What they are saying about John le Carré

December 15, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, writers, writing.

With the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, John le Carré redirected the genre of espionage fiction away from the fanciful world of James Bond to the moral grayness of people such as Alec Leamas and ultimately George Smiley.

And while James Bond was lots of fun, George Smiley made us think more seriously about who we are, what we believe, and where we are in the world.

Le Carré died at his home in Cornwall last weekend at the age of 89. Here’s a sampling of what people are writing about him:

David Ignatius in the Washington Post

To say that le Carré invented the modern spy novel doesn’t do justice to his achievement. His fiction was so powerful that in the “secret world,” as he always liked to call it, his imaginary names began to take over from real ones. Intelligence officers never spoke about “moles” until le Carré popularized the term; they talked about penetration agents. Surveillance was drab work until he began writing about “pavement artists” like Toby Esterhase, the Eastern European-born character who directs the “Lamplighters.” Source: John le Carré didn’t just invent the characters in the foreground of the spy world. He designed the entire set. – The Washington Post

Sarah Lyall in the New York Times

Before Mr. le Carré published his best-selling 1963 novel “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which Graham Greene called “the best spy story I have ever read,” the fictional model for the modern British spy was Ian Fleming’s James Bond — suave, urbane, devoted to queen and country. With his impeccable talent for getting out of trouble while getting women into bed, Bond fed the myth of spying as a glamorous, exciting romp.

Mr. Le Carré upended that notion with books that portrayed British intelligence operations as cesspools of ambiguity in which right and wrong are too close to call and in which it is rarely obvious whether the ends, even if the ends are clear, justify the means.

Led by his greatest creation, the plump, ill-dressed, unhappy, brilliant, relentless George Smiley, Mr. le Carré’s spies are lonely, disillusioned men whose work is driven by budget troubles, bureaucratic power plays and the opaque machinations of politicians — men who are as likely to be betrayed by colleagues and lovers as by the enemy. Source: John le Carré, Best-Selling Author of Cold War Thrillers, Dies at 89 – The New York Times

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian

Le Carré’s fiction had a twine of celluloid in its DNA: particularly the movie-making of Graham Greene and Carol Reed in The Third Man. The dark shadows of that movie loomed over his imagination, from a city (Vienna) divided up by the second world war’s victorious and now mutually resentful allies. The paranoia, the sense of postwar peace perennially threatened and undermined by some new terrible incursion, the theme of personal betrayal, and the vivid nightmare of “going over to the other side” in a theological or geopolitical sense: it all informed his writing. Orson Welles’s breezy Harry Lime talking about the happy Swiss inventing nothing more interesting than the cuckoo clock was the tone of complaisant, emollient cynicism that Le Carré was to encounter in the real-life British establishment, and which he satirised and anatomised in his own work. (And at one further remove, Le Carré’s darkness and sense of sin maybe had something of the German expressionists, Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, on the run from his accusers.) Source: The don of disillusionment: John le Carré on film | Film | The Guardian

The Guardian has a great deal more about le Carré, and if you’re a fan of his, you will want to spend some time there.

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