John Le Carré and the Cold War
London: Bloomsbury, 2018
le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)
This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.
Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)
Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.
Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.
Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.
Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).
This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.
Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.
Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.
The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.
* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.