John Le Carre was the pen name of David Cornwell, a British spy novelist who died Dec. 12 at the age of 89.
For the past few years I’d been anticipating his passing, as I knew he was advancing in age and that I’d surely miss his mind and work. But the sudden news came to me from my daughter, and her text still jolted me a bit. Le Carre is one of my favorite writers for many reasons; I’ve been reading his work for well over 20 years and am currently working my way back through almost all of his novels.
With just a few exceptions, I can strongly recommend his books, but I wish to use this space to say why and perhaps draw others to his powerful characters, images, and ideas.
When I first dove into the work of Le Carre, I was approaching 30 and simply wished to read a ‘good’ spy novelist. That genre wasn’t really a type I’d ever cared about, and I wasn’t interested in a laser guns-toting, karate-chopping, womanizing hero, like James Bond. Not knocking that franchise, mind you; I just didn’t want to place my literary attention there. But my father was a reader of the genre before he died and I was curious about the appeal.
In a used book store in the 1990s I came across “The Night Manager” for a buck. I turned to a random page, read a paragraph or two, and the relative complexity of the sentences make me say ‘why not.’ Little did I know I was starting a long-term relationship with a body of work that would change the way I saw my world.
So, I will use “The Night Manager” (TNM) here to view Le Carre’s world. TNM is representative of what his work often achieves and the themes with which he usually plays.
First impressions: I had to look up many words, phrases, and place names as the global context of the novel’s scope was complex. I had to do not a little research on Le Carre’s spy jargon — heeltap, the Circus, key-holder, legend, Mother, postman, vicar — all specialized terms for the Le Carre universe.
But is isn’t just learning new geography and vocabulary that draws one to Le Carre. I was well over half way through TNM before I realized what the author was doing. My then callow mind and literary proclivities expected there to be one kind of climax. The protagonist and villain would clash over a lost love and illicit arms deals in a finale the entire novel was constructed to produce. With the characters drawn so cleanly, the suspense wound so tightly, the plot’s arrow surely demanded an action-packed ending.
But TNM wasn’t about the climactic duel and scene of revenge I expected. Without giving the plot and denouement away, toward the end of my first Le Carre experience, I came to understand I was in the hands of a true craftsman of letters. Le Carre’s TNM, as so many of his fine novels, is less concerned with righting wrongs and enacting justice in a world that struggles for heroes and righteousness and yearns for good to always win. Le Carre is more complex than that, which makes him worth reading.
What Le Carre presents is an amoral world in which otherwise good people are forced to betray an ideal, a person, a love, or a country for oftentimes impossible to reconcile reasons. What I learn from Le Carre is that we, too, are often in these kinds of quandaries, though on much smaller and less severe scales than an international spy context. Our lives and problems are infinitely more complex than the frequent simple, pat answers our institutions, churches, authorities, and ideologues offer with sometimes glib decree.
Le Carre is also keen in turning otherwise subtle and normal surface incidents into dangerous and absurd scenes of terror. The novelist Alan Furst has said, “Le Carre’s novels are about people having lunch.” And Furst is right. But don’t be fooled. When people are “just having lunch” in a Le Carre novel, it is usually a scene in which the powerful — either in wealth or in political and governmental capital — are making casual decisions that place the heroes and anti-heroes and those they love in peril.
And these mundane decisions are driven by ego, petty infighting, political connections, money, or the need for revenge. The innocent and weak face death and betrayal from those above them who don’t even know they exist. Or, if they do know, believe that their personal financial or political interests are more valuable than human life and wellbeing.
In every Le Carre novel, decent people struggle to make impossible decisions. Le Carre writes not only about spies, but about us, you and me.