Literary Thrills: In appreciation of John le Carré (1931-2020)

John le Carré is one of my handful of favourite novelists, a category filled with writers who have taught me something about the craft and whom I regularly reread. It is probably due to le Carré that one of my earliest attempts at novel writing was a thriller. It was not a Cold War thriller – I would never have dreamed of competing with territory le Carré claimed and remade as his own, the way Fitzgerald didn’t just reflect or coin the term “the Jazz Age” but defined it in our imaginations with The Great Gatsby. But my beginner’s novel was a thriller with betrayal at the heart of it, which is of course le Carré’s great recurring theme. And it’s probably due to le Carré’s influence that suspense features in no small part in my literary novels.

 It was Horace over two thousand years ago who wrote that the purpose of literature is to “instruct and delight.” If genre fiction often instructs to delight, and literary fiction often delights to instruct, the great writers like le Carré blur the lines so you can’t tell the difference, and better still, don’t care. Despite the high-brow opinions of some humourless detractors who turned up their noses at him, le Carré soared easily out of the genre ghetto on the wings of his beautiful writing, his inimitable way of capturing dialogue and delineating character, his chronicling of the aftermath of Empire, his elegiac account in book after book of the struggle of ordinary men and women to preserve their humanity in the wake of harsh ideology and its democratic cousin’s lesser incarnation: bureaucracy.

Le Carré writes in the past tense, as most novelists do, except when he is writing about the past, usually by way of a character remembering their experience, and then suddenly he veers into the present tense. In so doing, he reminds us that our memories are not something from the past. They are often more vivid and real to us than our present which is rushing past us for the first time. The past is our constant companion, helping us interpret the present while also limiting its possibilities. The way le Carré shifts back and forth in time and place, like every thriller writer, is another technique I’ve taken with me into my literary fiction.

Then there is le Carré’s never cheap, almost always languid but still driving sense of suspense, which by his skill reminds us that suspense is not just a mere technical device to keep us turning pages but one of the primary organising principles of our lives. This is why thrillers and detective fiction meet some deep need in us beyond mere entertainment: we have no idea what will happen to us tomorrow, let alone a year from now. Each of our individual lives is a suspense novel waiting to happen.

It’s no surprise le Carré entitled his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, and why he lovingly returns in novel after novel to one theme, like one of those Monte Carlo pigeons trained to return to their homes in the tunnel, even though this means there will be no escape for them from the people who come to shoot them for sport. A few years ago, my friend the novelist Todd Babiak and I were talking about our favourite writers, and we both mentioned le Carré. I said at the time, with some qualified admiration, that le Carré wrote the same book over and over again. And Todd responded, “Yes, and what a book it is.” Indeed.

This is because le Carré’s great theme is not espionage but betrayal. Spying is simply his backdrop, his way in. Betrayal in all its forms. Betrayal of one’s country,  of course, as is to be expected of a spy novelist, but also betrayal of the individual by the state. Betrayal of one’s enemies, naturally, but also betrayal of one’s friends and lovers. But the worst sort of betrayal, and this is le Carré’s greatest literary obsession, is the betrayal of oneself. Of one’s ideals. Of one’s nature. It’s not for nothing that Philip Roth called le Carré’s The Perfect Spy the “best English novel since the war.” And it’s no coincidence that le Carré draws parallels between his own life and that of a double agent. Part of being a writer sometimes feels like being a spy. Listening to dialogue in cafés. Spying on life for the purposes of reinventing it in one’s books.

He was one of the writers who taught me that a writer’s job is not simply to observe the details of life around them and describe those details to the best of their ability, but to forever alter how we view that world. There is no small irony in how The Spy Who Came in From the Cold passed the censors at the British Secret Service to whom le Carré had to submit all his pre-publication manuscripts while he remained in their employ. They concluded that its account of the state’s betrayal of the individual was so farfetched that no reasonable reader would ever believe it could be true. But believe, we all did. After the cartoonish exploits of James Bond, le Carré, more than any other writer, including those who have followed in his giant wake, invented the world of spying for us. Invented the word “mole” to denote a double agent buried deep within an enemy service.

In his essay “Culture Now,” Saul Bellow wrote: “Art cannot and should not compete with amusement. It has business at the heart of humanity. The artist, as Collingwood tells us, must be a prophet, ‘not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but that he tells the audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts.’” Le Carré was a poet who used spying as a metaphor to tell us those secrets of our own hearts.

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