September 6, 2013

‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ by John le Carre

What is most satisfying about John le Carre’s first great success — first of many, as it turned out — is how well it holds up on this, its 50th anniversary. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall are long since gone, but the story le Carre constructed around the days when both threatened the stability and even the survival of civilization has lost none of its pertinence. The themes his splendid novel treats — the relationship between the individual and the state, the dangers of ideology, the brotherhood of enemies, the infinite human capacity for deceit and unfaithfulness, and the limited human capacity for loyalty and constancy — are every bit as much with us now as they were in 1963. The cast of characters and the antagonists are quite different, but the essential story is the same.

“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” le Carre says in his brief introduction to this celebratory edition, “was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion. Fifty years on, I don’t associate the book with anything that ever happened to me, save for one wordless encounter at London airport when a worn-out middle-aged military kind of man in a stained raincoat slammed a handful of mixed foreign change onto the bar and in a gritty Irish accent ordered himself as much Scotch as it would buy. In that moment, Alec Leamas was born. Or so my memory, not always a reliable instrument, tells me.”

Le Carre was 30 years old, “an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn.” He had published two previous novels, “Call for the Dead” (1961) and “A Murder of Quality” (1962), to little notice. In his youth he must have been a fast worker, because the Berlin Wall went up in the late summer of 1961, and this novel, which ends in a shattering scene at the wall, was published almost exactly two years later. It betrays no signs of haste, and, as has been frequently pointed out, it moved espionage fiction in entirely new directions. Gone, as if by a wave of le Carre’s wand, were the slick, violent amusements of Ian Fleming (though obviously they have great staying power in the movies), replaced by ruminative, multi-layered fictions in which the spy is cynical, solitary, “stubborn, wilful, contemptuous of instruction,” rather than a pistol-packing, babe-seducing Agent 007. There is nothing romantic in le Carre’s portrait of him:


‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ by John Le Carre (Penguin)

“A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor, or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defense. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses: though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor; though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.”

Thus we have Alec Leamas, 50 years old, once a husband and father but now wholly alone, running agents in East Germany from his post in West Berlin and watching them drop, one by one, by orders of a merciless foe, Hans-Dieter Mundt, “second man in the Abteilung [Secret Service] and effective head of operations.” Mundt is all ice: “There was a coldness about him, a rigorous self-sufficiency which perfectly equipped him for the business of murder. Mundt was a very hard man.” By contrast there is Fiedler, subordinate to Mundt, a “slim, neat man, quite young, smooth-faced,” a “rarity in the Abteilung — he took no part in its intrigues, seemed content to live in Mundt’s shadow without prospect of promotion,” a Jew in a place only recently removed from Naziism. An elaborate scheme is cooked up at headquarters in London — the “Circus,” as it is known in le Carre’s work — to plant Leamas in East Germany as a defector and to engineer Mundt’s murder; as everyone knows by now, it backfires in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.

When Leamas reaches East Germany, he comes under Fiedler’s supervision, and gradually a human relationship develops between them. Fiedler is a believer, a committed communist, while Leamas is a skeptic, but there is common ground, as Fiedler understands: “We’re all the same, you know,” he says, “that’s the joke.” It is the “joke” that recurs throughout le Carre’s fiction, in which spies scheming against one another have more in common with each other than with the people they supposedly are trying to protect. Thus when Leamas becomes involved with Liz Gold, a young and naive British communist, she reaches out to him across a divide he cannot cross. He has more in common with Fiedler, and perhaps with Mundt, than he does with her. When in the end he does reach out to her, it is too late.

Most readers probably know that “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” was made into a fine black-and-white movie, issued in 1965, directed by Martin Ritt and featuring Richard Burton as Leamas and Oskar Werner as Fiedler. That initiated a long succession of le Carre adaptations for movies and television, perhaps most notable among them the multi-part “Smiley’s People” (1982), with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. These adaptations generally have violated my private rule that genuinely literary fiction does not make successful films because its complexity does not lend itself to that medium: Le Carre’s novels are so ingeniously plotted and populated with so many utterly believable characters that they make the transition with little loss.

The great success of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” enabled le Carre (a pseudonym for David Cornwell) to leave the intelligence service and take up a full-time career as a writer. Of the 20 novels that followed “Spy,” the best may be “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a judgment in which the author seems to agree. He has always been an intensely political writer, but with the publication in 1983 of “The Little Drummer Girl” he seemed to turn a corner and to become something of a pamphleteer. When I said as much in this newspaper — I reviewed the novel very favorably on a Sunday, but in a column the next day turned my attention to what I called its insistence on “the moral superiority of suffering and deprivation” — le Carre responded swiftly with a sharp rejoinder that The Washington Post published in a prominent position. Since then he has continued to express himself on the issues of the day, as he does at the close of his introduction to this new edition of his famous third novel:

“The novel’s merit, then — or its offense, depending where you stood — was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way. My fictional chief of the British service — I called him Control — had no doubt of the answer: ‘I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’

“Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair, and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the twenty-first century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semiautomatic weapons and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the Third World and great banks are there to serve the public.”

Le Carre does indeed get those arguments across in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” but with more subtlety and less righteous indignation. For what little it is worth, I share his all of his opinions as expressed above, but I remain convinced that he is more effective in the novel than in the pulpit, and to this day precious few novels are better.

What is most satisfying about John le Carre’s first great success — first of many, as it turned out — is how well it holds up on this, its 50th anniversary. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall are long since gone, but the story le Carre constructed around the days when both threatened the stability and even the survival of civilization has lost none of its pertinence. The themes his splendid novel treats — the relationship between the individual and the state, the dangers of ideology, the brotherhood of enemies, the infinite human capacity for deceit and unfaithfulness, and the limited human capacity for loyalty and constancy — are every bit as much with us now as they were in 1963. The cast of characters and the antagonists are quite different, but the essential story is the same.

“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” le Carre says in his brief introduction to this celebratory edition, “was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion. Fifty years on, I don’t associate the book with anything that ever happened to me, save for one wordless encounter at London airport when a worn-out middle-aged military kind of man in a stained raincoat slammed a handful of mixed foreign change onto the bar and in a gritty Irish accent ordered himself as much Scotch as it would buy. In that moment, Alec Leamas was born. Or so my memory, not always a reliable instrument, tells me.”

Le Carre was 30 years old, “an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn.” He had published two previous novels, “Call for the Dead” (1961) and “A Murder of Quality” (1962), to little notice. In his youth he must have been a fast worker, because the Berlin Wall went up in the late summer of 1961, and this novel, which ends in a shattering scene at the wall, was published almost exactly two years later. It betrays no signs of haste, and, as has been frequently pointed out, it moved espionage fiction in entirely new directions. Gone, as if by a wave of le Carre’s wand, were the slick, violent amusements of Ian Fleming (though obviously they have great staying power in the movies), replaced by ruminative, multi-layered fictions in which the spy is cynical, solitary, “stubborn, wilful, contemptuous of instruction,” rather than a pistol-packing, babe-seducing Agent 007. There is nothing romantic in le Carre’s portrait of him:

“A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor, or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defense. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses: though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor; though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.”

Thus we have Alec Leamas, 50 years old, once a husband and father but now wholly alone, running agents in East Germany from his post in West Berlin and watching them drop, one by one, by orders of a merciless foe, Hans-Dieter Mundt, “second man in the Abteilung [Secret Service] and effective head of operations.” Mundt is all ice: “There was a coldness about him, a rigorous self-sufficiency which perfectly equipped him for the business of murder. Mundt was a very hard man.” By contrast there is Fiedler, subordinate to Mundt, a “slim, neat man, quite young, smooth-faced,” a “rarity in the Abteilung — he took no part in its intrigues, seemed content to live in Mundt’s shadow without prospect of promotion,” a Jew in a place only recently removed from Naziism. An elaborate scheme is cooked up at headquarters in London — the “Circus,” as it is known in le Carre’s work — to plant Leamas in East Germany as a defector and to engineer Mundt’s murder; as everyone knows by now, it backfires in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.

When Leamas reaches East Germany, he comes under Fiedler’s supervision, and gradually a human relationship develops between them. Fiedler is a believer, a committed communist, while Leamas is a skeptic, but there is common ground, as Fiedler understands: “We’re all the same, you know,” he says, “that’s the joke.” It is the “joke” that recurs throughout le Carre’s fiction, in which spies scheming against one another have more in common with each other than with the people they supposedly are trying to protect. Thus when Leamas becomes involved with Liz Gold, a young and naive British communist, she reaches out to him across a divide he cannot cross. He has more in common with Fiedler, and perhaps with Mundt, than he does with her. When in the end he does reach out to her, it is too late.

Most readers probably know that “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” was made into a fine black-and-white movie, issued in 1965, directed by Martin Ritt and featuring Richard Burton as Leamas and Oskar Werner as Fiedler. That initiated a long succession of le Carre adaptations for movies and television, perhaps most notable among them the multi-part “Smiley’s People” (1982), with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. These adaptations generally have violated my private rule that genuinely literary fiction does not make successful films because its complexity does not lend itself to that medium: Le Carre’s novels are so ingeniously plotted and populated with so many utterly believable characters that they make the transition with little loss.

The great success of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” enabled le Carre (a pseudonym for David Cornwell) to leave the intelligence service and take up a full-time career as a writer. Of the 20 novels that followed “Spy,” the best may be “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a judgment in which the author seems to agree. He has always been an intensely political writer, but with the publication in 1983 of “The Little Drummer Girl” he seemed to turn a corner and to become something of a pamphleteer. When I said as much in this newspaper — I reviewed the novel very favorably on a Sunday, but in a column the next day turned my attention to what I called its insistence on “the moral superiority of suffering and deprivation” — le Carre responded swiftly with a sharp rejoinder that The Washington Post published in a prominent position. Since then he has continued to express himself on the issues of the day, as he does at the close of his introduction to this new edition of his famous third novel:

“The novel’s merit, then — or its offense, depending where you stood — was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way. My fictional chief of the British service — I called him Control — had no doubt of the answer: ‘I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’

“Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair, and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the twenty-first century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semiautomatic weapons and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the Third World and great banks are there to serve the public.”

Le Carre does indeed get those arguments across in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” but with more subtlety and less righteous indignation. For what little it is worth, I share his all of his opinions as expressed above, but I remain convinced that he is more effective in the novel than in the pulpit, and to this day precious few novels are better.

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

50th Anniversary Edition

By John le Carre

Penguin. 225 pp. Paperback, $15

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

50th Anniversary Edition

By John le Carre

Penguin. 225 pp. Paperback, $15