Harry Bingham has written five novels (most recently The Lieutenant's Lover), and a couple of works of non-fiction (This Little Britain, a book on British history, and Stuff Matters, a book about capitalism, due from 4th Estate in summer 2010). He also runs The Writers' Workshop, a large editorial consultancy for first-time writers, and The Word Cloud, a community site for professional and amateur writers. Here Harry writes about John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Harry Bingham on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carré
To Le Carré in a moment, but first consider his absence. Norm's Grand Index includes more than 250 books chosen by a wonderfully eclectic range of contemporary writers and scholars. Jane Austen and Dickens; Camus, Capote, Carter, Carver – the sheer eclectic delight of the list makes you want to pick up books you read and loved ages ago, and go and dig out the ones you've not yet come across.
But no Le Carré. Chandler's Marlowe is there, wise-cracking away with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Sherlock Holmes is there, taking his 7 per cent solution and playing his violin. Runyon's incapable gangsters are there, making their bets, taking their drinks, always losing in the end. Even Tolkien's elves are doing whatever it is that elves get up to. But no Le Carré.
And the absence is odd, is it not? If you look only at the post-war British novelists on the list, I rather doubt that any one of them will be as certain of a readership in 100 years as Le Carré. Partly, of course, that's a period thing. If you want flavour of Cold War, then the Smiley novels are compulsory reading. Indeed, I rather suspect that the Smiley novels felt more like the Cold War than living through those decades ever did. (Don't ask me: I was born in 1967, so came to the party too late to comment.)
But there's something bigger going on here. Le Carré has always been published as commercial fiction. Classy commercial fiction to be sure, but nevertheless work that has never come close to a Booker Prize list or similar.
And that's nonsense, no? Let's just spell it out. Le Carré is a great novelist. That's not to say he's always a perfect one – not many of the greats ever have been. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in particular, bears the imprint of its construction: hurriedly, fuelled by drink, by intellect and existential despair. Its author would go on to write with much more grace and poise in later novels, but novels of this kind don't necessarily need much poise. That's not their calling card.
The book's greatness lies, I think, in two things. First, it co-opts the huge political story of the second half of the 20th century and transforms it into metaphor. Human distrust, human betrayal, human needs and self-loathing - these huge pschodynamic themes were given awful, real shape in the form of the tense, almost bloodless standoff between two highly armed superpowers. Shakespeare had the nerve to do this kind of thing on a comparable scale, but Le Carré brought that same collision of macrocosm and microcosm into the nuclear age, the age that knew the holocaust was real, not fantasy. His metaphor was so perfect, so nailed-on accurate, that it hardly needed much of an authorial nudge to stick, and stick for ever.
But here's the other thing. A point that is so obvious when you think about it, yet so seldom made, it makes you wonder about the way we've been taught to read and talk about books. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold works via plot. The writing itself is decent enough, though not as fine as it would become in later books. The character of Leamas and his counterparts is well enough established, but it's established almost entirely through plot, and the bareness of human connection in his life. Neither Le Carre's prose style nor his characterization would be enough to place him amongst the all-time greats of literature in English.
But that plot! Evolutionary psychologists tell us that humans are unique among animals in our ability to understand and analyse the minds of others. Thus the cleverest monkeys (or parrots or dogs) have at best a shadowy understanding of other selves. They half get it, half don't. Humans, however, have a stunningly good one. It's not just that A can know that B is thinking something. The chains can get much more complex than that: A can know that B is feeling something about C's jealousy of D. And so on, but not so on ad infinitum. The sorts of scientist who study these things reckon that once those chains stretch to about six links our brains are full. We can't take any more. Thus we can just about manage a chain that runs A knowing about B, thinking about C... and so on all the way to F, but we can't manage anything further. Our brains just aren't built to handle it.
Le Carré takes these complexities and makes a novel of them. The extraordinarily knotty convolutions of betrayal are the book, and those convolutions carry through to his final purpose, his final, bleak, utterly despairing thesis. The thesis roughly is this: even when you are a practitioner of distrust and betrayal, even when you are as skilled in these things as any human can ever be, you will still be betrayed. You cannot avoid it. And there is nothing to lament in this certainty. There are no rules, no morals, no values; there is only the question of success or failure. In Leamas's own words:
People who play this game take risks. Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won - that's the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it's paid off, and that's the only rule.
Fortunately, I think Leamas and Le Carré are utterly wrong. There's plenty of love and trust in life. It is (in my experience) the rule not the exception.
But that's another thing. To write a great book you don't, even vaguely, have to be right. You just have to say something that strikes a chord. And Le Carré did that, not just for a particular period in human history, but for as long as Eng Lit is still read. Welcome to the Grand Index, big man. You've earned your place.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]