March 1965: English writer and spy novelist John Le Carre. (Photo by Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)

John le Carré: a man who rose through the English class system as it was collapsing

John le Carré’s voice of old-fashioned English authority was one acquired through merit and bearing rather than birth

Artillery Row

Many already miss John le Carré, and their sadness at his loss will be expressed variously and at length. One aspect of all this is the loss of a voice – an admired voice in prose and in speech.

To extend that metaphor, let us discuss the character of le Carré’s prose. Even when knowingly ironic and witty (perhaps bitingly so, as in The Looking Glass War), its tone is experienced and professional. Rarely – even in his less controlled Naïve and Sentimental Lover – was this writing histrionic or emotional.

The effect of all this adds not only a documentary feel to events (which could be artfully distorted for dramatic reasons), but also a sonorousness and solidity to the assumptions underpinning the world under description. The reader takes le Carré’s word.

This had an effect of quiet assurance. When le Carré became didactic, as he certainly was wont to be in this century, his voice afforded him more gravity. When he feuded, as some participants in those feuds have affectionately remembered, his tone if not his words elevated these petty squabbles into happenings which almost resembled events.

Insofar as he acquired a voice of old-fashioned English authority, it was through self-cultivation

Many Americans see le Carré as an extension of their broader view of England – never “Britain” – in the Cold War. A third-rate power whose people still boarded BOAC aircraft to former possessions, but whose prominence and presence was built less upon reality than appearances. A country of espionage writers as much as it was a place of spies. Where spymasters and traitors probably went to the same Oxford college, or drank in the same Cambridge pubs, and taught in prep schools alongside each other when separately falling upon hard times.

Some of le Carré’s characters possess those traits. Many are well educated and speak with the easy affect of those brought up to rule the world. Disappointed by the world they find or not, they exude an attitude difficult to produce in any other way.

When debonair Bill Haydon speaks, many think, so speaks le Carré. And instinctually, that may be correct. Haydon hates America so instinctively, so compellingly, because le Carré shared that prejudice. Their cadences are in effect the same. Le Carré’s written voice as well as his speaking voice bespoke the same cultivation and the same bigotry.

But nevertheless, le Carré and Haydon are not equivalent. Le Carré’s childhood was strange and strained. Although he was educated at prep and independent school (acrid satire of which populates A Murder of Quality) and a suite of European universities, le Carré’s father was a swindler and le Carré’s early life did not proceed with ease. Insofar as he acquired a voice of old-fashioned English authority, it was through self-cultivation, self-creation.

Le Carré was a man of English impulses, but continental interests

A good deal has been said about the character of George Smiley and his influences. The rumpled appearance giving way to cunning, and the coldness of iron. All this has been written. More interesting, perhaps, is the discussion of Smiley as a symbol of self-generation. Le Carré spoke recently about the joys of learning German, an extract was published in The Guardian. This when le Carré was as a visible an example as possible of a proud European, something newly en vogue of late – one of the few with the intellectual heft to justify that self-image.

Here is what he writes about his journey into a language he loved:

I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear. I also loved the idea that these poems and this language that I was learning were mine and no one else’s, because German wasn’t a popular subject and very few of my schoolmates knew a word of it beyond [what] they learned from propaganda war movies. But … I knew better. And when I decided I couldn’t stand my English public school for one more day, it was the German language that provided me with my bolt-hole.

And here is Smiley – a man possessing similar secret knowledge, who cultivated himself into the unsuccessful husband of Lady Ann: “Smiley … emerged from his unimpressive school and lumbered blinking into the murky cloisters of his unimpressive Oxford College, he had dreamt of Fellowships and a life devoted to the literary obscurities of seventeenth-century Germany”. And later, teaching in Germany before the war, he resented the marching that the state commanded of its young; “the way in which the Faculty had tampered with his subject – his beloved German literature”; and finally, the burning of its books.

So intellectually secure is Smiley, if not socially, that he is capable of using it for the self-amusement and distraction. In The Looking Glass War, he would rather enquire, of someone desperate for his help, whether they studied his particular era of German literature; and then why, when informed in the negative, it was unjustly classified as a “special subject” rather than being taught compulsorily.

The same is perhaps true of le Carré himself. A man of supreme intellectual confidence, built upon autodidacticism and the kind of professional experience others are curious enough to read about in fiction, but could never approach in life. A man of English impulses, but continental interests. A man admitted to the reaches of English society through merit and bearing rather than birth, just as it collapsed permanently around him – never to be remade.

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