John Le Carre and the Last of Empire

The British novelist  David Cornwell  (John Le Carre) is best known for his fictional depictions of the British intelligence services during the period of the Cold War.  That this constitutes the main focus of Le Carre’s considerable prominence is probably justified, from an aesthetic point of view.  His early novels set against this background (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) have the distinction of creating and depicting a recognizable fictional world, at once uniquely the author’s and yet seeming to possess some deep and general insight beyond  the actions and words of the characters themselves.

They also transcend the narrow and stock clichés of the ‘spy’genre. They possess within them an obvious romanticization of their subject matter, but it is not of the simplistically escapist kind. The way in which the Cold War is remembered, at least in Britain, has a large amount to do with Le Carre.

But while Le Carre’s later novels have justifiably received less praise from the artistic point of view, they are in a certain way no less, or more significant than the earlier books.  Le Carre has managed to avoid being frozen within the period in which he produced his earlier work.  He has, in the post Cold War period, produced a series of novels of great interest.  In particular, he has made the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘9-11 wars’ a particular focus.

In his works on this period, Le Carre’s style is one of furious polemic, rather than cool and disenchanted description.   As a result, the books are as novels inferior to the earlier work.  But in terms of the worldview that very visibly lies behind these later works, Le Carre succeeds in presenting in near perfect and detailed form a particular view of global politics and the dynamics behind it which in my view is significant.

This is a particularly British sensibility,  and it is Janus-faced, seemingly contradictory in a number of ways.  It is nostalgic for empire yet radical in a number of its assumptions regarding the current dynamics of international affairs.   It is apparently sympathetic to the ambitions of subjects from the developing world, but Le Carre finds it nearly impossible to draw credible and non-caricatured characters outside of the British upper middle classes.

Perhaps most importantly, Le Carre’s work is deeply anti-American.  This anti-Americanism is at a pre-political level.  America, in Le Carre’s world, represents all that is un-rooted, amoral, graceless and aesthetically disgusting.

His novels dealing with the 9-11 Wars are filled with American characters of a peculiarly repulsive kind.  These Americans are sometimes aged but heavily made up women, such as Miss Maisie in ‘A Delicate Truth’. Miss Maisie is a Republican evangelist funder for covert actions undertaken by private defense contractors.  Sometimes they are young zealots, like Newton, the CIA officer in ‘A Most Wanted Man.’

But always these characters are entirely lacking in any redeeming features whatsoever. They are also lacking in any history, or back-story.  These are the two dimensional, cartoon like figures familiar from a different type of espionage movie aesthetic.  But with Le Carre, their presence is notable precisely because by contrast, when dealing with characters from the British upper middle classes, he is capable of painting with a complex and subtle brush.

These later novels of Le Carre are more important as specimens representative of a particular worldview than they are as artistic creations. As mentioned, in aesthetic terms they are vastly inferior to the earlier work.  But they matter because the worldview which they exemplify matters.   Le Carre’s depictions of Americans seem to me also to be in some way related to his strange and troubled relationship with Israel.

Outside of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’  Le Carre tends to avoid direct reference to Israel in his fiction.  But when he doesn’t avoid it, the view that comes across is very clear.  It is summed up in the following sentence uttered by one of the sympathetic characters in ‘Absolute Friends’:  ‘Tell the new zealots of Washington that in the making of Israel a monstrous human crime was committed and they will call you an anti-Semite.”

In other words, Israel, which is usually an offstage presence, is itself the product of a monstrous crime, and is also the beneficiary of the one-sided defense and concern of the very worst people in the world, as depicted by Le Carre.

The point about Le Carre’s view is that one encounters it again and again in the class of upper middle class British people engaged in work on foreign affairs.  This is a loose, fluid group of people, to be found in British embassies, among the British Army’s officer corps, among foreign correspondents and among British people working for mainstream NGOs and aid organizations (not the organizations associated with the radical left or Sunni Islamism, importantly.  The Le Carre view of international affairs is a radical conservative one, not classically far leftist or Islamist, though in some ways sympathetic and similar to both.)

Britain is still quite a stratified society, and the make up of people engaged in these professions has changed less in the last 50 years than one might expect, given the very great changes in the broader society.   They are the last remnant of the British serving elite which once administered the empire.

At root, what is going on here it seems to me is a particular, romantic view of ‘authenticity.’  The American ‘neo-cons’ and their Israeli friends represent plasticity, superficiality, hypocrisy and venality.

Against them are the sane, rooted, three dimensional, usually British servants of the older ways, and their often beautiful, often female (and in Le Carre’s world usually doomed) representatives of the non-white Third World.

There is at the root of this an anti-modernism which is familiar and which has been present in both European anti-Americanism and modern European secular anti-semitism throughout.

An odd, aspect, of course, is that unlike western Jews, and also unlike Americans, for the most part, Israelis do not tend to self-consciously regard themselves as agents of modernity.  Rather, their self-understanding is that they are an ancient people, living in their ancestral land.  Perhaps this is why the encounter between educated Israelis and representatives of the Le Carre view of international affairs tend to be so strained and problematic.

In any case, the Le Carre view and its proponents should be taken into account when searching for the roots and reasons for the peculiar virulence and fury that one finds directed against Israel from among its native British (usually middle class) opponents.  This is a viewpoint with deep roots in British culture. Combined with the growing political strength of Islamist and Islamist-influenced politics in the modern UK, it will continue to have its impact, though probably (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) on the level of cultural and intellectual life rather than in the making of high policy.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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4 Responses to John Le Carre and the Last of Empire

  1. mac2net says:

    There are also Brits that quite like Israel and admire it.
    One gets the feeling the brits are pissed because it turned out that Israel is the most reliable country in the Middle East. This means they have to maintain close relations with Israel while also accepting that the failure of many Arab countries reflects poorly on Britain’s imperialistic legacy.

  2. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Jonathan – have you read this fascinating piece on John le Carre from 1998?

  3. Hi – yes, I read that piece before writing the piece above, but while its nicely done I think that Douglas is a bit too charitable to Le Carre here, in light of other and subsequent evidence. I suspect that Le Carre by attending this dinner and giving his nice ecumenical speech was kind of setting up an early defense against charges that he knew were coming.

  4. Dan Simon says:

    I don’t think the coincidence of views between Le Carre’s upper-middle-class traditionalists and Western leftists in general is accidental. At heart, they are part of the same global class of “knowledge workers”: government/NGO bureaucrats, credentialed or creative professionals, educators and political activists. They compete for power and status against a more populous coalition that includes un-credentialed blue-collar workers, businesspeople and the military, and to them, America is the symbolic (and to a large extent, real-life) embodiment of the main elements of their opposition. Their hostility is thus primarily to America, with Israel simply being an attractively vulnerable target of their America-focused hatred. It’s worth keeping in mind that Israel is only the latest in a long line of pro-American countries targeted for leftist/third-worldist/Carre-ite hostility–South Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Iran, El Salvador, and many others. While their detractors ludicrously labeled each in its turn as the world’s worst human rights abuser, their real sin was to be threatened by a vehemently anti-American adversary.

    This analysis explains much about the political proclivities of the knowledge-worker coalition. Its romance with violent radicals is a matter of shared interests–in the international sphere, hostility to American power (and preference for NGO/government diplomacy over military power and commerce-enabling pax Americana), and domestically, support for legal and bureaucratic influence against commercial and populist interests. And its anti-modernism is again a form of hostility to commerce, which enriches and empowers its rival coalition. (Note that Le Carre’s traditionalism doesn’t extend to traditional religiosity or patriotism–rallying symbols of the opposing coalition.)

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