Commentary Magazine


Spies and Le Carre

To the Editor:

Walter Laqueur begins his article on John le Carré by disputing the notion I hazarded some years ago that the spy was the representative man of our time [“Le Carré's Fantasies,” June]. Mr. Laqueur points out, quite rightly, that the spy is no fashion-setter or role model. To say this is a kind of tautology, since very few people know who is a spy or where to find one.

But what my article, “Meditations on the Literature of Spying” (American Scholar, Spring 1965), tried to say was something else: first, that the spy of fiction represents us, not that we follow his lead. I specified at length, with a variety of examples, what he represents—our feelings about ourselves and our attitudes toward the world. We are—or tend to be—ambivalent and ambiguous, double-agents. We rather despise what we and our associates do, feeling that we are all agents, not men, expendable and anonymous besides: 007′s or “M’s.”

As for the world, it is not our oyster but enemy country. Everybody, to quote one writer, “is fighting the long grim fight,” eternally suspicious of all motives (read our current biographies) and ever tempted to sabotage society in a non-heroic way. Under a stoic mask we feel sorry for ourselves, and justly so: being deceived and misunderstood, as well as deceiving, we find that love and friendship are delusions and we are lonely. Social and psychiatric studies tell us little else, and poetry, novels, and the stage repeat the tale. It is the satisfaction of such feelings that makes us think the life of espionage “realistic.”

These generalities may have been rough-hewn when I uttered them twenty year ago; they may need to be modified now; but they certainly were absent from the mind of Mr. Laqueur when he thought he was contradicting what I proposed.

Jacques Barzun
New York City

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To the Editor:

Walter Laqueur’s article on John le Carré’s latest work, The Little Drummer Girl, appears to be motivated more by pique at Le Carré’s success than by a sincere desire to judge the book. While The Little Drummer Girl has its share of faults, for the most part these lie in the execution of Le Carré’s ambitious undertaking, not in the ambition itself.

Mr. Laqueur writes that the “thriller” is an “honorable, modest genre,” one “not normally associated with a high degree of literacy.” In his view, Le Carré, by attempting to move beyond the formulaic clichés of the field and say something about the motivations and psychology of his characters (not to mention the world they inhabit), shows “intellectual pretensions” and inflates the genre “to an absurdly high status.” Where is it written that fiction must conform to rigid boundaries, that an author may not use a familiar form as a vehicle for perceptive insights? Why must anyone who mentions serious writers (e.g., Le Carré bringing in Mann, Berkeley, Brecht, et al.) in a heretofore illiterate environment be put in the stocks?

Instead of merely stating that “The plot of The Little Drummer Girl, in other words, is perfectly idiotic,” Mr. Laqueur should have demonstrated clearly why that is true. Instead of simply attacking what he thought was a “fraudulent air of authenticity” in the book, Mr. Laqueur could have shown, whether by citing his own experiences or those of others, exactly how Le Carré’s characters and situations are implausible. It is not that he does not have a case (the recruitment of Charlie is one of the book’s weakest points), but rather that he fails to go beyond snide remarks to document it.

There are serious problems with The Little Drummer Girl, foremost among them Le Carré’s famed “evenhandedness,” which, in this instance, gives equal space and credence to facts and PLO propaganda. But the book should be criticized on legitimate grounds, not for the fact of the author’s popular coup. . . .

Gideon Rose
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

As someone who has lived under both Hitlerism and Stalinism, I became an avid reader of John le Carré’s cold-war novels. . . . Each of the books in the “Smiley trilogy” became increasingly better reading; I admired Le Carré’s description of the human condition, set against the backdrop of a fictitious struggle between British and Soviet intelligence organizations. . . .

Walter Laqueur, however, ridicules those readers who have fallen for Le Carré’s alleged “verisimilitude” or believed in “the depth of his characterizations.” And in what must be considered the worst comparison in recent literary criticism, Mr. Laqueur then adds insult to injury by accusing Le Carré of creating characters that are at bottom just as implausible as those of Ian Fleming.

I will resist discussing all of Mr. Laqueur’s allegations, . . . but will address myself only to his sly innuendo that Le Carré is anti-Semitic; it is true that Mr. Laqueur formally denies this charge, but only after examining the Jewish characters in Le Carré’s books and finding that they have few if any redeeming features. . . .

The extent of Mr. Laqueur’s misjudgments and superficiality can best be understood by examining Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a character Mr. Laqueur summarily dismisses. There are four main characters in the book, a spy novel which has not been equaled since its publication in 1963: Leamas, the disillusioned anti-hero who works for London; Mundt, the ex-Nazi who runs East German security; Fiedler, the brooding intellectual East German Communist who suspects his superior of treason; and Liz Gold, the naive, idealistic British Communist party member. Her Jewishness is crucial to the story, but it is inexplicably overlooked by Mr. Laqueur.

London wants Fiedler destroyed to save Mundt, its “mole” in the East German regime. London’s plan hinges on the mutual sympathy that will develop between Leamas and Fiedler: behind their cynical, jaded façades, both men in fact . . . attempt to stay true to what they perceive as their ideals. It is the book’s supreme irony that in a fearfully symmetrical denouement, Leamas unwittingly helps destroy Fiedler, thus helping to restore Mundt’s credibility in the eyes of the East Germans. . . .

But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold should be read on another level: as a reflection of the Stalinist show trials of the late 40′s and early 50′s in Eastern Europe. Fiedler personifies the old guard, intellectual Communists—mostly Jewish—whom the Stalinist apparat had to destroy. Leamas’s words to the tribunal: “I’ll tell you something—no one else will. . . . Mundt had Fiedler beaten up, and all the time, while it was going on, Mundt baited him and jeered at him for being a Jew.” This mirrors the actual truth: Hungarian, Polish, and Czech Communists of Jewish background were above all jeered at as Jews during their interrogation and torture. Nowhere was this as obvious as in Czechoslovakia; seven out of nine “deviationist” Communists tried in Prague, including Slansky, general secretary of the party, were vilified as Jews. And earlier, in a similar trial in Hungary, the accused who had changed their names were meticulously identified by their original, Jewish-sounding names.

It is surprising that Mr. Laqueur would miss these historical analogies and can accuse Le Carré of implausibility. After all, how many Western authors have written about these trials, not to mention with Le Carré’s insight and sympathy for the falsely accused Jewish Communists—and as early as 1963?

And now about The Little Drummer Girl, set in the Middle East. In a curious twist, Mr. Laqueur now finds a “fraudulent air of authenticity hovering about all [the] implausible situations” described in the book. He singles out Kurtz, the leading Israeli anti-terrorist expert, for his analysis. First he searches for literary clues and finds that the trail leading to Conrad is a cold one. Mr. Laqueur is looking for a Jewish villain, but Kurtz defies categorization. . . . Mr. Laqueur himself supplies enough quotes to illustrate Kurtz’s nonconformism, yet never spells it out.

Kurtz is a Jewish Smiley. But just as Mr. Laqueur consistently refuses to recognize Smiley’s humanity and integrity amid the cunning required by his profession, so he refuses to see Kurtz’s higher morality in his skeptic’s disguise. Le Carré describes Kurtz as “too paradoxical, too complicated, made of too many souls and colors,” and this does not fit into Mr. Laqueur’s argument. In fact, Le Carré captures the more general fate of the Jews when he says about Kurtz: “When he spoke of death, it was clear that death had passed by him often and very close, and might any moment come his way again.”

I also take exception to Mr. Laqueur’s accusation that Le Carré takes a pro-Palestinian Arab line in this book. Equating sympathy for bombing victims with a pro-Palestinian stand can only be attributed to narrow-mindedness. After the unusual publicity build-up that preceded The Little Drummer Girl, I was frankly disappointed by the book. I found its overwrought plot slightly insulting to my intelligence, but not at all offensive to my hypersensitive Jewish feelings.

Thomas B. Windholz
New York City

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Walter Laqueur writes:

I have no quarrel with what Jacques Barzun is saying.

Gideon Rose seems to believe that I am a writer of espionage fiction. This attractive idea had not occurred to me previously. But since I am not really a competitor, the allegation that my article was motivated by pique at Le Carré’s success seems to me farfetched. The authors of Jaws, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and other such books have sold even more copies than Le Carré. I may have felt regret that I am not in this league—what writer would not?—but there were no feelings of envy.

Thomas B. Windholz has lived under both Hitlerism and Stalinism, but Le Carré, alas, has not. Mr. Windholz says that he found The Little Drummer Girl not offensive to his Jewish feelings. Nor did I. Le Carré was charged with anti-Semitism by some critics following the publication of an earlier book, a fact which seems to have escaped Mr. Windholz. I tried to make it clear, unfortunately without success, that I thought this specific charge misplaced: Le Carré seems not to like people in general, why should Jews get preferential treatment? As for Fiedler, the Jewish Communist in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it is perfectly true that Le Carré makes him more sympathetic than Mundt, the ex-Nazi; one ought to be grateful for small mercies. Regarding Liz Gold (in the same novel), I did note that there are a number of characters in these novels who, judging by their names, may or may not be Jewish. But their Jewishness is no more meaningful in this context than the color of their hair, and the issue is therefore irrelevant.

I fail to see any analogies between this novel and the trials, in the early 1950′s, of Czech, Polish, and Hungarian Communists. As far as Hungary and Poland are concerned, the main victims were, in any case, not Jewish. I referred to Le Carré’s sympathies for Arafat, not for the suffering of the Palestinian victims in the camps. I regret that Mr. Windholz does not like my comparison between Le Carré and Ian Fleming, but I still think it is very much to the point. It is a case of Left versus Right, in the general framework of Eton. They may have detested each other, but they still have a good deal in common. As for the question of verisimilitude, I did not say that this is the only decisive yardstick of spy stories. I was commenting on false pretenses of verisimilitude. And Mr. Windholz, in the last paragraph of his letter, seems to agree with me—albeit somewhat reluctantly.

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