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Technical Note

March 5, 2006
Posted at 9:21 am

Technical Note - John LeCarre's Novels

Though I am calling it a technical note, this is really my view on LeCarre, who I think is one of the twentieth century's greatest writers. The contra argument is that he wrote in a restricted genre, the shadow world of spying, but I have always felt that this was simply the venue he chose to reveal the infinite capacity of human beings to deceive, to put aside morality, the proverbial "bottom line attitude".
The Smiley books, particularly "Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy" and "The Honourable Schoolboy", received rave reviews from all sides, and indeed, along with "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", probably represent his very best work. These richly complex and intricate stories also reveal a rather unsettled attitude about women and affection. Smiley's strange, cuckolded life with an aristocratic wife, Jerry Westerby's entirely foolish obsession with a target's mistress, the strange suicide of Alex Lemas over his mousy lover all suggest a dichotomy which LeCarre elaborated on throughout his work. Often, as in "The Night Manager", "Schoolboy", and "The Silent Pilgrim", the most profound male female relationships were unconsumated.
Yet Smiley is respected and loved by his most stalwart associates. And even then, one is never sure what he wants from life. His archenemy Karla, as quoted by his creature Bill Haydon, calls his wife "the last illusion of the illusionless man". He is not at all fooled by her, but is rather buffeted between the many signposts of human affection and weakness. And even as LeCarre finally permits Smiley to triumph over his great enemy, he taints the victory with moral ambiguity.
Le Carre never gives his reader a clear answer to the question "What is admirable behavior?", but I confess to have come to think that he loves the self destructive Alec Lemas, the bumbling yet dangerous Jerry Westerby, the fumbling Barley Blair("The Russia House"), and the taciturn Jonathon Pine. Men who made great personal sacrifices, or compromises, in behalf of a woman and a perceived virtue which mostly ends up hollow. Thus, his often tragic characters bear a family resemblance to Don Quixote.
"The Night Manager" is the first of his novels to make the principal protagonist a crook with a worldwide net of corruption. Roper is bribing government officials, Ministers, policemen, and every manner of foreign official to assure his profits. The campaign to bring him down by a small group of idealists fails under the weight of the spidery reach of this corruption. That theme, in some cases not too subtly, recurs in his most recent books, and his conspiracies sometimes stretch credulity. And the good guys nearly always lose, though they sometimes survive, with a woman to keep them company in their existential despair.
I am a great fan, but must confess that I think some of the brilliance wore off after the end of the cold war. This state of affairs served as his framework for revealing characters' most intense flaws, as well as their bravest, and most often fatal urges toward humanity. Its fading forced him into a more obvious criticism of massive beauracracies, massive corporations, and flawed. often corrupt governments. I think this has somewhat tainted his more recent novels, including "The Constant Gardener", another effort styled with an apparently weak man attached to a strong woman, like Smiley. The complexity, corruption, and evil are still there, but less subtle and nuanced.
Still, his voice champions individuality over groups, a sophisticated, complex rejection of the organization man. It is often a rant against the progressively larger organizations threatening to entirely dehumanize not only our lives, but the entire world. Clearly, it helps if you share his pessimism.
For him, a happy ending is the merest hint of a possible future for some of his existentially challenged lovers. "The Russia House", "The Night Manager", and minor characters in many of his tales all exhibit this low opinion of the possibility of true love. He often pictures marriage as a minor and mostly frivolous endeavor, and it seems to me that must reflect personal experience. So my romantic side drove me to picturing a rich and happy life for Jonathon and Jebediah, complete with an amazing sexual relationship. I fear that John LeCarre would not approve.