Le Carre’s not-so-secret service: elevating spy writing to high literature
Spies are natural novelists, luring others into their artificial world
After a stint as an intelligence officer in the Cold War, nearly 60 years of writing and two dozen novels, John Le Carre embodies that great British tradition where the craft of spying meets the art of fiction. I share his fascination with the world of espionage, so an invitation to meet the master of spywriting was irresistible.
Recently, at a hotel in Bristol, I joined David Cornwell (his real name) and an American interviewer to talk about spies, spying and spycraft: the history, obliquity and complexity of espionage, its relationship to our national character and its role in the worlds of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Le Carre and I approach spying from different ends of the same continuum. As someone who worked in MI5 and MI6, he weaves the reality of espionage into fiction of great psychological depth. I was also tapped up by MI6 just before leaving university and went to a bizarre job interview with a man calling himself “Major Halliday”. Upsettingly, he wore sandals with socks. MI6 quickly and quite rightly concluded I was not suited to secrecy. I am an outside observer: I try to write books that read like novels but strictly adhere to the facts of the past.
Two hours with Le Carre left me convinced of a central truth about this peculiarly British trade: spying and fiction writing are not just similar but grow from the same taproot.
Spies and novelists create an artificial world and lure others into it. The more emotionally believable that world, the better the spy and the better the fiction.
Many of the country’s finest novelists previously worked in intelligence: Somerset Maugham spied for Britain in Russia before the revolution; John Buchan was an intelligence officer in World War I; Ian Fleming worked for the chief of wartime naval intelligence; and Graham Greene, Compton Mackenzie and Arthur Ransome were all in MI6. I have rarely come across a spy who was not a frustrated or an actual writer of fiction.
The architects of Operation Mincemeat, the most effective deception operation of World War II, were all would-be novel- ists, deliberately setting out to bamboozle the enemy with a false reality. Spies are trained to invent and reinvent themselves, and others. Mansfield Cumming, the first “C” (as all MI6 chiefs are known), allowed the myth to spread that he had amputated his own leg with a penknife.
The novelist also manipulates his cast. As Le Carre put it when I met him: “You must contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him into this or that other person?”
Spies tell stories that may be true, or half-true, or outright lies. Spanish double agent Juan Pujol, codenamed “Garbo” by MI5 on account of his acting ability, invented no fewer then 23 subagents, each of whom fed disinformation back to the Germans despite being entirely fictional characters. Greene based Our Man in Havana, the story of a counterfeit spy, on the Garbo case: fiction created a reality, which created fiction.
We are predisposed to believe people who gather intelligence in the same way that we invest, as readers, in the imaginary emo- tional reality of a novel. Politicians treasure classified information because it is secret, which does not necessarily render it more reliable than openly accessible information. In fact, it frequently makes it less so.
It is the shadowy line between truth and untruth, seeming and being, that makes spying so intriguing to write about, in fiction and nonfiction, and so useful and dangerous in the real world. The uncertainty of espionage is one of the defining characteristics of the modern age. Tony Blair and George W. Bush approached the Iraq war in 2003 already convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that is what their intelligence services duly concluded. The narrative was already written and the evidence was fitted into it. No one lied deliberately. But a story was told that the listeners wanted to hear. The murkiness of the intelligence world hangs over the Trump administration, amid accusations of covert Russian manipulation and dodgy dealing during last year’s presidential election campaign. The fingerprints of the Russian intelligence services are everywhere and nowhere. Moscow has deliberately muddied the waters to an impenetrable opacity. The tricky task facing Robert Mueller, the former FBI director recently appointed special counsel to investigate Russian interference, will be to establish where the fiction ends and the reality begins. Whatever the outcome, the tale of the Trump presidency will be told through a story of spies.
Winston Churchill understood the interplay between fiction and truth in espionage work. “In the higher ranges of Secret Service work, the actual facts of many cases were in every respect equal to the most fantastic inventions of romance and melodrama,” he wrote.
But it took Le Carre, a former intelligence officer, to explore the strange, morally fraught, seedy but glamorous world of espionage in postwar Britain, elevating spy writing to high literature. “If you really want to examine the national psychology,” he said, “it’s locked in the secret world.”
For more than a half-century, Le Carre has unlocked that world. His new book published next week, A Legacy of Spies, examines the long shadow it still casts over us. Nobody does it better.
I left our meeting more convinced than ever that the spy and the novelist are brothers in subterfuge, imagination and fabrication. If Cornwell had not turned to fiction, he might well have ended up as “C”.
John Le Carre