‘A Legacy of Spies’ brings together two of John le Carré’s greatest characters – but why?
John le Carré is one of the more remarkable writers alive today, not least because he’s been in his time a supreme entertainer. And that is, by necessity, a point at which roads cross: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is about as good as a one-off spy story can be – witness Martin Ritt’s brooding and brilliant 1965 film with Richard Burton at his grandest, sodden and sullen as the alcohol-fuelled Leamas; Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and Smiley’s People between them form an extraordinary dark and complicated enchantment of a spy saga – think of the magnificent late ’70s / early ’80s brace of miniseries with Alec Guinness, no less, as Smiley leading a troupe of some of the greatest actors on earth (Ian Richardson, Beryl Reid, Curt Jürgens, Siân Phillips) in ten hours or so of ratiocination and skullduggery, of crossed alliances and pitiable betrayals and crookedness and wisdom that made the 2011 Gary Oldman remake of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy seem like the merest tinkling cymbal of a footnote.
Of course, the fact that we think of the famous film or TV versions is relevant in itself. They are each – the Spy movie and the Smiley miniseries – superior to their literary originals even if part of that superiority is a product of their fidelity. And David Cornwell (the author’s real name) confessed as much when he said at the end of the treasurable DVD set that in the midst of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being filmed by the BBC he realised he was writing Smiley’s People for a character who had been enriched (subtilised, presumably, and deepened; naturalised anyway) by Sir Alec’s incomparable performance. All of which is pertinent to le Carré’s new book A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin; $32.99) because it brings together Leamas and Smiley and you have to wonder why.
It’s odd enough that John le Carré, who as a franchise seemed to be going great guns with the much-expanded TV version of The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie – also superior to its original – should have taken a leap back into the dark and backward abysm of time to embrace again the fog and wraith-like uncertainties of the Cold War to which he became a cloak and dagger stiff-upper-lip Homer. But what makes resistance doubly dour is that Leamas and Smiley belong to radically different visions of the Cold War.
If le Carré has a God-given book, it’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which made him famous and received its transfiguring film treatment that made him even more so. It helped that Burton had an empathy for the role of Leamas that was all but absolute, but he was assisted by some of the greater actors alive as well: Claire Bloom as the girl; the great Oskar Werner as Fiedler, the Jewish Stasi man. Burton’s Leamas was a kind of Jimmy Porter writ taciturn, meeting death like a martyr or reluctant tragic hero by the Berlin Wall. He was whatever was left of what was best in the West, confronting crucifixion by the Golgotha of a totalitarianism with which it had become complicit.
With Smiley it’s all a different caper. It doesn’t matter if he appears in the early books or if he makes an entrance in Spy because he reaches his apotheosis in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People as le Carré’s super sleuth and saint figure, a kind of Father Brown of glinting intelligence and irony and self-deprecation who is also a man of wisdom – willing to come last, the bloke in a bad suit who knows the music of how things are.
By the time le Carré has written the two great Smiley books – and seen them brought to fulfilment by a great actor – the Cold War has become the great game and we feel that active ambiguous thrill we get when the highest kind of entertainment flickers in and out of emotional reality measured by suspense.
So why on earth bring Leamas and Smiley together (or at any rate centrally contingent with each other) in this new book?
If The Spy Who Came In from the Cold comes as close to art as apparent trash-writing can, and the Smiley books make us think that le Carré is the equal of Wilkie Collins or Raymond Chandler, and Smiley is the saint who will restore grace to a dismayed world (Auden’s theory of the detective story), why muddy the waters by bringing them together?
A Legacy of Spies begins with details about the childhood of Peter Guillam in Brittany. Le Carré diehards will recall that Peter Guillam – played, in the Guinness TV version, by Michael Jayston, who does the audio book versions of le Carre’s novels replete with Guinness’ voice as Smiley – is the henchman of Smiley, the young man who runs around investigating and doing the beat. According to rough calculation, he would be at least 80 if he were alive now and, in fact – as A Legacy of Spies tends to indicate – probably closer to the age of le Carré, who was born in 1931.
All of which becomes pertinent because Guillam is summoned from his retirement in Brittany by two spooks who work for the organisation that has succeeded the Circus because accusations are being brought by a child of Leamas and, separately, by a child of Elizabeth Gold, the Claire Bloom figure, about their deaths, and the death of his one-time European mistress.
All of this is very odd because it takes such a nosedive back into the unwanted minutiae of the fictional past and it also does so with what looks like a degree of temporal confusion.
The spooks who interrogate Guillam – a fortyish public schoolboy and a “classless” woman, neither of them the recipient of any golden light of sympathy from the author – live in a world of smartphones and the arcana of the social media world and yet it’s difficult to see that Guillam could actually be an octogenarian given the way he acts here. And later in the piece there’s a face-to-face meeting with Smiley, who, if we attribute arbitrarily the birthdate of his most famous interpreter, would now be 103.
It’s also difficult to credit the idea that Guillam could have lost contact with Smiley and not know if he’s alive or dead. So we’re left with the odd and disconcerting response to the usually silky smooth le Carré – smooth, at least, in his narrative elements – that we’re witnessing an old man’s performance. A Legacy of Spies is set about 20 years ago, though that time frame has somehow been anachronised by various trappings from the present.
The difficulty comes partly from the fact that the Cold War was both a historically determined time and – not least in le Carré’s hands – a mythological era of trick mirrors and cross-purposes, a world of treacheries made tolerable by Smiley’s small still voice as well as the fact that Cold Wars are pretty cool compared with what they turn the heat down on.
It’s interesting, of course, that le Carré fled the Cold War when the Wall came down and this always came across as a kind of historical integrity, the thing that was implicit behind his inwardness with this secret world. It’s arguable, too, but has nothing much to do with A Legacy of Spies, that his most formidable piece of writing apart from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is A Perfect Spy, a kind of coded autobiography that presents the subject as a sympathetic traitor swamped by a son-of-a-bitch charmer of a father.
In practice, A Legacy of Spies is a strange attempt to warm old soups by blowing on them. There are accusations of complicity in brutal murder and an entrance from one of the most villanous figures from the early books. But a lot of the action in Legacy is conveyed through the lost files of the infamous case, the story of Leamas’ mistress brought to England and savagely slaughtered – as it is conveyed, Moonstone-like, through the officialese of a stack of Circus reports.
The narrative logic is one of exhumation and it tends to be a little self-defeating because the details about the new characters tend to be recessed: they are, almost definitionally, referred to rather than directly presented. When the book does lurch into a dramatic present tense – never mind the smartphones and the wavering time frame – it is in le Carré’s most harrumphing style.
He is a magician of action and a kind of serene scene-setting and chat that make action possible, but when his rhetoric gets self-conscious it’s inclined to be windy.
A Legacy of Spies is a weird combination of cold cases from a pitiless Cold War that never quite touches the heart and a sort of blustering unconsoled old buffer’s rant at a later time that is in no position to judge the difficult duplicities of a world that strove, at least the best of it did, to achieve a moral decency.
This book will fascinate every le Carré diehard. It seems, though, to lack the eerie ambivalent magnetism of the portrait Adam Sisman drew in his 2015 biography, and the extraordinary fragments le Carré himself collected in his memoir anthology The Pigeon Tunnel, published last year.
The idea of le Carré returning to the world of the Cold you try to come in from or the land of Smileys who move by night is a weird one: it’s a bit like Alice coming back to Wonderland as a middle-aged matron.
It seems in the end a category mistake: Leamas is a tragic antihero, Smiley is a saintly super sleuth, never mind the clay feet. Imagine if Hamlet somehow had to share dramatic space with that wise guy, the Duke in Measure for Measure, the chap who says, “Thou art not thyself; / For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust … Thou hast nor youth nor age, / But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep, / Dreaming on both.”
As it happens, both those Shakespeare figures occupy similar patches of local turf, yet one is brightly tragic, one is sagely comic.
No one in A Legacy of Spies is quite himself. Every le Carré fan will want to read it, but it is, alas, a kind of dotage we are presented with here.
It is a bit odd that the book comes with an encomium from Ian McEwan saying that le Carré is “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain”. Significant how? Significant in the way that John Updike said the creation of a figure like Superman could transcend anything a literary novelist could invent? Is he more significant than the Evelyn Waugh of Brideshead or Sword of Honour, than mature Graham Greene, or Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, than Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: let’s not get our pleasures and our values as confounded as all that.
A Legacy of Spies is far and away the most minor thing le Carré has written with a Cold War setting. It is a reminder though – a wrong-footed reminder – that The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a work of extraordinary drama and poignancy, an unforgettable portrait of what was most terrible about its times. And that the two great Smiley books make enchantment from the escapades of dark deeds.