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The Glorious Return of George Smiley

Le Carré’s thrillers promise us something today’s politics lacks: complexity and logic.


The Type 3 Mk. II, alias the B2, was the great spy radio of World War II. It came in a suitcase, sometimes, and at other times it was dropped in two watertight containers from the sky. The suitcase version is more popular with today’s collectors of such things. The B2 is also the star of John le Carré’s 1965 novel The Looking Glass War. An agency known only as The Department wishes to restore its former glory as a player in the spying game. Its leader gets wind that some weaponry may be under development in the East, and finds an old hand to go back out into the field. His job is to report back using the B2 without being rumbled.

A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carré
Viking, 272 pp., $28.00

The agent, Fred Leiser, is given some instruction in how to tap out his coded intelligence. But he struggles, his “head supported in his hand as he tried desperately to remember the sequence of movements which had once come so naturally to him.” He makes it into the field, but forgets to change the radio’s frequencies every few minutes. Back at base his handlers explode: “It’s bloody suicide, what he’s doing!”

From this piece of antique equipment, le Carré taps out a tragedy both ornate and simple. The Looking Glass War contains all the chief themes of le Carré’s body of fiction: a special blend of human emotion, political history, hard machinery, and satire of the social context that holds it all together. He uses an extraordinary density of technical detail in tandem with an equally dense exploration of his characters’ emotions. This detail sits like a concerto’s melody on the top of the great orchestral workings of global politics. Although he’s written thrillers about Islamist terror networks (A Most Wanted Man) and Big Pharma (The Constant Gardener), the Cold War remains the major le Carré theme. Vopos and GDR women in their shabby trouser-suits and coldblooded Stasi—these are his signatures.

When that war came to an end, what was le Carré to do? The Russia House (1989) was his last truly contemporary Cold War novel; it’s set in 1987. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) began to look backward, with its narrator recalling events that took place in the 60s. Our Game (1995) has some Soviet flashback material, but not much. In 2003, le Carré returned to the Cold War proper, with what was now a proper history novel: Absolute Friends centered on a colonial Brit who pretends to defect to the Stasi. Meanwhile, he developed a strong hand in novels set in former colonies. His first post-Cold War work, 1993’s The Night Manager, follows a British arms dealer and is largely set in the international territories (yachts, hotels) of the superrich. A sampling of his post-Soviet works (The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, The Mission Song, A Delicate Truth) take us through Panama, Kenya, East Congo in the DRC, and Gibraltar.

This September, le Carré’s first Smiley novel in a quarter century comes out. Will A Legacy of Spies be a relic like the Type 3 MK II, an exercise in nostalgia, or something else? Fifty-six years after le Carré’s published his first novel, his enduring concerns with memory, technology, and class are more clearly visible than ever. Whether George Smiley can match up to our deranged political times is another question altogether.

Smiley was born twice. In his first incarnation, le Carré had him join the intelligence service in 1928. But in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his backstory changed to have him recruited in 1937. The theory goes that le Carré bumped Smiley’s story so that he wouldn’t get too ridiculously old for all the books he had lined up for him, pacing through history.

Legend has it Smiley was an amalgam of two figures in Le Carré’s life. One was Vivian H. Green, one-time rector (a sort of all-powerful dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford, where le Carré studied, and a former chaplain of le Carré’s school. He has called Green the closest thing to a “confessor” in his life, which must be something very important to a man without real parents (le Carré’s mother abandoned him and his father was a con-man). Smiley was also partly made of John Bingham, a senior to le Carré in intelligence who encouraged his fiction. When he came to invent Smiley, he writes in the preface to a new edition, le Carré commingled “something of Vivian Green’s unlikely wisdom, wrapped in academic learning, and something of Bingham’s devious resourcefulness and simple patriotism also.” Call for the Dead was his first novel, birthing George Smiley in 1961. Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, took up the pseudonym—which means “the square” in French—for obvious security reasons.

Despite his double past, George Smiley has been himself since the very beginning. And although both of his lifespans see him come of age at the height of the Cold War, his appeal as a character has always stemmed from an elusive personality. Inconspicuousness is key to the Smiley effect. He is not physically imposing. He listens extraordinarily well. He has thick glasses. He melts away in the crowd. Of le Carré’s many novels, five feature George Smiley OBE as their protagonist: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Of these novels, the last three are known as the Karla trilogy, after Smiley’s great Soviet antagonist; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps the most famous and best adapted for screen, with Alec Guinness starring as a masterfully reticent Smiley for the BBC in 1979. Call for the Dead opens with a chapter titled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” which describes a “breathtakingly ordinary” man, who looks like “a bullfrog in a sou’wester.”

Smiley is the inverse of James Bond. His power is intellectual. But he is also a humiliated figure. Smiley’s wife is the Lady Ann Sercomb, a beautiful and rarefied women who married him for no reason that anybody else can understand. Guinevere-like, she is the one who commits adultery at will—not George. And Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also, in a way, a novel of humiliation. At the book’s heart is a mystery over who is betraying secrets from inside The Circus, blowing networks of agents and responding to the terrible Karla’s puppeteering. That recursive plot of betrayal within betrayal is set against the Cold War, yes. But it is not about the Cold War. It is a novel about human beings, particularly the odd and quiet power of one bespectacled man in intelligence.

Le Carré’s great aptitude is for the human. Humming alongside the emotional and technical minutiae of his novels is usually a biting social satire. The British intelligence service, dominated by aristocrats, provided him with an especially rich subject. The son of a bankrupt crook, Le Carré made the British class system the target of his second novel, A Murder of Quality, a roman a clef set at Eton, where he briefly taught (and remembered later that the boys seemed older than he was). Although George Smiley solves the mystery, it is a detective rather than an espionage novel. A master’s wife has been killed very nastily. But whodunit?

Suspicion falls on a housemaster named Fielding. He has Smiley over for dinner one night. He is one type: the teacher with an eye for the pupil. “‘Tart’s drink, Madeira,” Fielding called, as he poured from a decanter, “but boys like it. Perhaps that’s why. They’re frightful flirts.’” Then Smiley’s eye falls on dog-breederess Shane Hecht, who remembers the “Dear Mrs. Rode” in “that voice of abstract vagueness which she reserved for her most venomous pronouncements.” The victim, we hear, was not quite of the right class. She was “so sweet,” and had “such simple taste, don’t you think? I mean, whoever would have dreamed of putting those china ducks on the wall?”

Le Carré skewers the rich and bourgeois with similar enthusiasm. The Naïve and Sentimental Lover is a strange and resistant novel. Published the same year as le Carré’s own divorce, Lover follows a complacent company man who loses himself in a bohemian couple’s lives. Our protagonist Cassidy drives a fancy car. He “was no stranger to the expense account.” Le Carré describes this bored, rich man with savage brilliance:

An untaxable affluence was legible in the thickening of the lower waistcoat (for his safety and comfort he had unfastened the top button of his trousers) and in the width of white cuff which isolated his hands from manual labor; and there was already about his neck and complexion a sleek rich gloss, a tan almost, flambé rather than sun-given, which only balloon glasses, Bunsen burners, and the fumes of crêpes suzette can faithfully reproduce.

Rich and aristocratic men are made ridiculous in practically every le Carré work. He has several means of attack, but one of his favorites is the arch use of italics to paint the prosody of a posh person’s speech. “You see the problem is, Peter,” bleats an uppity lawyer named Bunny in A Legacy of Spies. A lackey named Corkoran condescends to the hero of The Night Manager: “You mean you made the carrot cake? Our own tiny hands?”

Playing opposite the absurd and stupid rich in the le Carré oeuvre is the good soldier. This man can take many forms. He can be the quiet failure Fred Leiser, who plods to his death out of simple hatred for the enemy. He can be the noble fieldman Alec Leamas—hero of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold—skilled in hand-to-hand combat and hardening his heart again each time it breaks. He can be one of the solid chaps in the Circus whom le Carré invariably describes as smoking “one of his foul cigarettes.” Or he can be the subtle genius George Smiley, whom everybody underestimates except those at the top or those crushed by the machinations of his intellect.

A Legacy of Spies is billed as the latest Smiley novel, but really he only murmurs in the sidelines. Nobody can find him, for most of the book. Is he even alive? For A Legacy of Spies takes place in the present day. Or at least, its frame narrative is contemporary: The former Circus agent Peter Guillam is called out of his retirement in France by a letter from the contemporary British intelligence service. Some ghosts have come out of the past to ask questions, they tell him. Not only that, but they want a parliamentary inquiry and then they want to sue. They want to know what happened exactly to Alec Leamas at the Berlin Wall, and why. (The new novel is a substantial callback to the events of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and anybody reading the new book should read that one first.)

The new intelligence service and its servants are not friendly to Guillam, who must resist telling them all his secrets from the past. Structured by the present-day interrogation, A Legacy of Spies substantially plays out in memory. The fascinating crystal-radios of the Cold War novels are mostly gone, here. Instead, the technology is human memory alone.

A spy must have excellent recall, and Guillam still does. But he is old, so much older than any other le Carré protagonist has ever been. And so le Carré works up a counterpoint around the technical details of intelligence work that also sings the tune of a man’s whole life. Through memories and through old documents he is forced to re-consult, Guillam remembers the miniature Minox camera that the informant “Mayflower” used in the GDR, the subtlety with which she handed over the films: “A sunny day, a bustling street, two strangers, we advance on each other, are about to collide, I veer left, she right, there is momentary entanglement. I grunt an apology, she ignores it and sweeps on. I am richer by two cassettes of microfilm.”

Meanwhile, Guillam is plunged into the intelligence service as it exists now. The old house on Cambridge Circus is no longer. “And now this monstrosity. This Welcome to Spyland Beside the Thames.” The place is secured by “dour men and women in tracksuits.” The lawyers themselves have Essex and Estuary accents, which Guillam doesn’t comment upon but which are obtrusive details in le Carré’s class-conscious voice.

But there’s an old safe house, known as the Stables, which Guillam discovers untouched. There, a woman named Millie still watches over the same files and furniture that the spies of old used for Operation Windfall. The building is a “scrupulously preserved burial chamber.” Guillam’s old “pizza-delivery gear” disguise is still hanging from a hook. As Guillam is forced by the contemporary intelligence service to read over files from the most painful episode in his life, in which he loves and loses a charismatic woman, he gives us an internal monologue that is not the same as the story he tells the authorities. It’s a secret, one between Guillam and le Carré and the reader.

“Stepping down the gangway,” Guillam recalls, “I was assailed by memories.” In this memory of a memory, he remembers: “this was my last sight of you alive.” Just as in The Looking Glass War, the mind has a micro-precision to match the tiny keys that open spy radios. “This was where I prayed for you to turn your head, but you never did.

Like all le Carré novels, A Legacy of Spies is a confusing tangle until about three quarters of the way through, when the materials he has thrown into the air settle down into a shape it turns out you were half-suspecting all along without realizing it. In the absence of Cold War technologies, since those spying days are over, le Carré has turned a single elderly man’s memory into a machine so highly elaborated, so poetically structured, and so very sad that it seems to hold all the world inside it.

An indication that le Carré’s relevance survives the Cold War lies in contemporary cinema. Adaptations of le Carré’s own works aside—The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor are all post-2000—espionage thrillers enjoyed a popular renaissance with the Jason Bourne movies. The Bond franchise has taken on new sophistication in this century, while higher-end thrillers like Syriana complement the satire of Burn After Reading. And this summer sees a new Cold War hero heat up all over again, as Atomic Blonde takes us back to 1989 and the falling Wall.

Why are we so hungry for these stories, now? An uncomplicated interpretation would have us wistful for the tropes of World War II and the fight against Communism, the last time that Americans came together to defend an ideologically coherent position. But le Carré’s legacy sits a little deeper than that. He didn’t define the Cold War espionage thriller; he defined the espionage thriller, but just happened to have been writing in the time of the Cold War. The genre is as much defined by le Carré’s style—a twin focus on technical detail and the subtle workings of the heart and memory—as it is by the historical horizons within which he developed it.

In this light, we take our renewed love for the “intelligence” genre literally: We want our political stories to be more intelligent. Global and domestic politics seem to have simultaneously simplified (in sophistication) and grown more complicated (in that the old order of things has evaporated) in recent years. We wish for more complexity and logic in our politics, so we look to make political art that is logical and complex: a genre defined by John Le Carré. In the words of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy: “Sometimes we do a thing in order to find out the reason for it.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “a colonial Brit defects to the Stasi” in Absolute Friends. The British character Ted in fact only pretends to defect. The article also stated incorrectly that Smiley looks back on his past in The Secret Pilgim. It is the book’s narrator, Ned, who looks back on the past.