The motivation for bringing George Smiley out of retirement? Plain anger, as John le Carre explains to Bryan Appleyard
Does David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre, admire George Smiley, his most celebrated spy? “He is the best of me, the most rational,’’ he says in an interview to mark the release of his new novel, A Legacy of Spies, in which Smiley makes a comeback.
“I admire his commitment to his task and his sense of responsibility to humankind. Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”
Smiley was born in 1961, in Cornwell’s first novel, Call for the Dead. He was a spy himself at the time, hence his need for a pseudonym, and he says he carried Smiley around in his diplomatic baggage.
“I finished another little book about him [ A Murder of Quality, 1962], then I wanted something big for him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was sort of spun round for him. I gave him a job as the observing eye, the painful eye of conformity to operational necessity.”
Smiley has always been his “secret sharer”, “an unannounced companion with whom I am sharing the experience, an imaginary figure”. And they share one big, sad secret.
“I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it. I do experience fulfilment with my children and my grandchildren.”
Now Smiley is back in A Legacy of Spies. The news was a sensation because, first, Cornwell is not alone in loving Smiley — everybody does — and, second, he once said he had finished with him. Now he knows they’ll be together until the end.
They are roughly the same age. Cornwell will be 86 next month. “Smiley and I have caught up in age and in attitude.”
This is harmless cheating. A pedantic reading of the books would suggest Smiley is somewhere between 102 and 111. But pedants tend to miss the big picture, so here it is.
Last year, Cornwell’s novel The Night Manager became a globally successful TV miniseries. Everybody wanted a follow-up, and the author was called in to kick around a few ideas centred on his first bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. That follow-up is on hold, but the experience drew Cornwell back to the characters in that novel, and even more so to those, primarily Smiley, in the later (and greater) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
“That book [ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was written in a kind of blind anger when we were all being thrown away, so I wanted to look at it again now and see what might have happened,’’ he says.
“Spies have children, and children they don’t even tell you about. They have bigger concerns than they actually reveal.”
The blind anger that, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, created the doomed Alec Leamas and his lover Liz Gold, was matched by a new rage that led to A Legacy of Spies.
“I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I despise the whole Brexit operation, as Smiley does. One government after another blamed Europe for its own failures because they never invested in the concept of a united Europe.”
In the new novel, the past returns thanks to a legal action brought against MI6 over the events surrounding the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Public exposure threatens the now glitzy, tight-suited inhabitants of “Spyland Beside the Thames”, the agency’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in Vauxhall. Peter Guillam, once Smiley’s deputy, is called back from retirement (though there is no such thing in MI6).
Revealing anything more would be a spoiler, but I think I can say this: Smiley moves in and out of the action in the past before, finally, appearing in the present. Guillam asks him what all their work had been for. England? No. Europe.
“I think his whole genesis in life, his private dream, as he now expresses it, is the salvation of Europe,’’ Le Carre says. “That was, for him, the battle front of the Cold War; for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”
That Britain lost both the hot war and the ensuing cold one is the theme that haunts the books and the man. In part, he is critical of the American behaviour from 1945 onwards.
“We were absolutely broke. The Americans made us pay for every bullet and every bad boat they sent us. At the same time as we were dismantling Germany, they were rebuilding it.
John le Carre at home in Hampstead