John Le Carré by Lynn Beene Summary
In John le Carre's artful espionage novels, the most prominent "spy" might well be the author himself, for throughout his fiction readers see a worried, conscientious man peering into the deformed hearts of those who would betray his people and warning us of their trickery. Le Carre (the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell) has amassed broad popular and critical appeal by exploring difficult subjects while keeping his books engaging, lucid, and within the boundaries of the genre he now defines. Using his constant theme of the meretricious relationship of love and betrayal, he exploits the conventions of espionage fiction to show that no absolute standards of public or personal conduct exist, that humanism, no matter how ponderously examined, cannot avoid inhumanity. In this comprehensive study of one of Britain's most prolific novelists (and alumnus of its espionage activities), LynnDianne Beene identifies le Carre's considerable talent at manipulating the espionage genre to bring it in line with his relentless moral vision. Beene finds that the best of le Carre's novels - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1964), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley's People (1980), and The Little Drummer Girl (1983) - borrow some conventions from popular thrillers but are essentially literary fiction. Although le Carre's thrillers, like the work of genre novelists, include resourceful agents, animated narratives, technical espionage devices, and entangled political affairs, his characters, Beene contends, are more reminiscent of Charles Dickens's best caricatures: their actions remind readers that decency, love, and the line between betrayal and loyalty are precarious. In the tradition ofJoseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene, le Carre creates largely convincing characters whose often unshakable faith in conspiracy leads uncontrollably to treachery. Although often efficient, le Carre's people are pawns in an espionage chess game where betrayal is the basic tactic: once caught in the game, Beene observes, their only escapes are betrayal, death, or, worse, self-realization and angst, as is the case with the perennial character George Smiley. Le Carre is singular among contemporary writers because, Beene argues, he exchanges action, the mainstay of espionage fiction and that which makes the genre pure entertainment, for psychological debate and ethical paralysis. Le Carre writes of an "our side" indistinguishable from "theirs": "we" can be incompetent, fumbling, and mindlessly destructive; "they" can be decent, conscientious, and dedicated. Beene judiciously avoids literary categories in this straightforward, chronological analysis of le Carre, ranking him with the best of Britain's nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novelists but not disregarding the fact that he is a writer of his time, of the cold war's technological gadgetry and often absurd political liaisons. Her portrait will prove of particular interest to students of what is now a containable literary period: the cold war, 1945-1989.