le Carré’s books as “more than” just a novel of espionage.

Thus, one critic observes that Le Carré’s characters pursue moral absolutes “in a dangerous world mined with ambiguities.” A second notes that his literary qualities and moral sensibility place him in the tradition of Balzac, Stendhal, Conrad, Maugham, and Graham Greene. A third has called him the Solzhenitsyn of the genre. Since no such praise has ever been bestowed on the works of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Ken Follett, or Frederick Forsyth, one wonders what this “stellar spymaster” (Newsweek) has that his fellow practitioners are lacking. Can it really be that he does not belong in their company at all but towers above them in lonely splendor? Or have the critics built up an author of some talent out of all proportion to his real significance, detecting hidden meanings and genuine depth of feeling where none exists?

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To understand the problematical character of the contemporary spy novel one should go back to its beginnings in the last quarter of the 19th century. The spy novel came into being in England and has largely remained a British preserve. There was nothing devious or complicated about the early spy stories. The heroes were loyal Englishmen, called in to retrieve purloined admiralty plans or render the Crown some other service; the spies were usually foreign nationals of whatever country England was having trouble with at the time. Thus, up to the late 1890′s when France was still considered a threat to British security, the villains in the stories of William le Queux (an Englishman, despite his name) tended to be French; following the Entente Cordiale of 1904, they became Germans. Similarly, in the stories of John Buchan, dating from a somewhat later period, the villains started out being Germans, but were often replaced by Russians (mostly of Jewish origin) later on.

Most of the conventions that we still associate with the genre date from this period. They are already to be found, for example, in the stories of E. Phillips Oppenheim, with their silky female seductresses, double and even triple agents, motifs of impersonation and blackmail, and infatuation with newfangled technology. While there was little violence and less sex in Oppenheim’s novels, there was almost as much high living as there is in Ian Fleming. Another motif of these early stories was the race against time (with Buchan in particular a master of the climactic chase): unless the designs of certain villains could be thwarted within a brief period, some horrible disaster would take place. This convention too is still with us today, except that the consequences of failure have become even more nightmarish: the outbreak of world war, nuclear catastrophe, mass extermination. Even where the tools of the trade are concerned, there have been fewer innovations than one might expect: the cigar bomb and remote-control device can already be found in Le Queux and Edgar Wallace, and a camera bomb was used by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Where there is a difference between the early spy story and the contemporary version is in the matter of motivations. The early English spies and spymasters believed wholeheartedly in the rightness of their cause. These heroes of clubland were patriots, not cynics, idealistic amateurs, not mercenary agents, and no doubts disturbed their sleep at night. Like Carruthers, the agent-hero of Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands (1903), they believed that an Englishman who betrayed his country was the “vilest creature on God’s earth.” They also believed that British intelligence was by far the best in the world, though Buchan, himself a Scot, would note from time to time that the Scots were probably even better suited than Englishmen to dangerous assignments in foreign parts.

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With the publication of W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1928), the secret agent became a shadowy figure for the first time. (Conrad’s Verloc in The Secret Agent does not count, since he was merely an agent provocateur, not an intelligence agent, and furthermore a foreigner.) Maugham made a point in Ashenden of highlighting the seamy side of the profession: the wrong people get killed, the difference between good and evil is blurred, guilt and innocence are seen to be relative terms, and the value of intelligence activity itself is called into question. Whether Maugham himself made a success as a British agent is a moot point. But he did know more about the actual business of spying than the earlier authors, and his cynicism was a welcome antidote to the unabashed hero worship in the stories of Buchan and others.

The new realism in spy writing coincided, not by accident, with the appearance of the realistic detective story. But whereas new-style detectives like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade were still at bottom old-fashioned men of honor, the anti-hero spy was a figure fraught with ambiguity. Espionage writers, particularly of the more intellectual sort, no longer approved quite so wholeheartedly of their heroes. And their attitude became more complicated still with the advent of the cold war. While even the most politically “progressive” writers had found nothing reprehensible in espionage so long as the target was Hitler, there was a definite change by the 1950′s when the Russians became the main adversary of the West.

Eric Ambler touched on this question in an interesting interview some years ago in which he described how he became a spy writer: “Having failed at playwriting, having failed as a songwriter, failed as an engineer, I looked around for something I could change and decided it was the thriller-spy story. I would do something different. The detective story had been worked over and worked over, but no one had looked at the thriller. It was still a dirty word. So I decided to intellectualize it insofar as I was able. . . . I changed the genre and couldn’t write the books fast enough.”

Farther on Ambler described the political evolution of his work: “Well Sapper [the pen-name of H.C. McNeile, the author of the Bulldog Drummond stories] was writing solid right-wing. He was an outright fascist. He even had his heroes dressed in black shirts. Buchan was an establishment figure, so club and fuddy-duddy, and I decided to turn that upside down and make the heroes left-wing and popular-front figures.”

Another change which directly affected the “realistic” spy story was the increasing mechanization of intelligence-gathering techniques, starting in the late 50′s. Real practitioners of intelligence in the contemporary period are far less likely to be Indonesian belly dancers and far more likely to be graduates of science institutes or at least political-science departments, which makes for greater precision, perhaps, but less colorful stories. Indeed, to be truly realistic, a spy novel by now should have as its heroes not people at all, but NSA supercomputers or reconnaissance satellites; unfortunately, these do not offer much in the way of intrigue and suspense, let alone sex.

What then is a spy writer in the realistic mode to do? One possibility today might be novels exploring treason and its motives. This is a fascinating topic for a serious novelist, and one which has the added advantage—thanks to Messrs. Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, et al.—of not requiring too much invention. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, there seems to be some reluctance to deal with this theme. Graham Greene, who knew Philby well, finally got around to writing about a Soviet mole (not modeled on Philby) in The Human Factor (1978). But except for one of the British agents in Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy who turns out to be a traitor—he is in fact the white-haired boy in the “Circus,” as the British Secret Intelligence Service is called throughout Le Carré’s novels—he has avoided the issue, preferring instead to write about the cynical old spymasters assigning younger operatives to dirty jobs (and almost certain death) abroad.

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When John le Carré’s first spy novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was published in 1963, James Bond (Agent 007) was coming to the close of his career. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service appeared in 1963, and a year later, in August 1964, Fleming died. His last two books were published posthumously.

On the surface at least, Le Carré’s novels are the very antithesis of Fleming’s and their protagonists could not be more different. If the luxury-loving Bond is never without his gray Bentley, the austere George Smiley, Le Carré’s veteran operative of the Circus, either walks or takes taxis. If Agent 007 has at his disposal as many Tiffany Cases or Pussy Galores as he could want, Le Carré’s lamplighters and babysitters have to be satisfied with the virgins of Brixton or Acton and the occasional fantasy about an art-school graduate. If Fleming’s heroes hop from one Caribbean island to another, Le Carré’s live in dreary houses in suburbia with ugly wives who are often alcoholics or faithless nymphomaniacs, and sometimes both. Almost all of them are profoundly unhappy people who feel that their lives have been wasted and who harbor the gravest possible doubts about their profession.

There are, however, similarities, or rather continuities. Though his world is in most respects the very opposite of Smiley’s, and though he has a lot more energy than Le Carré’s hollow men, Bond too expresses a desire to leave the service altogether. Espionage may be a great game full of excitement and adventure, but it is basically a dirty business, cruel, brutal, and cold. Villains and heroes change roles so often that by the end of the day, Bond remarks, it is no longer obvious why he should continue taking the risk of being blown up by time bombs, being eaten by sharks or giant squids, or undergoing other equally unpleasant treatment for England’s sake.

Such doubts are of course far more pronounced in Le Carré’s novels, written during the Vietnam period and its aftermath when all the certainties of national allegiance were called into question. As Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, explains to his Communist librarian girlfriend: “Spies are not priests, saints, and martyrs, but a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, pansies, sadists and drunkards, playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

Leamas, to be sure, is a mere pinch-hitter in the British espionage lineup, but even Smiley, the conscience of the Circus and its father figure, is not free of such feelings. He too has reached a dead end. As he writes in a letter to a friend: “During the war the enemy was someone we could point at and read about in the papers. Today all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy. . . .”

What the tone of this letter suggests is that Karla, Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and his antagonist throughout Le Carré’s novels, is not really the enemy at all but another unhappy man beset by self-doubt and frustration. There may once have been a quarrel between Karla’s masters and Smiley’s, but the reasons for it no longer matter and they now continue the fight mainly through inertia. Indeed, as between their Russian enemies and their American allies, some of Le Carré’s heroes seem to believe that the Americans are worse. The CIA in particular is an object of loathing. Made up either of idiots or “fascist puritans,” it is so hateful that even “Control” himself, the head of the Circus, is said “to despise them and all their works which he frequently seeks to undermine.”

Still, it would probably be wrong to make too much of these opinions. They were, after all, a standard element of the Zeitgeist during the late 60′s and early to mid-70′s. It was open season on the CIA during those years, and anti-Americanism was an essential ingredient in the production of quasi-political bestsellers. One might even say that compared to some other spy novels and movies of that period, Le Carré’s books were a model of restraint. Even Fleming’s books, so different from Le Carré’s in other respects and written when anti-Americanism was not yet quite so fashionable, are very condescending toward the “cousins” across the Atlantic. The attitude is so widespread in Britain, Left, Right, and Center, and its roots so well-known, that it hardly needs comment.

Politics aside, perhaps the most striking similarity between Fleming and Le Carré is the fact that their creations are at bottom equally implausible. No one, least of all himself, has ever taken Fleming as anything but an entertainer. (“My books,” he wrote to Raymond Chandler, “are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang-kiss-kiss variety.”) Le Carré, on the other hand, has been praised for all sorts of literary and moral virtues, including most especially his “absolute verisimilitude” and the subtlety and depth of his characterizations. Yet the fact is that Karla, the presiding antagonist of the Smiley series, is actually no more “real” a character than Dr. No or Goldfinger—he is just given the trappings of psychological depth. But investing fantasy characters with psychological interest does not make an unreal world real. On the contrary, it is a kind of confidence trick. As Jacques Barzun wrote in the 1960′s (of the detective story), replacing clues with psychology does not turn a spy story into literature, it simply results in a new mongrel form. Le Carré is at the moment the most skillful practitioner of this new form, but it remains a dubious one. For real characters, as Barzun noted, one still should turn to Balzac; and for real Angst, one might add, to Kierkegaard and Kafka. Nor is the thriller the ideal locale for a discussion of the moral burden of our times.

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Le Carré’s most recent novel, The Little Drummer Girl,1 was preceded by a major publicity build-up, and is clearly the publishing event of the year, if not the decade. The subject could not be more topical: Lebanese refugee camps, and the war going on in the shadows between the PLO and Israeli counter-terrorist units. The book is not really a spy novel as such, but deals with one specific aspect of intelligence: covert action or, to use the Russian term, “active measures.”

Seldom if ever have so many laurel wreaths been distributed in advance. Yet even as the rave reviews were piling up in his agent’s files, the author, in a series of pre-publication interviews, struck a somber note: he was very much concerned that by telling the truth he had invited attacks. He was pretty sure, he said in an interview with Time, that he was going “to attract a great deal of flak particularly in the States for even suggesting there is anything to put in the Palestinian balance.” But before “they” (by which he meant, as he made clear in another interview, “the Jewish lobby in America”) “claw[ed] him apart,” he wished it to be remembered that of the nine novels that preceded The Little Drummer Girl, six had been written with “unqualified sympathy” for Jews.

Now, since novels in which Jews are described with “unqualified sympathy” must be utterly boring to read, it is reassuring to discover that the author’s memory may have played a trick on him. In the six novels Le Carré mentions, there are only three characters who can be presumed to be Jewish, or rather of Jewish origin. (There are also several with German names; if they are meant to be Jewish there is nothing to indicate it.) About one of the three, a Mrs. Aaronsohn in Tinker, Tailor, all we learn is that she is old and ugly. That leaves two others: one is Connie Sachs, a long-time member of the Circus, now retired. Like Mrs. Aaronsohn she too is grotesquely ugly, and also frequently drunk and half mad; when George Smiley leaves her place after the first visit in many years, he reflects that the meeting was even more awful than he had anticipated. Connie Sachs, whose original name had been Salinger (the name change is not explained), is the daughter of a don, and the sister of academics; though impoverished, the family is almost landed gentry. In common with so many of Le Carré’s characters, she behaves like a product of one of the more prestigious public schools who has never quite grown up. She calls her colleagues “my darlings” and is still something of a patriot—which is to say, a dear old fossil belonging to a prehistoric period. In short, Connie Sachs is another English eccentric whose Jewishness is no more significant than her arthritis.

The third Jew is Fiedler, the senior East German secret-police official in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Fiedler, a fanatical Communist, is also a Jew only by accident of birth. He is described as a “savage little bastard” and a loner, disliked and mistrusted by his own people, the “acolyte who will one day stab his boss in the back.” He has almost killed one British agent during an interrogation, and would put a bomb in a restaurant “if it brought us farther along the road.” Some redeeming features: Fiedler, the Stalinist, is not a traitor to his cause and, therefore, is preferable to Mundt, his superior, an ex-Nazi and now a British mole.

These, then, are the three Jewish characters about whom Le Carré has written with “unqualified sympathy.” By enumerating them I do not mean to accuse Le Carré of anti-Semitism—he simply does not seem to like people very much, whatever their ethnic background. But why should this kind of bookkeeping have been introduced into the discussion in the first place? No one has ever argued that all Jews are saints, or that in literature every Jewish villain must be counterbalanced with a Jewish hero. And if, as Le Carré has told the (London) Observer, he feels “deep and sad misgivings about where Begin and those who identify eagerly with him are taking their country,” that is not exactly a minority view these days either in London, New York, or Jerusalem. In the present intellectual climate, it is surely a lot riskier to defend Israel than to attack it. Why then all this smoke about being clawed apart for his views?

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The Little Drummer Girl begins with a Palestinian terrorist attack in the town of Bad Godesberg on the Rhine, in the course of which a small child, the son of the Israeli Labor attaché, is killed. Several other attacks follow. The leading anti-terrorist experts of Mossad, Israel’s secret service, appear on the scene, headed by Schulmann, “a broad-headed, bustling veteran of every battle since Thermopylae, aged beween forty and ninety, squat and Slav and strong, and far more Europe than Hebrew, with a barrel chest and wrestler’s wide stride and a way of putting everyone at his ease.” He is accompanied by a seething acolyte, Shimon Litvak, “not Cassius, perhaps, rather your archetypical Dostoevsky student: starved and in conflict with demons.”

Schulmann’s real name is Kurtz. But though literary comparisons are clearly intended here, they are out of place, for Conrad’s Kurtz was “hollow at the core,” like some members of the Circus, while the Israeli Kurtz is anything but hollow: “He wheeled and dealed and lied even in his prayers but he forced more good luck than the Jews had had for 2,000 years.”

On the whole Kurtz is not a bad man. He is also something of an intellectual, saying things like, “Maybe if Wagner had left that fellow Siegfried in peace, we might have had a better world of it after all.” But the main thing about him is that he is out of tune with the Mossad establishment, with its polygraphs and computers, its abiding faith in American-style power ploys, behavioral psychology, and crisis management. If he does much of the dirty work, it is “for love of Israel, for peace, for moderation.” True, his emaciated sidekick Litvak is a less savory character (though he plays the piano wonderfully, especially Brahms). Litvak lacks Kurtz’s humanity; when the going gets rough, he turns brutal. But Kurtz always cools him down: “‘Go take a bath, Shimon,’ he ordered quietly, ‘a bath, a nice rest, some coffee. Come back around midday. Not before.’”

So far so good: the first forty pages of the book are among the best ever written by Le Carré, who usually needs a longish time to warm up. He knows Bonn and its suburbs, has probably met the German counterterrorist experts described here, and conveys it all very well. Never mind that types like Kurtz and Litvak do not exist, and that the Mossad, if it has had any successes at all, owes them not to adopting American methods but rather to ignoring them. None of this matters very much. If Kurtz does not exist, neither does Smiley, and if Le Carré’s Mossad bears little resemblance to the institution known by that name in the real world, the same is presumably true of the Circus’s relation to the real British SIS. The author makes it sound plausible, and up to a point, at least, entertaining to read about.

That point arrives when Kurtz decides to recruit a young English actress, “Charlie,” to penetrate the most dangerous terrorist network in the world and above all to liquidate Khalil, the Palestinian who is the mastermind of the attacks in Europe. Charlie, who belongs to a far Left Trotskyite or anarchist group, would seem an unlikely candidate for this assignment. But on the island of Mykonos she is brought together with Joseph, a handsome Mossad seducer—a mixture of Svengali, Siegfried, and Parsifal—and falls in love with him. Charlie is then abducted by the Mossad, and after a protracted siege of friendly but relentless brainwashing she agrees for love of Joseph to play the role assigned to her: she will become Khalil’s mistress and lure him to his death.

This idea has been used before, for instance by Richard Condon in The Manchurian Candidate, but perhaps never on such a high level of sophistication. For Charlie, the little drummer girl, falls in love not only with Joseph but also with the Palestinian terrorists and their cause—even as she is betraying them. Charlie plays her role to the bitter end. The Israeli counterterrorists get their man, and eventually, against all odds, Charlie also gets Joseph, for the Mossad agent has by this time developed his own strong reservations about Israél (“What are we to become? A Jewish homeland or an ugly little Spartan state?”). And so we take leave of the two of them, walking alone together in a strange city.

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The plot of The Little Drummer Girl, in other words, is perfectly idiotic. No more so, perhaps, than the plot of The Boys from Brazil, The Holcroft Covenant, or The Eye of the Needle, but Le Carré presumably is to be measured by a different yardstick. After all, it is unlikely that Messrs. Levin, Ludlum, or Follett will ever make the cover of Newsweek or Time, or be asked to comment on intelligence matters by the New York Times. Nor will the cardboard heroes and villains of their bestselling novels ever be taken seriously.

Le Carré’s characters are taken seriously, not just because they are portrayed as moral seekers but because they are said to have real feelings and to be highly cultivated. In this novel, Arab gunmen and Israeli spymasters have lengthy discussions about Bakunin, Sartre, Marcuse, Debray, Fanon, Guevara, and Marighela; only Gramsci is missing, perhaps because he was preempted by John Fowles in Daniel Martin. There are also references to, among others, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bishop Berkeley, Brecht, Fellini, Emil Nolde, the columns of Baalbek, and the mosaics of Augustus and Constantine. Even the little drummer girl’s female prison warden is so busy reading Thomas Hardy she forgets to keep an eye on her ward.

What makes The Little Drummer Girl so awful is not Le Carré’s suggestion that the Palestinians have a “case”; not even Menachem Begin would contest this. Nor is it the fact that Israeli agents are shown cold-bloodedly killing Palestinian terrorists (and vice versa). Far worse things have happened in the Middle East than occur in this novel. What is objectionable about The Little Drummer Girl is the fraudulent air of authenticity hovering about all those impossible situations, which derive less from the real world than from various conflicting literary traditions.

For if Le Carré’s work betrays clear literary debts to Conrad and Graham Greene (not to mention the Boy’s Own Paper, that sturdy embodiment of unabashed colonial values), The Little Drummer Girl seems to have yet another source of inspiration, the hallowed British-Oriental romantic tradition leading from The Garden of Allah, Beau Geste, and The Sheik. Charlie looks suspiciously like a granddaughter of the oft-ravished Miss Mayo, heroine of The Sheik, who found both pain and unbearable pleasure in the arms of her desert lover.

Writing about The Sheik some years ago, Claud Cockburn noted that what gave the book its appeal was the attraction of pre-modern dream countries still unspoiled by politics. The observation seemed astute at the time but turns out to have been quite wrong. Both the sheiks and their antagonists have since been modernized and politicized, and some of them have even read Marcuse and Frantz Fanon, but this does not seem to have lessened their sex appeal: “I am not afraid of anything with your arms around me,” Miss Mayo murmured at the end of The Sheik to her desert lover. In exactly the same way Charlie finds fulfillment with her desert lover, in spite of all he has inflicted on her. (Of course, while The Sheik and Beau Geste were enormous successes, no one thought of comparing their authors with Stendhal or Balzac, as Le Carré has been, nor were these books read as comments on the moral dilemmas of the time.)

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Le Carré’s popular success is not hard to understand. Apart from the intrinsic fascination of suspense stories, such novels are now read by many people as actual descriptions of the hidden manipulations behind world events—in contrast to the boring stuff that gets reported in the newspapers. And Le Carré is indisputably a talented writer. Were it not for his intellectual pretensions, he might have become the English Simenon.

Le Carré’s critical success is somewhat harder to explain. One factor here is certainly his sensitivity to political fashion. Le Carré was anti-American and anti-German at the right time, and the line he took vis-à-vis the British secret service—“progressive” but not too much so—was also perfectly in harmony with the Zeitgeist. The same can now be said of his pro-Palestinian Arab line. But if such positioning has undoubtedly been helpful, it is not the main explanation for the awe in which he is held—greater in the United States, incidentally, than in England.

Indeed, the difference between British and American reviews of The Little Drummer Girl is quite striking. The New York Times Book Review called it “a wonderful achievement. . . . The most mature, inventive, and powerful book about terrorists-come-to-life.” In the Washington Post it was hailed as “a work of enormous power . . . fiction on a grand scale.” And the reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times were almost equally enthusiastic. In his own country, by contrast, the Daily Telegraph described the book as “a failure” and remarked that Le Carré “takes himself . . . much too seriously.” The Times Literary Supplement invoked the term “kitsch.” And the London Times daily edition all but dismissed it as “a romance, and not of a grand poetic kind like the books of Conan Dcyle and Buchan, but more like Mary Stewart solidified a bit with technical and geographical expertise.”2

Perhaps American critics are peculiarly susceptible to the intellectual pretensions of foreign writers, particularly when they work in a genre not normally associated with a high degree of literacy. Whatever the cause, Le Carré has benefited handsomely from the inflation of this honorable, modest genre to an absurdly high status. The spy may not be a representative figure of our age, but Le Carré seems to have become one. Considering that he can be read profitably neither for verisimilitude, nor as great literature, nor for moral edification, this is no small achievement.


Footnotes

1 Knopf, 429 pp., $15.95.

2 Reportedly at Le Carré’s insistence, advertisements for The Little Drummer Girl in the British press quoted only American laudatory comments (not a common practice in London). This in turn inspired British satirical papers like Private Eye to devote considerable space to imaginary American reviews even more fulsome than the ones I have cited here: “The greatest writer of all time”; “not only the greatest writer, but also the greatest thinker of all time”; “every page, every sentence, every word in this immortal masterpiece glows with the fire of divine creation and resonates in the soul with the luminosity of genius”; and so on and so forth.

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