Whither/Wither le Carré ?

I finally got a chance yesterday to read the Review section of the Observer from the weekend just gone. ‘Paperback of the Week’ grabbed my attention because it was about ‘A Delicate Truth’ by John le Carré. I read the book when it came out and was interested to see what the ‘smart money’ thought of it.

Edward Docx (hmm?) thought there were flaws, the character of Mrs Spencer Hardy being the main one. She is, for our Edward, too much of a cartoon character, a two dimensional device to serve a plot requirement. This flaw, if it is one, and we’ll come back to that point in a second, is one which many believe ‘late le Carré’ is prone to, according to Edward.  He asks the question whether it is possible to believe le Carré is both an important writer whose works will be read for centuries, and a writer whose formal skills are undermined by ‘a weakness for clichés of characterisation and pedestrian late period imaginings of “good” and “bad”’.

He doesn’t give us answer but falls back on saying that le Carré gives him great reading pleasure.

I’m glad he does.

I would agree that le Carré’s later works are sometimes not quite as brilliant as ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but are we surprised at this? How many novels of that quality does one man have in him? There is also the point, and it is a major one, that the world has changed.  We should not forget the shock that the murky, seedy world of espionage as portrayed in the cinema verité form of le Carré’s early works, caused. In a post war flight from reality, espionage stories had been about a fantasy world of upper class heroes, partying their way across the glitzy resorts of the world. Le Carré shocked because he turned his back on this fantasy world, and shone a light into the murkier demi monde  of what spies really did.

When he did that his work was considered ‘edgy’, exposing great truths about society. We expect that sort of world to exist now. It no longer shocks or surprises. To keep plugging the same line would be flogging a one trick pony to death. The world has moved on, and so has le Carré. Perhaps more than those who grew up reading him would like. In the cold war it seemed that despite everything, if one dug deeply enough we knew who was good and who was bad. Psychopaths were there but the system in the west restrained and channelled them whereas the Communists gave them free rein. Flawed, nuanced, doubtful characters abounded, but we knew ours were safer than theirs.


We don’t know that now. Our society revelled in beating communism and forgot that bit about psychopaths being everywhere. Le Carré hasn’t, and if some of his obsession with good and bad seems just that, an obsession, it may be because he sees it more clearly than those blinded by the smoke and mirrors. It may very well be that Mrs Spencer Hardy is a little two dimensional. Some people are. She may be a thinly drawn cipher of a right wing American whose hatred of everything governmental transcends sense and morality, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t an accurate portrayal of what is going on in some areas of the western establishment.

Le Carré’s ‘imaginings’ of good and bad only appear pedestrian because so many of us have swallowed the relativist pap we have been fed in recent years. Le Carré has well rehearsed worries about where our Intelligence Services may take us if we allow them to go unchecked. I don’t think that is as much of a problem as it may appear. What worries me more is the privatisation of the intelligence and security sector. A concern le Carré now seems to share. In ‘A Delicate Truth’ he refocuses, in a well timed swing, on the ‘Private Contractors’ who increasingly act as highly paid, unaccountable, self appointed mercenary arms of the State. And increasingly of a State which represents not the will of the People but the will of Global Corporations whose reach and interests subvert and obscure the real purpose of Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

A writer who will be read for centuries? Depends who is controlling what we read.

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