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

We conclude our interview with Toby Manning on his book John le Carré and the Cold War.

Find part one here.

When you’re done reading my interview listen to the Spybrary podcast interview with Toby Manning.

Spy Write: It seems that le Carré’s post-Cold War work may have been what muddied the waters regarding the “otherness” of his communist villains. In his later novels he has taken aim at Capitalism with the fervor as he once did with Communism. It’s interesting that le Carré has managed to pivot and remain relevant in a way that his other contemporaries were not. I know it’s beyond the scope of your book but I’m curious about your thoughts about his work since 1991.

Toby Manning: Well, yes, it was partly that latterday shift which made me expect a reassessed vision of Smiley [in A Legacy of Spies].  And it’s certainly true that le Carré’s been a huge critic of the excesses of late capitalism, the way it was given both freedom and, as it were, license, by the collapse of Communism. He’s also been very critical of Western intervention, especially in Iraq, though I don’t think it’s caused him to review Western interventions in the Cold War from what I can tell. Which leads to my main problem: that even in those later novels, there are always bastions of decency within the British – or in the case of A Most Wanted Man – European governmental institutions. As well as Gunter Bachmann in Wanted Man, or Leonard/Angela Burr in The Night Manager, there’s Nicholas Amory in Absolute Friends, which, despite being a bit of a rant, is my favourite of those later books. So there’s this romanticism within the cynicism, but I’d argue the two are usually integrally related. Just as liberal states and capitalism are inter-related – and it’s that relationship that I don’t think is fully comprehended by le Carré’s work. The baddies are always maverick capitalists, or if they’re in the state, they’re blinkered careerists, or just rotten apples. Or just American, of course. ‘America’ becomes a kind of lightning rod for British malfeasance, which bypasses proper acknowledgement of the British state’s role in the world’s messes, from foreign wars to cowboy capitalism. The conspiracy is always ‘out there’ not ‘in here’.

SW: I was also able to attend le Carré’s September lecture in London and, since it’s just how I am, I had to visit some notable Smiley sites such as Battersea Park Bridge and 9 Bywater St. You’ve written about le Carré’s use of London [I’ll insert a link here], especially as a surrogate for the whole of Britain and to highlight the conflict of the upper class versus the classless.

In the paper you mention le Carré’s personal history giving him divided class loyalties. He grew up among the upper class and their education system but lived with the constant pressure of being shown as a fraud due to his father’s con artist tendencies. This conflict seems like a very British problem.  Is there anything else about le Carré’s writing about London/Britain that you find distinguishes him from other authors?

 TM: Although I think A Perfect Spy, which goes into all of this, is his masterpiece, I’m afraid I feel that Cornwell, like most people who ascend the class ladder, doesn’t actually have divided loyalties. His is, largely, a Britain of Oxford-educated upper middle class men. That’s who he’s particularly adept at depicting. Which goes back to what I was saying about satire: because for all his critique of that culture, it’s those same establishment types that he appears to revere as the essence of Britishness, of decency, of probity, of culture and so on.

In terms of being a London writer, yes, I think he’s fantastically good at evoking London landscapes, and, again, especially, the landscapes of the establishment. Tinker Tailor, for me, is a hymn to the establishment quite as heartfelt as the children singing the Nunc Dimitis at the end of the television series. The same goes for his depictions of Oxford – which is always this serene repository of culture amid the dreaming spires.

As for feeling a fraud, the British class system has always been acutely snooty about new entrants’ failure to crack its codes and simultaneously incredibly porous to new entrants – so feeling a fraud may well be one of the defining conditions of social class in Britain. And, looked at politically, in terms of entitlement, or lack of it, quite rightly so. I suspect that discomfort is a rather small price to pay for getting to run the country – or to run corporations that run several countries.

 SW: Underreported over the years has been le Carre’s use of humor in his books. From the first chapter of Call for the Dead to The Looking Glass War, which plays like a very black comedy, through to the Guillam/lawyers exchange at the opening of A Legacy of Spies, which was the high point of the book for me, it’s been a constant in his work. Perhaps the humor is only fully understood when you listen to le Carre read his own novels? He’s a wonderful reader of his own work, not something every author can boast. That’s not to say his novels are a laugh a minute but is there a reason academic writing tends to focus on the serious at the expense of humor?

TM: Yes, I feel that’s very much part of his appeal. For me, the humorous element was something that came into fruition in the 70s, and that he’s been developing ever since. We’ll have to part on Call for the Dead, which, much as I love it, I find rather dour – not even the jaunty 60s film with a bossa nova theme tune could change that! And there aren’t many laughs in The Spy. But there’s a drollness to the presentation of later characters like Roddy Martindale or Saul Enderby or Jerry Westerby, while Connie Sachs is both amusing and witty, all of which le Carré captures particularly adroitly with his gift for voices, those voices that give the characters such vivid life. While he does Brits best, it has to be said, he’s pretty funny about Americans too.

I don’t think academics only do focus only on the serious – I’m teaching a course on comedy at the moment, as it happens. There’s a whole tranche of critical theory about humour, about what makes us laugh and why. So I talk a lot about satire in my le Carré book. Le Carré came to the fore, as he acknowledges, contemporaneous with the British satire boom of the early 60s. But one of the things about satire, as both Jonathan Coe and Malcolm Gladwell have pointed out in recent years is that, satire often provokes sympathy in the observer, and indeed often in the satire’s creator, and time again you see them falling in love with the initially despised object of their satire. Think of Tina Fey and Sarah Palin. So again, le Carré is satirizing the English establishment, but the portrayals are always, it seems to me, suffused with sympathy: Leclerc in The Looking Glass War, Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy, and I perhaps most of all, Rick in A Perfect Spy.

 SW: I’ve read several previous titles that look critically at le Carre’s work. I’m assuming that you did a lit review for this project. Any writers you’d care to recommend for their insights into le Carre’s writing?

TM: It depends what you mean by “look critically at le Carré’s work”. There’s a ton of stuff on le Carré out there, all of which – so far as I know – I’ve read. But that looks critically? Most of it, to my mind, just sticks to the consensus. But I’ll be glad to hear of anything that doesn’t. Which, of course, is my way of saying, my book is the most rigorous and probing of anything on le Carré so far! As your readers will have gathered, I don’t treat him reverently, I view him quite critically, but that certainly doesn’t diminish the esteem with which I regard these books as literature – in fact I think it adds to it.

 SW: Anything else that you’d like to mention? Any exciting critical revelations you’d like to tease to get us to pick up your book?

TM: For me the key thing is the way that the books speaks to the moment of their creation – from the attempts to transform Britain under Wilson which informs Looking Glass War to the paranoia about Communist infiltration in mid 70s Britain which spawned Tinker Tailor to the reassertion of a trenchant anti-Communist British nationalism under Thatcher which underlies Smiley’s People. But maybe your readers would just like to know who Smiley is quoting when he cries out ‘who was then the gentleman?’ in Call for the Dead. Or how many verbatim lifts from le Carré there are in Homeland?

SW: All of those sound like good reasons to pick up a copy to me. I look forward reading the book and putting some of my previous assumptions on le Carre’s novels under scrutiny.

Many thanks to Toby Manning for taking the time out of a busy schedule to correspond.  Be sure to keep an eye on the Spybrary podcast feed as Manning is rumored to be making an appearance there soon.

John le Carré and the Cold War was published by Bloomsbury and you can find it on Amazon.

About the book –

John le Carré and the Cold War explores the historical contexts and political implications of le Carré’s major Cold-War novels. The first in-depth study of le Carré this century, this book analyses his work in light of key topics in 20th-century history, including containment of Communism, decolonization, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cambridge spy-ring, the Vietnam War, the 70s oil crisis and Thatcherism.

Examining The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), Smiley’s People (1979) and other novels, this book offers an illuminating picture of Cold-War Britain, while situating le Carré’s work alongside that of George Orwell, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming. Providing a valuable contribution to contemporary understandings of both British spy fiction and post-war fiction, Toby Manning challenges the critical consensus to reveal a considerably less radical writer than is conventionally presented.

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