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]
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.
CULTURE OF SECRECY
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.
NOBODY DOES IT BETTER
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.