Spies like us

Le se­cret du ro­man d'es­pion­nage bri­tan­nique [Spies like us est le titre d'une co­mé­die de J. Lan­dis (Drôles d'es­pions en VF), sor­tie en 1985]

Vocable (Anglais) - - Édito | Sommaire -

L’An­gle­terre, nid d’es­pions.

Qu’ont en com­mun Ian Fle­ming et John Le Carré ? Ils sont An­glais et ont pro­duit les plus grands hé­ros du ro­man d’es­pion­nage : James Bond et George Smi­ley. Ils ont aus­si tous deux tra­vaillé pour les ser­vices de ren­sei­gne­ments bri­tan­niques dans la vraie vie. Mais d’où vient ce lien pro­fond qui unit l’An­gle­terre au monde des agents se­crets ?

Few coun­tries have do­mi­na­ted any in­dus­try as Bri­tain has do­mi­na­ted the in­dus­try of pro­du­cing fic­tio­nal spies. Bri­tain in­ven­ted the spy no­vel with Ru­dyard Ki­pling’s dis­sec­tion of the Great Game in “Kim” and John Bu­chan’s ad­ven­ture sto­ries. It conso­li­da­ted its lead with So­mer­set Mau­gham’s Ashen­den sto­ries and Gra­ham Greene’s in­ven­tion of “Gree­ne­land”. It then pro­du­ced the world’s two most fa­mous spooks: James Bond, the da­shing wo­ma­ni­ser, and George Smi­ley, the ce­re­bral cu­ckold.

2. What ac­counts for this suc­cess? One rea­son is the re­vol­ving door bet­ween the se­cret es­ta­blish­ment and the li­te­ra­ry es­ta­blish­ment. Some of the lions of Bri­tish li­te­ra­ture wor­ked as spies. Mau­gham was sent to Swit­zer­land to spy for Bri­tain un­der co­ver of pur­suing his ca­reer as a wri­ter. Greene wor­ked for the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. Both Ian Fle­ming, the crea­tor of

Bond, and John le Carré, the crea­tor of Smi­ley, ear­ned their li­ving as spies.

3. There is al­so a more pro­found rea­son for Bri­tain’s suc­cess. The spy no­vel is the quin­tes­sen­tial Bri­tish fic­tio­nal form in the same way that the Wes­tern is quin­tes­sen­tial­ly American. Bri­tain’s best spy no­ve­lists are so good pre­ci­se­ly be­cause they use the genre to ex­plore what it is that makes Bri­tain Bri­tish: the ob­ses­sion with se­cre­cy, the na­ture of the es­ta­blish­ment, the ago­nies of im­pe­rial de­cline and the com­pli­ca­ted tug of pa­trio­tism.

4. Bri­tain is ho­ney­com­bed with se­cre­tive ins­ti­tu­tions, par­ti­cu­lar­ly pu­blic schools and Ox­bridge col­leges, which have their own pri­vate lan­guages. At Eton, for example, where Fle­ming was edu­ca­ted and Mr le Carré taught for a while, boys dress in tail­coats and call their tea­chers “beaks” and their terms “halves”. Wal­ter Ba­ge­hot ar­gued

(ap­pro­vin­gly) that Bri­tain weaves du­pli­ci­ty in­to its sta­te­craft. The cons­ti­tu­tion res­ts on a dis­tinc­tion bet­ween an “ef­fi­cient” branch which go­verns be­hind the scenes, and a “di­gni­fied” branch which puts on a show for the people.


5. The Bri­tish es­ta­blish­ment is not on­ly a per­fect ma­chine for pro­du­cing se­crets and

Bri­tain's best spy no­ve­lists are so good pre­ci­se­ly be­cause they ex­plore what it is that makes Bri­tain Bri­tish.

lies. It al­so pro­duces the ma­ve­ricks and mis­fits who thrive in the se­cret world. Es­ta­blish­ment types seem to come in two va­rie­ties: smooth confor­mists who do eve­ry­thing by the rules, and ma­ve­ricks who break eve­ry rule but are ne­ver­the­less to­le­ra­ted be­cause they are mem­bers of the club. The first type is sent in­to the Fo­rei­gn

5. ma­ve­rick franc-ti­reur, non-confor­miste / mis­fit mar­gi­nal / to thrive, thri­ved or throve, thri­ved or thri­ven s’épa­nouir, pros­pé­rer / smooth lisse, suave / by the rules confor­mé­ment aux règles / Fo­rei­gn Of­fice mi­nis­tère des Af­faires étran­gères / Of­fice and the se­cond in­to MI6. The best spy no­vels are like dis­tor­ting mir­rors in fair­grounds: by exag­ge­ra­ting this or that fea­ture of Es­ta­blish­ment Man, they al­low the rea­der to un­ders­tand the ideal form.

6. The other great theme in Bri­tish spy no­vels is geo­po­li­ti­cal de­cline. How can people who were “trai­ned to Em­pire, trai­ned to rule the waves”, as one of Mr le Carré’s cha­rac­ters puts it, bear to live in a world in which the waves are ru­led by other po­wers and sta­te­craft is re­du­ced to pro­vi­ding fuel for the wel­fare state?

7. Fle­ming’s no­vels are full of la­ments about Bri­tain’s “crum­bling em­pire” and its de­pen­den­cy-pro­du­cing state. “You have not on­ly lost a great em­pire,” Tiger Ta­na­ka, a Ja­pa­nese spy, tells Bond, “you have see­med al­most an­xious to th­row it away with both hands.”

8. Mr le Carré once des­cri­bed Bri­tain as a coun­try where “fai­led so­cia­lism is being re­pla­ced by fai­led ca­pi­ta­lism”. The Cir­cus,

as he cal­led the se­cret ser­vice’s head­quar­ters, is a phy­si­cal ma­ni­fes­ta­tion of de­cline: cram­ped, shod­dy, ree­king of ri­sing damp, just one has­ty re­pair away from col­lapse.


9. Why re­main loyal to a coun­try that has made such a mess of things and to an es­ta­blish­ment soa­ked in hy­po­cri­sy? Mr le Carré’s trai­tors be­tray their coun­try not for mo­ney but be­cause they have trans­fer­red their pa­trio­tism to the So­viet Union. But what makes Bri­tain’s best spy no­vels so good is that they toy with di­sillu­sion­ment on­ly to re­ject it. For all its faults, they say, Bri­tain is the best of a bad lot. Bond is so be­sot­ted with his coun­try that he boasts that “Bri­tish food is the best in the world”.

10. And spying pro­vides Bri­tain with a way of re­clai­ming its great­ness, by ex­cel­ling in the most so­phis­ti­ca­ted form of fo­rei­gn po­li­cy. The Ame­ri­cans have the mo­ney and the blus­ter, but the Bri­tish have the brains to spend it wi­se­ly and re­strain the Ame­ri­cans from going over the top. Fe­lix Lei­ter, Bond’s op­po­site num­ber in the CIA, ad­mits that Bond is playing “in a big­ger league” than he is. Smi­ley is more subtle than his “cou­sins” in Ame­ri­ca.

11. The se­cret at the heart of the Bri­tish spy no­vel is that Bri­tain is much bet­ter than it seems. The wri­ters ago­nise over de­cline and hy­po­cri­sy, on­ly to conclude that the Bri­tish are cle­ve­rer and more ci­vi­li­sed than any­bo­dy else. A com­for­ting illu­sion wrap­ped in a tale of di­sillu­sion­ment: you can’t get more Bri­tish than that.


Ro­ger Moore in 1973.

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