Fifty years ago this year a British intelligence agent named David Cornwell published his third novel. As he had with his previous two, Cornwell wrote under the pen name John Le Carré. But unlike his earlier experiences as a published author, Cornwell/Le Carré not only achieved global fame this time, with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but was quite publicly presented as a member of the intelligence service whose masters had approved the publication of a novel that showed them to bear more than a passing resemblance to their opposite numbers on the other side of the Iron Curtain:
As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
Continued Le Carré (in a reflection published last week in The Guardian), “I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck.” (Here he is being asked about his name, wealth, and other things by Merv Griffin, two years into his celebrity…)
Last week in my Cold War class, I showed a brief clip from the exceptional 1965 film version of Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as the last minutes of a sprint through the role of espionage in that conflict. The clip I selected comes from near the end of the story, when protagonist Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton) is awaiting his chance to slip back into the West with Nan (Claire Bloom), a naive English Communist he had seduced as part of a byzantine scheme to discredit an idealistic East German counter-intelligence officer (Fiedler) very close to discovering that his wicked boss (Mundt) is actually a double agent. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you might first read David Denby’s recent essay on the film for a summary of the plot and an appreciation of the work done by Burton, Bloom, and director Martin Ritt in bringing it to the screen so successfully.) The shadowy world Leamas describes couldn’t be much less like the Technicolor one inhabited by Sean Connery and later James Bonds — or from the image of the Cold War as a “good war” that most Americans were not yet ready to shed in 1965, as their country escalated its involvement in Vietnam.
Leamas: What the hell do you think spies are: moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the Word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in the cell balancing right against wrong?
Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he’s evil and my friend. London needs him. They need him so that the great moronic masses you admire so much can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds again. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.
Nan: You killed Fiedler!
Leamas: How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends? What about your Party? There’s a few million bodies on that path.
It’s a wonderfully astringent little speech from screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, its complicated anti-sentiments delivered by a complicated actor (Denby: “…a perceptive man, well-read, interested in many things, generous at times but subject to rancorous tirades, a heavy drinker who thought himself too good for what he was doing but not strong enough to stop doing it”) under the direction of a complicated director (“…disgusted with both Communism and with over-eager anti-Communism… angry and divided, like many former leftists in the fifties and sixties”).
The passage in the novel from which it’s descended is a bit more drawn-out and didactic (“‘Your Party’s always at war, isn’t it? Sacrificing the individual to the mass. That’s what it says. Socialist reality: fighting night and day—that relentless battle—that’s what they say, isn’t it? At least you’ve survived. I never heard that Communists preached the sanctity of human life—perhaps I’ve got it wrong,’ he added sarcastically…”), but even more caustic. After Leamas’ description of spies (“…priests, saints, and martyrs… a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives”), his lover (“Liz” here) asks if he felt anything for Fiedler:
“This is a war,” Leamas replied. “It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next.”
“Oh God,” said Liz softly. “You don’t understand. You don’t want to. You’re trying to persuade yourself. It’s far more terrible, what they are doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill…”
“Christ Almighty!” Leamas cried. “What else have men done since the world began? I don’t believe in anything, don’t you see—not even destruction or anarchy. I’m sick, sick of killing but I don’t see what else they can do. They don’t proselytise; they don’t stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or for God or whatever it is. They’re the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high.”
“You’re wrong,” Liz declared hopelessly; “they’re more wicked than all of us.”
Which character speaks for Le Carré?
Well, both, probably: the naïf horrified how those with power wield it, and the cynic who prefers small scale iniquity to large scale slaughter. It’s a tension to which he’d return again and again in later works like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and one that is not confined to historic or imagined pasts. Concluding his Guardian essay by suggesting that one reason for Spy‘s popularity was its credibility, Le Carré observes that such moral ambiguities haven’t gone away simply because Communism fell:
…it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later: how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service – I called him Control – had no doubt of the answer:
“I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”
Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.
And if that sounds a bit more like Liz/Nan, Leamas resurfaces for the parting shot:
What have I learned over the last 50 years? Come to think of it, not much. Just that the morals of the secret world are very like our own.