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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

John Le Carre's new novel brings back the heyday of the Circus in A LEGACY OF SPIES

The last incarnation of the spy Peter Guillam occurred in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film version of John Le Carré’s 1974 Novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In that film Guillam, (Benedict Cumberbatch) is homosexual and one of the plot strands involves him getting rid of his boyfriend. This change also interested a reviewer on the website LGBT.co.uk. but no great reason could be found for it. Nor is any reason for the change offered by director Tomas Alfredson during his mind-numbing two hour audio commentary track on the Blu-ray of the film.

One of the other extras on the TTSS Blu-ray is an interview with Le Carré. It runs for 29 minutes but the interviewer also leaves the matter alone in favour of allowing Le Carré to talk at some length about spies and spying in general and the role of secret services in democratic societies. Back in 1974 Le Carré was writing about a time when the exposure of Kim Philby had occurred but we were still waiting for Margaret Thatcher to reveal, in 1979, that Antony Blunt, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was a traitor and had so confessed in 1964. Le Carré’s great achievement in his work up to 1990 was to chronicle the ‘secret world’ wherein the British intelligence community was populated by both Soviet Union admirers and, worse, moles dedicated to supplying information to the Kremlin.

Leading that secret world was the enigmatic George Smiley. It had been thought that Smiley’s last appearance would have been in “The Secret Pilgrim” (1990), a series of reminiscences about the tradecraft of spying conveyed as episodes recounted in  an after dinner speech by Smiley at the legendary Sarratt, the training place and interrogation centre for the Brit espionage community. In one of those episodes the young trainee Peter Guillam is involved in tailing a rich Arab woman and there is an ironic O’Henry-ish twist.

Le Carré does talk about George Smiley, the master spy with the deeply troubled personal life. Anyone who knows about Smiley knows that his wife is regularly unfaithful and Smiley forgives her constantly. Smiley is also aware, and it dwells on him, that his colleague Bill Haydon, otherwise gay, has bedded Smiley’s wife. It’s a thread that runs through the stories since the events of his wife’s infidelities came to the fore in Le Carré’s second novel, Call for the Dead. The film version of that book The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, UK, 1966) featured that magnificent object of desire, a Swede from Bergman’s movies, Harriett Andersson, as Ann. She was sad-eyed and compelling as almost in sorrow rather than anger Smiley is cuckolded over and over again.

But Le Carré may have been pleased at the end of the Cold War. He abandoned Smiley. In his interview on the TTSS Blu-ray he makes plain his discomfort at his creation “The reason I gave up writing about him was it was too bloody comfortable for the reader. It was going to come out all right. Smiley would be there still.” Still there is a moment when we get to Le Carre's nub of Smiley. "The anger is in the iron control of his habitually gentle voice, in the rigidity of his normally fluid features. Anger as self-disgust.  Anger at the monstrosity of what he had to do, in defiance of every decent instinct." (A Legacy of Spies, p179). Evermore drawn to ambiguity and enigma Le Carré also found himself writing about issues about which Smiley had nothing to offer. The venality of capitalism, the amorality of the arms trade, the persecution of the Chechens. Big subjects all impeccably researched for maximum anger.

Then again, there is still some editorial to insert: 'Well, now for the reckoning at last. Now for straight answers to hard questions, like: did you, George, consciously set out to suppress the humanity in me, or was I just collateral damage too? Like: what about your  humanity, and why did it always have to play second fiddle to some higher, more abstract cause that I can't quite put my finger on any more, if I ever could?" (p257) 

But I still wonder whether Le Carré didn’t really approve of the major change in Peter Guillam’s sexual preference as represented in Alfredson’s film. Guillam was a peripheral character throughout the great Karla trilogy and was denoted as a ladies’ man. But that was all. Reference would just be made to his girlfriends. You can trawl round the web to see what might have been written about this turn of events. Not much is the answer though on this previously unknown website that is Jacqueline Hedeman's blog, she attempts to come up with a reason. She writes: Back to Peter Guillam. I would have loved to have seen Cumberbatch handle the character as he appears in the novel. Re-imagining the character as gay (in an era when homosexuality was only relatively recently decriminalized) certainly underlines how Guillam’s personal life has become compromised by his occupation, even though the film very much presents it the other way around. This re-imagining also places Guillam more firmly in line with Smiley and Haydon and Prideaux and Tarr, men who have been–or have the potential to be–undone by their sexual or romantic ties. In that respect, Guillam’s new characterization is very much in keeping with the tone of the novel, if not the letter of it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but regret the decision for a number of reasons.


But you have to wonder. "'Because, frankly, Pete' - voice softening to intimate - 'what with your record, how can you possibly be shacked up with a super-attractive French girl you don’t even shag? Unless of course you’re secretly gay, which is what Bunny thinks. Mind you, Bunny thinks everyone’s gay. So he’s probably gay himself, and won’t admit it’” (A Legacy of Spies, p72).

It would be interesting to know more from the scriptwriters or from Le Carré himself. Except that in his new novel “A Legacy of Spies”, Guillam for the first time is front and centre in a story that represents almost a Rashomon-like rewrite of the death of Alec Leamas, the central figure in Le Carré’s breakthrough novel “The Spy who Came in from the Cold”, perhaps the most poetic title ever bestowed on a novel about espionage. And in “Legacy” Le Carré makes very clear that Guillam is a serious shagger of women with only that tiniest nod quoted above to any other preference. As is the way of spying, Guillam also lies about his sexual arrangements on two occasions, denying that he has taken to bed either his farming colleague in his village or the spy Tulip he is spiriting out of Czechoslovakia.  

It’s only a minor matter but it caused me to wonder if it was indeed the impetus for Le Carré to have fun again with the workings of the Circus and to do it by bringing to the forefront someone from his large gallery of supporting characters. And as with “The Secret Pilgrim” Le Carré has an elephantine memory for those pleasurable bits and pieces of spy tradecraft that combine to give you an education but also are intricately bound into the plot to allow for daring escapes and much outsmarting of those whom we are encouraged to dislike, most particularly the odious Bill Haydon.

Every mention of Haydon’s name sets off a memory for the Le Carré completist of the man’s duplicitous betrayals and his death at the hands of his former lover, the physically and mentally wounded Jim Prideaux. 'Could have been any one of them. Bland, Alleline, Esterase. Even Haydon himself. More likely he delegated it to one of his underlings so that he didnt get his feet wet ". (p224) 

In “A Legacy of Spies” the full extent and the terrible effect of Haydon’s duplicity is made clear via the investigation into Leamas’s death. Le Carré has to tell this story without Smiley, now living a quiet life in Switzerland. He resorts at some length to telling it via the various documents that are put before Guillam when he is summonsed back to London preparatory to the Circus appearing before an All-Party Parliamentary Committee to explain itself when faced with demands for compensation from the children of Leamas and Elizabeth Gold. There is a deft updating of modern politics and modern whinging in such a script. There is also a description of one character from Guillam's village as 'the poison dwarf', a nomenclature I had thought invented by Paul Keating solely for Mr Glenn Milne.

And what of George Smiley's final summation: "I'm a European, Peter. If I had a mission - if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still." An author's voice in a year of Brexit.


Guillam handles this with all the adroitness his profession is capable of. Le Carré does too.


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