In the area of philosophy, especially moral philosophy, one of the most influential books in the second half of the 20th century was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. One might even claim that it was the book that launched a new wave of interest in Aristotelianism and in virtue ethics.
In developing his arguments, MacIntyre introduces us to his special use of the word character. There are certain “types” of human activity where the character of the person more or less fuses with the role they perform. That is to say, once we know the role, we can predict the character. MacIntyre uses the term in relation to “types” important in the context of his argument: the bureaucratic manager, the therapist and the aesthete.
I would argue that novelist John le Carré (David Cornwell), especially in his famous “Karla” trilogy (The Honourable SchoolboyTinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpySmiley’s People), establishes for all time the character of the British spy in the person of George Smiley. If you are a le Carré fan (and I am willing to bet that many of my readers are), you will know instantly what I am talking about.
John le Carré, right from his early novels (A Call for the Dead, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) changed our perception of the spy game. He made James Bond look like a comic-book character. Indeed, it is significant that the Bond books all rely on a mix of sex, sophistication and techno-wizardry to pull the readers. Le Carré’s spies are, by contrast, anti-heroes, failures, dropouts. There are no happy endings but sometimes a certain justice is achieved – always at a cost.
When he first introduces Smiley to us (A Call for the Dead), le Carré depicts him thus: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag. …
“Was he rich or poor, peasant or priest? Where had she got him from? The incongruity of the match was emphasised by Lady Ann’s undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation. And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news.”
I wish I could write like that! But it was not just the character of the spy that le Carré so masterfully depicted. In the sense given us by MacIntyre, he also brilliantly depicted the character of the bureaucrat and manager.
For MacIntyre, they are essentially manipulators – “consumers of persons”. Here is Maston – the “career man” and Smiley’s boss:
“… the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large government department – effectively at the mercy of Maston, with his expensive clothes and his knighthood, his distinguished grey hair and silver-coloured ties; Maston, who even remembered his secretary’s birthday, whose manners were a by-word among the ladies of the registry; Maston, apologetically extending his empire and regretfully moving to even larger offices; Maston, holding smart house-parties at Henley and feeding on the success of his subordinates.”
Le Carré knows the manager and the bureaucrat all too well. He himself worked in MI5 and knows what power looks like, how it talks, even how it smells. He knows all about reorganisations, mission statements, management strategies – all the dreary paraphernalia of modern management and its disguise of raw power. His depictions remind me of some lines from Chesterton’s Lepanto:
King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
There are other characters, too, masterfully depicted by le Carré. Those of you who are old enough will remember the term “displaced person”. After World War II, when Europe tore itself apart, there were millions of people seeking a new home. For many, the countries to which they once belonged were overrun by the Soviets and no longer existed as sovereign nations – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Some of these exiles were recruited by the British to spy on the USSR. Le Carré gives us an unforgettable little vignette of some of them, living in London and manning “embassies” for their countries from dingy offices. The pathos here is so tangible to the reader that it is difficult to hold back your tears.
But it is in the character of George Smiley, especially, that le Carré excels himself. Just as a great portrait painter might slightly accentuate some features of his subject to highlight them, so too does le Carré slightly accentuate the characteristics of Smiley.
So masterfully is this done that each of us not only knows exactly what George Smiley looks like and how he will behave, but we all have the very same picture in our minds.
How do I know this? Well, I have friends who are also fans like me and when I discuss with them the performance of Alec Guinness as Smiley in the BBC film adaptations, all of us say exactly the same thing – Guinness is George Smiley. He perfectly depicts what each of us had in mind when we read the books. Of course, much of the credit must go to Guinness too, but we need to recall that le Carré did the screenplay.
Alec Guinness is George Smiley; though, Gary Oldman,
left, might make a good doppelganger.
By rights, George Smiley should have died long ago. We can be accurate about the date. Officially, it was November 9, 1989, at that precise moment when some apparatchik from the East German Communist Party announced that its citizens were free to cross into West Germany (the unofficial fall was earlier). Only one commentator in the West had predicted that fall accurately. It was one of my favourite columnists, Bernard Levin. He even gave a date – July 14, 1989. He was only a few months out.
In the West it was, understandably, a moment for great rejoicing. And yet, for a certain group of people – the readers of spy stories – that joy was mixed with a certain sadness. For then we knew that our hero – paradoxically the greatest non-hero of espionage stories – could no longer practice his dark arts against Karla.
But le Carré simply could not let him die or fade away in some new escapade – it was now beyond his power in a sense. There would have been a public outcry. I remember reading, in an essay by Simon Leys (another writer who uses a pseudonym), of some extraordinary criticisms directed against Miguel Cervantes for treating his literary creation, Don Quixote, so badly – allowing him to be beaten up in nearly every chapter! Such was the power of Cervantes to bring to life a fictional person.
Likewise, the little nondescript spy had, in a sense, assumed a life for himself in the minds of millions of readers (or viewers, in the case of the movies). So, I was not at all surprised to learn that a new spy book from le Carré (A Legacy of Spies) hit the bookstalls last year and that George Smiley, now an old man indeed, makes an entrance near the end.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant that le Carré must now rely on some form of retrospection and this changes things. I have not read the book and I probably will not.
My George Smiley does not age. A slightly chubby little figure in overcoat and hat, he still waits at the checkpoint in Berlin, peering into the rainy night, periodically rubbing his glasses with his handkerchief and adjusting his hat. He is, like all of us, a displaced person, waiting for a homecoming.