Interview with Toby Manning on John le Carré and the Cold War – Part One

I am please to welcome Dr. Toby Manning to the site. He’s agreed to talk about his just released book John le Carré and the Cold War. 

If the book is anything like some of Dr. Manning’s previously released papers on le Carré, it will make for thoughtful reading and have you pulling le Carré’s novels off the shelf for a re-read.

Spy Write: Can you talk a little bit about your background and what drew you to John le Carré as a subject of study? Is espionage fiction of personal interest as well as academic?

Toby Manning: It all goes back to 1979, which was such a key year – both politically and for me personally. It was the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, But it was also the year I was thirteen, the year my parents split up, and the year of the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation. I watched the series with my mother, who was an English teacher, and that Christmas she gave me the book of Tinker Tailor. That was the beginning of a long relationship with le Carré’s work that has led up to this study via a PhD that I’d meant to do for years. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read Tinker Tailor now – it’s such a rich, atmospheric, peculiarly English novel – one of the great post-war novels, I think. I remember my mother said that what was unusual about le Carré as a thriller writer was the investment in the emotional, and while I reject the term “thriller” these days, and also think it’s the political aspects of those novels that are the most important, there is something that is strangely haunting about those le Carré Cold-War books – a sense of the mythic, a feeling of the elegiac, a historical sense of moment – all of which, I think, is connected to the emotional. It is the essence of what people now call their affect: but that affect is utterly intertwined with the political.

It sounds like I’m answering what led me to read le Carré rather than what led me to study him – though really it comes to the same thing. Time and distance have just added nostalgia and knowledge. The nostalgia enhances those atmospheric, mythic elements; the knowledge is of how much was going on politically in those books, although they’re often seen to operate in some apolitical no-man’s land. Le Carré’s Cold-War books are totally suffused with the sense of a waning Britain, the submerged residue of imperialist chauvinism – a seething anti-Americanism on one hand, and a paranoid anti-Communism on the other. But these novels are also, I feel, constantly in dialogue with the political moment of their publication, once you track back and look at what was going on in Britain at that time. To take one example, the arrival of an unusually non-elite, anti-establishment spy like Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at precisely the moment when there was so much talk about ‘classlessness’, which was emblematized by Labour leader (and later Prime Minister) Harold Wilson.

SW: Were you able to attend the speech on George Smiley le Carré gave in London this past September? If so, what did you think?

TM: Yes, I was. I very much enjoyed it – le Carré is a great entertainer on and off the page. But I felt then, as I felt reading A Legacy of Spies that same week, that the business of Smiley coming out as a European in the aftermath of Brexit was a rather pat distraction from what was really going on in the novel. The European angle is what got all the attention, but what does it really mean? Sure, we all know that Smiley loves German literature, but le Carré is equally interested in the fascist elements of Germany and Europe too – in A Small Town in Germany, Britain joining the Common Market involves an explicit alliance with fascists in German society. And in le Carré we also see the aftermath of European imperialism  – mainly in The Honourable Schoolboy. This is not to suggest that either le Carré or myself are Brexiteers, just to highlight the complexity in these things. Apart from anything else, half of Europe was Communist in the Cold-War: what ideal of ‘Europe’ exactly was Smiley fighting for then?

But because of this – probably related to this – what’s been overlooked about A Legacy… is that in revisiting that Cold-War material of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré is returning to their central, unresolved anxieties. Which were, of course, the anxieties of their era and were usually represented via Smiley – whether it’s his agonising over killing Dieter Frey in Call for the Dead, his ambiguously shady role in the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or his second thoughts before unmasking the mole in Tinker Tailor. So I felt A Legacy of Spies was an attempt to retrospectively justify Smiley’s – and thus Britain’s – actions during the Cold War. The European angle thus is a blind, a distraction.

SW: I found your paper ‘Fanatics and Absolutists: Communist Monsters in John le Carré’s Cold War fiction’ had me reconsidering my view, I think typical of many, of le Carré as master of exploring the “grey area” of espionage. Instead you advance the idea that his villains are still very much in the scary “other” vein. For those who may not have read it, what would you state as your strongest evidence of that not being the case?

TM: One word: Karla. Karla gives his name to a trilogy, three of the best selling novels of le Carré’s career – Tinker Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People –  and yet never speaks a word throughout the three books. How classically villainous is that? Karla is silent, ruthless, murderous, and sadistic – this is Bond-level villainy! The very thing le Carré is supposed to be beyond (though The Night Manager adaptation suggests people seem to be forgetting this facet of le Carré). Karla is even compared to Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty in Smiley’s People. And yes, I know the objection here is that Karla is humanised in that novel, via his love for his daughter. But what is less remarked is that in order to protect this beloved daughter, Karla indulges in some of the most grisly murders of an already grisly career. Is it morally preferable to murder for love than for politics? That’s a funny kind of humanism.

I can go on: Dieter Frey in Call for the Dead is entirely ‘other’: fanatical, murderous and so on. I also feel that Fiedler in The Spy is not the sympathetic characterisation that is commonly presented in criticism: Fiedler espouses a viciously utilitarian Communist credo that is compared very unfavourably with liberal ideals in the novel. I should say I’m using ‘liberal’ in the British, political theory sense, of the dominant system of the West. Liberal democracy if you prefer. Control may be ruthless but he articulates fairly standard British ideological rationales. Because all these villains are Communists, this ‘othering’ is not just sui generis, it is political. This is actually my big problem with looking through the lens of genre: it leaves out the historically particular. To say these guys are evil because thriller villains have to be evil overlooks the political context in which Communism was being framed as evil by Western governments. The way the left in Britain had to dance on coals to avoid being tarred by association. This is not me airbrushing Communism, I’m just looking at the political realities of the Cold War, when Britain and America supported any end of abhorrent dictators internationally to keep Communism ‘contained’. And, actually, the forgotten story is that, for all those efforts, they didn’t do a very good job. Forgotten because they ‘won’ in the end, but I’m not sure how much Britain and America had to do with that.

SW: Why do you think the majority of readers, critics and academics have held the opposite view?

TM: Maybe it’s because this villainous Communism chimes with some critics’ own political views, so they simply don’t notice it. Lots of le Carré critics routinely refer to the very idea of Communism as ‘evil’; very few even try to put a neutral, non partisan view. But, secondly, to be fair, compared to Ian Fleming, le Carré’s Communists are charm personified! Third though, is that it’s simply the power of consensus. This is the angle on le Carré in the press and in scholarship, this whole moral equivalence idea, the ‘gray area’ and it’s very appealing and powerful, it speaks to the evanescent, indeterminate aspects of his work I was talking about earlier. But I think this critical consensus tends to frame our readings – in fact other le Carré critics have told me they felt they were overly swayed by that consensus.

It’s not that I don’t think there are gray areas in le Carré though – his novels are suffused with ambiguity and grayness of all kinds – gray bureaucrats, gray weather. I just think these moral gray areas are differently located than is commonly believed – that they are internal to liberal democracy. Liberalism is predicated on the notion of ‘decency’ and probity and yet is constantly stained by violence and bloodshed, as most political systems are. Think of Smiley again: decent and honourable, yet responsible for the deaths of Dieter Frey and Jerry Westerby, at least; not to mention manipulating Karla’s emotionally disturbed daughter. He’s a humanist who trades in human frailty. In fact, as Smiley shows, liberalism can be as ruthless and brutal as any political system – but historically, look at the British Empire which was the product of liberalism, and at the kinds of things that Britain was doing in Malaya, Kenya or the Congo during the Cold War. So the conflict in the novels – in Smiley – is wondering what is justified in the defence of liberalism against the presumed threat of Communism. Which is what is happening, still, in A Legacy of Spies. And where I depart from the critical consensus is that I think le Carré feels that ultimately, after a certain amount of hesitation, that a great deal is justified.

In this respect, I feel Smiley’s relationship to his wife, Ann, the putative main cause of his suffering, is largely symbolic. Of the inconstancy and elusiveness of the liberal ideal. There’s a fantastic bit in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – a key text for both me and le Carré – where a character, Fowler says, “We haven’t a liberal party any more – liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience.” Smiley’s agonies – returned to again in A Legacy of Spies – are that conscience in action, or at least a performance of that conscience. It’s sort of cathartic for a liberal society, I think.

SW: That does highlight one of my disappointments with A Legacy of Spies, which I otherwise greatly enjoyed. I had thought this would be le Carré’s opportunity to hold Smiley to account for his actions in The Spy, which for reasons of plotting are left hidden until the end. Especially given a throwaway line near the end of A Legacy of Spies revealing that all the skullduggery in The Spy was for nothing.  Instead, Smiley is shown still quite at peace about what they did. Perhaps it’s just my own personal skepticism showing but Guillam seems a bit unconvinced by Smiley’s justifications.

TM: Yes, the book seems to be working up to a rather harsher verdict on Smiley than we’ve been used to that might have muddied that reputation for probity a bit more. But in the end it just came across as a justification – Smiley guilty only of assuming that others would act as decently as he does. I’m afraid I didn’t read Guillam’s reaction as skeptical – I always felt he needed Smiley to be honourable, to represent that self-image of Britain as cultured, decent, fair, liberal, and he doesn’t seem unduly disillusioned at the end. For me that specific disappointment was just a synecdoche of the anticipation the book raised in me that ultimately then fizzled out.

I actually think one of the biggest problems with latterday le Carré is his – and his critics’ – apparent unawareness of quite how undignified his whole much older man/young woman schtik is, and it now seems utterly entrenched.

SW: Yes, one of the discussions I’ve had many times with other readers of le Carré is his inability or disinterest in writing fully realized female characters and I’d say that was another of my disappointments with A Legacy of Spies.

Find the final part of our discussion here. Le Carré’s later works, his use of satire and what critical analysis of le Carré has previous missed are all topics covered.

John le Carré and the Cold War is published by Bloomsbury and available on Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Toby Manning on John le Carré and the Cold War – Part One

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