Poor David Cornwell. He is the country’s most famous (real) spy, a veteran of MI5 and MI6, who as the Berlin Wall was being built, was busy tapping up Soviet diplomats in Bonn, and yet among the UK’s commentariat he has developed a latter-day reputation as some kind of apologist for communism.
On Monday, Alex Massie was at it in these pages with his meditation on the British left’s moral relativism towards Soviet Russia: “This is a view inculcated and encouraged, it must be said, by the novels of John Le Carré (Cornwell’s pen name), in which the aims of policy are typically ignored in favour of a concentration on the means.”
This seems a bit harsh, not least because Massie was bought to this conclusion by his reading of Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, a book which Le Carré plugged as “The best true spy story I have ever read.”
Massie’s criticism joins that of the Spectator’s Toby Young, “his novels gave succour to the enemy,” and Rod Liddle, “(his) characters are ciphers for the author’s fashionably baleful view of the world, in which the cynicism of the Soviet Union is matched by the cynicism of the West.”
For someone who lost his job after being exposed by Kim Philby (an actual Communist double agent), this does seem unfair to Le Carré/Cornwell, who I would argue has claim to be our greatest living writer.
The hostile view of Le Carré is as old as his books. In his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, he recounts being berated by an angry former colleague for presenting a warts-and-all view of the Service when they have no recourse to answer back. The colleague’s ire was raised by one of Le Carré’s early novels The Looking Glass War, an undoubtedly bleak telling of a wireless operator’s mission behind enemy lines.