John Le Carre and the Last of Empire

July 8, 2015

4 min read


The British novelist  David Cornwell  (John Le Carre) is best known for his fictional depictions of the British intelligence services during the period of the Cold War.  That this constitutes the main focus of Le Carre’s considerable prominence is probably justified, from an aesthetic point of view.  His early novels set against this background (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) have the distinction of creating and depicting a recognizable fictional world, at once uniquely the author’s and yet seeming to possess some deep and general insight beyond  the actions and words of the characters themselves.

They also transcend the narrow and stock clichés of the ‘spy’genre. They possess within them an obvious romanticization of their subject matter, but it is not of the simplistically escapist kind. The way in which the Cold War is remembered, at least in Britain, has a large amount to do with Le Carre.

But while Le Carre’s later novels have justifiably received less praise from the artistic point of view, they are in a certain way no less, or more significant than the earlier books.  Le Carre has managed to avoid being frozen within the period in which he produced his earlier work.  He has, in the post Cold War period, produced a series of novels of great interest.  In particular, he has made the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘9-11 wars’ a particular focus.

In his works on this period, Le Carre’s style is one of furious polemic, rather than cool and disenchanted description.   As a result, the books are as novels inferior to the earlier work.  But in terms of the worldview that very visibly lies behind these later works, Le Carre succeeds in presenting in near perfect and detailed form a particular view of global politics and the dynamics behind it which in my view is significant.

This is a particularly British sensibility,  and it is Janus-faced, seemingly contradictory in a number of ways.  It is nostalgic for empire yet radical in a number of its assumptions regarding the current dynamics of international affairs.   It is apparently sympathetic to the ambitions of subjects from the developing world, but Le Carre finds it nearly impossible to draw credible and non-caricatured characters outside of the British upper middle classes.

Perhaps most importantly, Le Carre’s work is deeply anti-American.  This anti-Americanism is at a pre-political level.  America, in Le Carre’s world, represents all that is un-rooted, amoral, graceless and aesthetically disgusting.

His novels dealing with the 9-11 Wars are filled with American characters of a peculiarly repulsive kind.  These Americans are sometimes aged but heavily made up women, such as Miss Maisie in ‘A Delicate Truth’. Miss Maisie is a Republican evangelist funder for covert actions undertaken by private defense contractors.  Sometimes they are young zealots, like Newton, the CIA officer in ‘A Most Wanted Man.’

But always these characters are entirely lacking in any redeeming features whatsoever. They are also lacking in any history, or back-story.  These are the two dimensional, cartoon like figures familiar from a different type of espionage movie aesthetic.  But with Le Carre, their presence is notable precisely because by contrast, when dealing with characters from the British upper middle classes, he is capable of painting with a complex and subtle brush.

These later novels of Le Carre are more important as specimens representative of a particular worldview than they are as artistic creations. As mentioned, in aesthetic terms they are vastly inferior to the earlier work.  But they matter because the worldview which they exemplify matters.   Le Carre’s depictions of Americans seem to me also to be in some way related to his strange and troubled relationship with Israel.

Outside of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’  Le Carre tends to avoid direct reference to Israel in his fiction.  But when he doesn’t avoid it, the view that comes across is very clear.  It is summed up in the following sentence uttered by one of the sympathetic characters in ‘Absolute Friends’:  ‘Tell the new zealots of Washington that in the making of Israel a monstrous human crime was committed and they will call you an anti-Semite.”

In other words, Israel, which is usually an offstage presence, is itself the product of a monstrous crime, and is also the beneficiary of the one-sided defense and concern of the very worst people in the world, as depicted by Le Carre.

The point about Le Carre’s view is that one encounters it again and again in the class of upper middle class British people engaged in work on foreign affairs.  This is a loose, fluid group of people, to be found in British embassies, among the British Army’s officer corps, among foreign correspondents and among British people working for mainstream NGOs and aid organizations (not the organizations associated with the radical left or Sunni Islamism, importantly.  The Le Carre view of international affairs is a radical conservative one, not classically far leftist or Islamist, though in some ways sympathetic and similar to both.)

Britain is still quite a stratified society, and the make up of people engaged in these professions has changed less in the last 50 years than one might expect, given the very great changes in the broader society.   They are the last remnant of the British serving elite which once administered the empire.

At root, what is going on here it seems to me is a particular, romantic view of ‘authenticity.’  The American ‘neo-cons’ and their Israeli friends represent plasticity, superficiality, hypocrisy and venality.

Against them are the sane, rooted, three dimensional, usually British servants of the older ways, and their often beautiful, often female (and in Le Carre’s world usually doomed) representatives of the non-white Third World.

There is at the root of this an anti-modernism which is familiar and which has been present in both European anti-Americanism and modern European secular anti-semitism throughout.

An odd, aspect, of course, is that unlike western Jews, and also unlike Americans, for the most part, Israelis do not tend to self-consciously regard themselves as agents of modernity.  Rather, their self-understanding is that they are an ancient people, living in their ancestral land.  Perhaps this is why the encounter between educated Israelis and representatives of the Le Carre view of international affairs tend to be so strained and problematic.

In any case, the Le Carre view and its proponents should be taken into account when searching for the roots and reasons for the peculiar virulence and fury that one finds directed against Israel from among its native British (usually middle class) opponents.  This is a viewpoint with deep roots in British culture. Combined with the growing political strength of Islamist and Islamist-influenced politics in the modern UK, it will continue to have its impact, though probably (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) on the level of cultural and intellectual life rather than in the making of high policy.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer

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