‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story,” John le Carré told The New York Times back in 1977. ‘“The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” Which is brilliant.
More than a mere storyteller, though, le Carré, who died this weekend, was one of those rare writers whose writerly vision immerses itself in the reader’s imagination. It is thanks to him that most of us feel it was usually raining behind the Iron Curtain. He also, perhaps more importantly, gave us a framework for understanding our own country. It was one in which you could see Britain in the context of all other countries, and despair of its flaws, and perhaps even dislike quite a lot of it, and yet still absolutely root for it over everywhere else. And I think, at the moment, this is a framework we should be all remember. Because it might be about to come in quite useful.
I love John le Carré, and I say that comfortably in the present tense because books, unlike authors, never die. When he moved publishers little over a decade ago, I wrote a leading article for this paper which parodied the defection in his own style and concluded: “Outside the grey rain still fell on grey streets and good people still died all the time.” At the risk of boasting, some days I feel I will never write anything finer. What a voice he had. So unique and so imitable, all at once.
His earlier novels can feel like work, with their warrens of corridors and grim people in small rooms heated by electric bar fires, but the more they sprawl, the better they get. Perhaps unfashionably, I prefer his later ones. With The Constant Gardener, a book he published at 70, you have a gritty analysis of the pharmaceutical industry, the culture of overseas aid workers, and bleak and distant African refugee camps to rival the work of any foreign correspondent or investigative reporter, all with a sizzling plot twisted in, to boot.
With The Night Manager, familiar recently thanks to the BBC adaptation, the plot rattles around between the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America, all a long way from the intrigues of Cambridge Circus, Berlin, or even Moscow. After the end of the Cold War, it was almost as though le Carré was having to travel further and further afield to find a canvas bleak enough on which to write as he did best. Although I notice that his last book, Agent Running in the Field, brings us right back to Europe, amid what one character calls the “unmitigated clusterf***” of Brexit. So that’s cheery.
Somehow, because of his own intelligence background, le Carré always seemed a little bit more than just a novelist. Earlier this year he won the Swedish Olof Palme Prize which more often goes to politicians, campaigners and whistleblowers. On the flipside, the author found himself in battle last year with Sir Richard Dearlove, the frankly le Carré-esquely-named former head of MI6. According to the ex-spy boss, le Carré was “so corrosive in his view of MI6 that most professional Secret Intelligence Service officers are pretty angry with him” and suggested that “something must have happened to him” in his time in intelligence to “breed this cynicism”. Which is not a critique many would bother making of, say, Austin Powers.
Responding in this paper, at any rate, le Carré gave as good as he got. Going back to his time in the intelligence services, he retorted, plenty had happened, including the exposure of George Blake and Kim Philby as Russian spies, responsible between them for thousands “liquidated, imprisoned, or missing believed interrogated”. He was still definitely a writer rather than an activist, though. Deep within Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Roy Bland reminds George Smiley of F Scott Fitzgerald’s idea that “an artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function,” and with each of his books, le Carré fills that brief. For all their chilly despair, none of them could be taken for an anti-espionage polemic. There are, always, good guys and bad guys. They’re just sometimes sitting at the wrong cluttered desk.
In his speech in Sweden, picking up that prize, he described Smiley, his most famous creation, as “besieged by moral doubt”. In his books, Smiley even has doubt about his doubt. “A lot of people see doubt as a legitimate philosophical posture,” he says in The Honourable Schoolboy. “They think of themselves in the middle, whereas, of course, really they’re nowhere.”
Also in that speech, he was positively bitter about Brexit. “We Brits are all nationalists now, or so Johnson would have us believe,” he seethed, “but to be a nationalist you need enemies and the shabbiest trick in the Brexiteers’ box was to make an enemy of Europe.” Since the 2016 referendum, in interviews, he has openly wrestled with the idea of loyalty to a country that has begun to disappoint you. Although I suppose that’s what he was doing all along.
What le Carré never did, though, was defect. I don’t mean that in a crass, literal, Kim Philby way, because of course he didn’t. I mean that he never seemed to be rooting for somebody else instead. Unpicked, I suppose, le Carré’s constant theme is that morality, patriotism and blind national obedience can often pull in different directions. It’s a theme worth remembering, this month of all months, as we approach the final Brexit deadline. Remember, it is possible to regard the powers-that-be as venal, useless, chaotic and frequently malign, while grimly and inescapably being on their side, anyway, in the greater national interest.
He managed it, so did Smiley, and so can you.
Hugo Rifkind is a columnist and leader writer for The Times. Formerly a columnist for The Herald, he joined The Times in 2005 as a diarist and features writer. He now writes a weekly opinion column and My Week, a diary parody. He also writes regular columns for The Spectator and GQ and is a frequent panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz. His novel, Overexposure, was published in 2006. Hugo was named columnist of the year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards 2011.