| Minus the glitter
Poor old John le Carré. First he lost his theme — the Cold War — and now he is losing his audience. Those who listened to the end of the embarrassing interview he gave to Jim Naughtie a few days back on the Today programme must have squirmed, as I did, when le Carré compared himself to Victor Klemperer, the great diarist who survived the Holocaust, and compared the Americans, by implication, to the Nazis.
Indeed, it is worse than that. The grand old man of the thriller has become a bit of a bore. According to his admiring interviewer, Jim Naughtie, “le Carré is 72 but has the glittering eye and aquiline thrust of a younger man”. That glittering eye is evidently intended as a compliment (and so, I suppose, is an aquiline thrust, whatever that might be), but it is more often associated with the kind of obsessive loquacity of, say, an ancient mariner.
This may be no bad thing in a writer, when he is talking about something he knows about. Le Carré, though, has caught a bad dose of politics. What gets his eye glittering is his belief that the United States of America is now controlled by a “neo-conservative junta”, which is in league with “corporate media”.
Having “appointed the state of Israel as the purpose of practically all policy”, the neo-cons will not stop their “war machine” from wreaking havoc “until they have quelled the world”. This American junta’s “minstrel” is Tony Blair, who apparently lied to his country out of a sycophantic desire to impress the Americans, than which there is “no bigger sin”. If the prime minister were to call on le Carré at his Cornish retreat, the writer would inform him: “As far as I am concerned, the more elegantly and the more quickly you withdraw from politics, the happier I shall be.”
In order to lend a specious veneer of sophistication to these crackpot conspiracy theories, le Carré offers a psychoanalysis of the young Blair: “I think that the extremely old-fashioned schools such as Fettes (in his day, anyway) leave marks of Puritanism and deformation in people which have to be dealt with psychologically by them.”
Just in case we did not get the point, he compares Blair to Anthony Eden, preoccupied by Eton during the Suez crisis: “It was still all about school.” So the public schools, too, are part of the global conspiracy.
Whatever happened to the man who gave us George Smiley, that least self-deceiving of spies whom he describes as “the one who was making sure we stayed on an even keel”' Smiley, like all fictional characters who overshadow their creators, is part of the trouble.
Le Carré has a new novel out, newspaper extracts of which suggest that the author, having pensioned off Smiley a decade ago, is rather lost without him. Absolute Friends recycles lots of familiar Cold War material. Its villains, however, are no longer KGB spymasters but those who defeated them. The West is the new Eastern bloc; the sinister Right is the new Left; loyalty to the Atlantic alliance is the new treachery.
Somehow, I doubt whether a tract for “these neo-conservative times” will have quite the popular appeal of Smiley and his people. Fear of and fascination with the Soviet threat ran deep for le Carré’s generation, and rightly so. It was that threat which made the secret services seem both glamorous and dangerous. And it was that threat which made le Carré a household name. Anti-Americanism, by comparison, is shallow, because it is not based on a genuine threat. If there is a threat, the form it has taken, at least since September 11, 2001, is not American but Islamic.
Ah, yes: September 11. Odd that le Carré, of all people, should play down the significance of what happened on that day. The Russians, after all, never attacked America directly. If they had, the Cold War would have become very hot indeed. Might the attacks on New York and Washington not explain why the American people seem quite content with their “junta” and are as enthusiastic about their ally, Tony Blair, as they are about Churchill or Thatcher'
Rather than explain the American fear of terrorism, however, le Carré prefers to explain it away, as the “paranoia” of the “hyperpower”, the “search to identify a new enemy”. This seems a callous way to speak about the deaths of thousands of ordinary civilians, but then le Carré is, as he tells us, “extremely angry” — as if that somehow excused the violence of his sentiments.
Jim Naughtie assures us that le Carré’s anger has nothing to do with “crude anti-Americanism”, because the great man has nine grandchildren and admires America’s idealism. That seems a charitable interpretation.
When le Carré declares, “I’m waiting for the real Americans to come back”, paraphrasing Victor Klemperer on the Nazis, he oversteps the bounds of permissible prejudice. And when he tells the BBC that it is “obscene” that he cannot discuss Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism, some listeners may wonder whether it is not anti-Semitism itself that is obscene, rather than the censorship of which le Carré imagines himself a victim.
It is his voice we hear 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.” Someone should tell le Carré that anti-Semitism is the hatred that has come in from the cold. By turning le Carré’s psychological technique on himself, one may understand why he is so angry. He has woken up to discover he is yesterday’s man.
The world he knew better than anyone is history. Hence the “despair” of which he complains, which leads him into claiming — absurdly — that “I don’t think it is possible to write optimistic fiction today”. He blames Blair for betraying the wave of optimism on which he swept to power, but le Carré should know better than most that the disillusionment of one’s supporters is the penalty of office. The England for which he claims to speak, that of George Smiley, only now exists — perhaps only ever existed — in his fiction.
His attempt to belittle Blair as a mixed-up public schoolboy tells us more about le Carré and his generation than it does about Blair and his. The spectacle of an angry old man denouncing his juniors is never edifying. In this case it is unworthy of a once-great talent.