Norets Maxim Vadimovich
Tavrida national university
PhD in philology

The given research work is dedicated to the analysis of the spy novel, written by John Le Carre during the period of the cold war. The historic background has left the visible trace in his “spy” works. His searching of the double agent is the searching of his “self”, useless tries to answer the question “who I am”

Keywords: genre, novel, spy

Category: 10.00.00 Philology

Article reference:
Le Сarre’s Spy Novel in the Literature of the Cold War // Modern scientific researches and innovations. 2013. № 12 [Electronic journal]. URL: https://web.snauka.ru/en/issues/2013/12/29811

View this article in Russian

The novel of espionage or counterespionage has flourished, for obvious reasons, in the period of Cold War, achieving at its best a high degree of technical sophistication; but its literary status remains largely unacknowledged. The authors of spy thrillers are for the most part entertainers, in Steven Marcus’s sense of writers ‘who [do] not press upon us the full complexities of life, who [do] not demand from us a total seriousness in making moral judgments, and who [do] not necessarily bring to bear on experience a mature and searching intelligence [1, p. 45]. Yet this description is less dismissive than it sounds. The claims of such art merit serious consideration in literary- psychological if not in literary-moralistic terms; and the spy thriller can also become, like romance, the medium for an obliquely rendered criticism of life. Le Carre, the supreme exponent of the genre, uses it to explore the varieties of experience exploited more or less successfully by his fellow-practitioners. Like them, he provides us with exciting, disturbing, therapeutic fantasies of action and intrigue; but in his best work he also engages with political, moral and psychological complexities, demonstrating the capacity of entertainment art to transcend its own self-imposed limitations.

The spy thriller stands in an ambiguous, shifting relation to historical reality, on which it draws selectively, with sometimes more, sometimes less regard for verisimilitude. It is basically a form of fiction which might properly be called escapist, were it not for the pejorative, simplistic implications that term has acquired; and it is best illuminated by those theorists who have acknowledged and explored non-ethical, irrational dimensions in their own experience of literature.

‘The slightest novels’, Stevenson maintained in 1881, ‘are a blessing to those in distress, not chloroform itself a greater’; and the implications of that view had been elaborated in a letter to Professor Meiklejohn, written from California in the previous year in what was for Stevenson a period of illness, penury and depression.

This is disconcertingly true to experience, but it is a truth on which the moralistic critic does not care to dwell, impatient as he tends to be with all forms of literary experience which elude his categories. Stevenson, however, goes boldly on to extend his argument to states of health as well as sickness. The love of incident, of fit and striking incident, is, he maintains, a natural human appetite from the schoolboy to the sage; it is the basis of our delight in epic; but in his own day it was best catered for by novels of adventure, of the kind he enjoyed so much and wrote so well—novels which appealed, as he puts it, ‘to certain almost sensual and quite illogical tendencies in man’. The limitations in his own experience did not, he thought, disqualify him as a story-teller in this vein: . . it will be found true,’ he contended, ‘. . . in a majority of cases, that the artist writes with more gusto and effect of those things which he has only wished to do, than of those which he has done. Desire is a wonderful telescope, and Pisgah the best observatory.’ For him such fiction constituted an escape not only from his life of chronic ill-health and sickbeds to an imaginary life of action and adventure, but also from the humdrum, law-abiding ethic of real life to one of imaginary ruthlessness and slaughter.

Wish-fulfilment, in this view, is not an unacknowledged aberration on an author’s part, but an essential constituent of his creation, and an essential constituent also of the reader’s pleasure, since the great creative writer, according to Stevenson, ‘shows us the realisation and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men. His stories may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the day­dream.’ [2, p. 23]. Such satisfaction, such obedience, are seen not as corrupting or disabling, but as beneficial, indeed medicinal, providing the relief of drugs or opium in time of affliction, while acting as tonics or restoratives in time of health.

The medical analogy is used by Fielding in his Preface to Joseph Andrews, in a justification of the irrational, non-satiric pleasure which burlesque affords. In the comic the author confines himself strictly to Nature and imitates life as it really is, bringing out the ridiculous errors which spring from affectation, in a satiric exposure of vanity and hypocrisy; whereas in burlesque—one thinks of modern equiva­lents like Monty Python’s Flying Circus—the author displays things monstrous and unnatural, rousing our delight by the ‘surprising Absurdity’ of what he presents to us. Fielding argues that the comic provides ‘a more rational and useful.

This emphasis on the psychologically therapeutic (as opposed to morally illuminating) function of some forms of literature leads on to Lamb’s defence of Restoration Comedy, which Stevenson referred to in his playful description of an Antinomian Heaven. Lamb offers an analysis of his own delight in such comedy, in spite of its debased morality which he would find wholly unacceptable in real life.

Man has, this argument implies, anarchic, Dionysiac impulses which in ordinary life are subject to the control of Apollonian conscience. This involves an element of repression, as these impulses are restrained or channelled into more acceptable activities, so that they are integrated into an approved conception of the good life. This conception is governed by religion and the moral law—hence Lamb’s allusion to the diocese and law-courts in connection with strict conscience. There are moods however, when these latent impulses to anarchy are activated, and tend to open Dionysiac rebellion. In such moods the Apollonian restrictions normally accepted gladly as conditions of fully human life seem merely meddlesome: they are thought of now in terms of a cage or of restraining shackles; while the loving God who would have been appealed to as the ultimate sanction for codes of morality is metamorphosed into a hunter, to be escaped from if possible, or an Olympian tyrant from whose tyranny men shrink, yearning for an idyllic freedom imagined as existing before he exercised his baneful sway. Once conscious of this tension between Apollonian and Dionysiac within himself, a man may react like Lamb’s contemporary William Blake, who rebelled against the mind-forged manacles which fettered man’s delight, and against what he saw as a false god, the authoritarian Jehovah of the Old Testament with his negative morality of ‘Thou shalt not’—the god whose priests in black gowns could be seen walking their rounds, binding with briars our joys and desires. Lamb’s own reaction was, however, very different. He was not a moral revolutionary; and it may be that the dreadful episode in which his sister Mary murdered their mother in a fit of lunacy had given him a deeper insight than most men into the abyss of horror which can reveal itself in the human personality released from moral or from rational control. However this may be, he accepted an orthodox morality as self- evidently true, and clearly recognised that the characters of Congreve and Wycherley, translated into real life, would be ‘profligates and strumpets’, living on ‘principles which, universally acted upon, must reduce this frame of things to a chaos’. Yet he delights in entering imaginatively into their dramatic world—a world carefully circum­scribed by the boundaries of art—a world in which his orthodox morality does not apply, and in which therefore it can be abandoned without any evil consequence in life—a world from which he can return refreshed, exhilarated, gayer and healthier, happy to resume his normal standards, but happy also to have exercised thus harmlessly elements in his personality which would normally be under restraint.

‘The novel,’ writes Gillian Beer, ‘is more preoccupied with representing and interpreting a known world, the romance with making apparent the dreams of that world.’ The spy thriller, a contemporary version of romance, articulates dreams of adventure and to some extent of love—the traditional romance ingredients transposed into a modern idiom. Man’s aggressive and erotic impulses are both brought into play, and so too are his dreams of heroism—of the individual as master of his fate, confronting evil and destroying it. But the thriller also draws on nightmares—not least those based on aspects of reality which we prefer to banish from our daily consciousness. The division of the world into antagonistic power blocs, the continuing possibility of nuclear war, the East’s ideological hostility to Western society, Russia’s overwhelming military strength (and her use of it in Hungary and Czechoslovakia), the barbarism of her forced labour camps and psychiatric prisons, the continual probing of our institutions and defences even in periods of detente, the existence of communist sympathisers and supporters in our own society—very different from the largely mythical Fifth Column of the Fascists—all of these are such familiar facts that we have learned to live with them and virtually ignore them, unless they are forced on our unwilling attention by international crises. This suppressed awareness is tapped and exploited by spy thrillers, in which menace and treachery are two of the most frequently recurring themes; but our anxieties, once roused, are then assuaged by the frustration of the villains’ knavish tricks and the triumph of the hero. Nevertheless, the popularity of the genre suggests that this unease is endemic though suppressed in our society, and that the need for re­assurance as well as the thirst for vicarious adventure is continually present. Trilling, moreover, speaks of the mithridatic function, by which tragedy is used as the homeopathic administration of pain to inure ourselves to the greater pain which life will force upon us’ [3, p. 60]; and it may well be that our fantasy encounters with the secret brutalities of international conflict have a similar effect on us.

The ethics of the genre are far from constant. Espionage in Kim was still the Great Game which had been played by British officers throughout much of the nineteenth century to forestall Russian encroachments on India and to establish our hegemony in Central Asia [4, p. 93]. Sometimes these agents came to thoroughly unpleasant ends, but the sporting metaphor they favoured speaks for itself; and the same spirit was often carried over into fiction. The traditional spy story of the early twentieth century was set in a world full of hazards but free from moral ambiguities—apart from the fundamental ambiguity, rarely perceived by the authors or the reading public, of a double standard applied to espionage and counterespionage activities, depending on whether these were carried on by ‘us’ or ‘them’. In Buchan’s Richard Hannay stories, the most popular and influential of their kind, the hero may admire a brave enemy (in the spirit of those who honour while they cut him down the foe who comes with fear­less eyes), but he has a total confidence, shared by the author, in the rightness of his own cause and the wrongness of the enemy’s. This goes beyond a simple patriotism. Buchan had an acute sense of the vulnerability of civilised life: ‘You think,’ exclaims the sinister Mr Lumsley in The Power-House (1913), ‘that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you that the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.’ This prophetic insight, later praised by Graham Greene, was accompanied by what has been described (a shade portentously) as Buchan’s ‘Gothic, almost apocalyptic vision of the dark, destructive forces contained in human beings and in society’ [5, p. 71]. It is against these, as well as against Germany the nation state, that Hannay is contending; yet he adheres determinedly, quixotically, to decent methods and fair play, whatever devil’s work the other side may contemplate. The locus classicus occurs in MrStandfast (1919), when Hannay balks at shooting the arch-spy who is planning to destroy the British Army by releasing anthrax germs on its main lines of communication. The discovery of the plot fills him with horror: ‘I was fairly well used to Boche filthiness, but this seemed too grim a piece of the utterly damnable. I wanted to have Ivery by the throat and force the stuff into his body, and watch him decay slowly into the horror he had contrived for honest men.’ Yet when ‘Ivery’ appears a few minutes later, Hannay cannot bring himself to act with the appropriate ruthlessness.

I had my hand on my pistol, as I motioned Mary farther back into the shadows. For a second I was about to shoot. I had a perfect mark and could have put a bullet through his brain with utter certitude. I think if I had been alone I might have fired. Perhaps not. Anyhow now I could not do it. It seemed like potting a sitting rabbit. … [5, p. 105].

It is easy to make fun of such passages, though they stem from an honourable belief that if one must fight, one should fight as cleanly as possible—that if one must touch pitch, one should try to remain undefiled instead of plunging into it and wallowing. The same attitude, which underlies the Geneva Convention itself, survives today in popular fiction and reality, but in a much attenuated form. It has been eroded partly by the sinister appeal of violence in literature and life, but more by the perception that even ‘clean’ fighting necessarily involves considerable ruthlessness. This is even more true of clandestine operations, as the Second World War made manifest.

The secret agents of Cold War fiction move through an even harsher and more brutal world than this; and (unlike Ashenden, in Maugham’s pallidly realistic anecdotes of spy-work in the First World War) they are themselves directly involved in its harshness and brutality. The fact that James Bond, their crude prototype, was a professional assassin, licensed officially to kill in cold blood, typifies the moral ambiguity of their proceedings. They share Hannay’s sense of being on the side of good against some kind of evil: this is the political and ethical assumption on which their activities and our delight in them are based, though one of the conventions of the genre as it has developed is to allow doubts to arise from time to time in their minds and our own. (There is, for example, a recurrent contrast between the heroic code they live by and the decadence or selfishness of the Western society they are defending.) The main enemy for most of them is not so much Communism as Russian tyranny—cruel, oppressive and expansionist, as it revealed itself to be in the post-war years, with its evil nature fully manifested by the methods it employed. Yet their own methods are less scrupulous than Hannay’s, and their consciences less tender. They are professionals, not gentleman amateurs, and though they do retain some scruples which help to engage our sympathies, they realise that ruthless enemies have sometimes to be fought by ruthless means. There is therefore a casual tolerance of violence and dirty tricks, so long as they are used in a good cause. ‘Our kind of work,’ declares the Master in The Us or Them War ‘comes with a kind of built-in absolution. All-purpose remission for every imaginable kind of sin on the grounds of higher national interest’; and we relish, with a frisson of delighted horror, the ruthlessness and double-dealing characteristic of the genre. Yet we also go on thinking in terms of good guys versus bad, the inherent contradiction being obscured by the plot-mechanism, which usually allows us to have our moral cake and eat it.

Le Carre offers a more complex pleasure, by combining psychological release with radical moral concern, as distinct from the show of morality which serves in many thrillers as a spice to sin or justification for violence. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) insists upon the inhumanity of actions undertaken nominally on humanity’s behalf.

Control’s cynicism and self-satisfaction do not necessarily invalidate his argument, but its more disturbing implications are explored in the action which follows. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold combines the excellences of the thriller and the moral fable. It transcends the limitations of the former, but accepts (reluctantly perhaps) those of the latter. The ingenious plot, with its multiple deceptions and double double-crosses, dramatises a cold Machiavellian real-politik in which human sympathies have no place. It presents us with a metaphysically bleak world of action, in which for the Christian as much as for the Communist the end is seen as justifying the means, and individuals are deliberately sacrificed for the general good. There is a frightening void where one might have expected to find fundamental values: ‘That is the price they pay,’ says Leamas of his masters—‘to despise God and Karl Marx in the same sentence.’ [6, p. 41].

The epigrammatic indictment is a telling one; yet it seems out of character for the uncomprehending Leamas of the earlier dialogue. The thematic intention is no doubt to show his growing awareness of the issues, but this is rendered, in the manner of a moral fable, too schematically to be psychologically convincing. On the other hand, the book eschews moral simplicity. Our Man in Havana stated in a mode of comic fantasy the claims of individual human beings against those of secret services, nation states, or international power blocs. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold presents the same claims as constituents of a tragic dilemma. The sinister power of Russia and her satellites, and their threat to ‘ordinary people here and elsewhere’ are self-evident within the novel. Kipling’s Wall was an impressive barrier against Rome’s enemies, for the protection of her citizens and subjects. The Wall against which Leamas and Liz are shot is a barrier to prevent East Germany’s own citizens from escaping to the West, and it is described significantly as ‘a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp’. The need for secret services as one line of defence in such a world is real—not illusory as it was shown to be in Greene’s Havana. Leamas, even in his revulsion from his calling, sees it as necessary ‘for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me’, and the fact that it condemns them both to death does not dispose of his contention. Certainly the final note is one of protest. Leamas himself turns out to be a pawn in the game in which we thought he was a knight; and Liz, for all her half-baked Communism, is an innocent victim whose death evokes the image of a child in a small car smashed between great lorries. The pathos of the end is modified only by Leamas’s own final act of affirmation. His climbing down the Wall to die with her instead of jumping to safety, his refusal to go on living on the terms he would be left with, is in its way a triumph of the spirit. Yet the dilemma the book poses remains unresolved. As in Kim, where the claims of contemplation are weighed against those of action—the world of the Lama against that of Mahbub Ali—our satisfaction comes not from being presented with a neat solution, but from seeing the incompatible alternatives so powerfully presented.

We are left with the question whether it is possible to be a secret agent and a fully human being—or rather, since the agent in this formula is merely an exemplar, whether personal integrity can ever be preserved in the corrupting world of action. The true Le Carre hero, Smiley, is the test case. He had already figured as protagonist in Callfor the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962). Neither book aspired to be more than a good thriller, but they established him as a more fully apprehended character than Leamas—an unfashionable secret agent fully aware of the psychological and moral hazards of his calling.

He reappears in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in a minor but ambiguous role. (Each of Le Carre’s works is self-contained and self- sufficient, but cumulatively they reinforce each other, as the same characters or themes recur in different contexts.) We gather that he was opposed to the whole operation, but once it is launched he takes an active part, providing the incriminating evidence to be seized on by the East German tribunal.

He figures comparably in The Looking-Glass War (1965), that study in futility, self-deception and betrayal. The mission which we follow with excited apprehension is misconceived and badly executed, but it is also deliberately aborted by Control to discredit finally the remnant of the rival service which had mounted it. Smiley, high now in the counsels of ‘the Circus’, indicates revulsion when he realises what Control has done, what he himself has been involved in, though it falls to him to close the operation down, leaving the agent to his fate. As well as dissecting the ruthlessness of inter-service rivalries, the novel exposes a corrupt nostalgia for wartime experience, and the desire this breeds in the young as well as in the middle-aged to relive or replay a supposedly heroic past; but from this spiritual temptation Smiley seems immune. In contrast with the febrile enthusiasm, the pathetic aspirations of Leclerc’s organisation, he figures, in the glimpses which we have of him, as highly professional, enigmatic, yet humane.

In both these novels he is more a function than a character; in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) he holds the centre of the stage. Le Carre here allows himself the amplitude and the complexity of treatment of the novel proper, though his conventions remain those of the spy thriller. These are in no way disabling. Greene had already proved their value in his entertainments and more serious fiction as images or paradigms of normal experience. And in Le Carre’s A Small Town in Germany (1968), a considerable novel in its own right, the security investigation had revealed not the suspected flight of a defector, but a tangled web of professional and personal relationships, of loyalties and betrayals, in the British Embassy at Bonn. The investigating agent there became the novelist’s device for uncovering the truths of character and ultimate belief concealed by the facade which constitutes daily reality. A similar device is now employed in Smiley’s struggle to identify a traitor high in the security service itself. As he threads his way through the labyrinth of evidence, each character whom he encounters, each interview that he conducts, helps to throw light on the central problem of disloyalty, but also provides insights into a wide spectrum of personalities and values. It is through the process of investigation that the novel creates its own fully authenticated human world. The main structural motif of a quest, difficult and perilous in the extreme, culminating in a confrontation with the powers of evil—a quest undertaken by a solitary hero with (in this case) a few trusted followers—gives unity and tension to the narrative. (The Naive and Sentimental Lover, the one work in which Le Carre totally rejects the thriller framework, is curiously flabby by comparison.) We relish, as we do in works by Adam Hall, Len Deighton, William Haggard, all the technicalities of secret service work—the arcane tradecraft: realism of presentation is common form in the spy thriller, even when the content is plainly fantasy. The extent to which Le Carre’s realism extends here to content could, however, be a matter for debate. Kim Philby complained of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘the whole plot, from beginning to end, is basically implausible—at any rate to anyone who has any real knowledge of the business’; but few of us can claim such knowledge, and Philby’s own career outdid spy fiction in its bizarre actuality, forcing us to reconsider our criteria of probability. Perhaps it will suffice that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy carries enough conviction for us to suspend our lingering disbelief; and its significance, in any case, is not confined to the esoteric world of secret agents which provides its subject matter: it is to be read analogically as well as literally.

  1. Steven Marcus, “Evelyn Waugh and the Art of Entertainment”, Partisan Review, vol. 23 (1956)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson, Works, Tusitala Edn. (London, 1924)
  3. E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. R. Trask (London, 1953)
  4. Rudyard Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, Definitive Edn. (London, 1960)
  5. Roger Lancelyn Greene, Kipling and the Children (London, 1965)
  6. John Le Carre’ Call for the Dead (London, 1961)

All articles of author «Норец Максим Вадимович»

© If you have found a violation of copyrights please notify us immediately by e-mail or feedback form.

Contact author (comments/reviews)

Write comment

You must authorise to write a comment.

Если Вы еще не зарегистрированы на сайте, то Вам необходимо зарегистрироваться:
  • Register