Monday, January 18, 2021

Anna I. McClain: John le Carré vs Ian Fleming: Overcoming Heartlessness in Spy Fiction

Flip to any page of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and you will find enough layers of nuance to seed a doctoral dissertation on the Cold War. The quintessential 1963 spy novel by the late John le Carré set in Cold War Berlin and London weaves a complex yet concise espionage story that captures the essence of exploitation of the individual inherent in spycraft.

Alec Leamas, aging and weary after losing several agents at the hands of Hans-Dieter Mundt, Deputy Director of Operations for the Soviets in the East German Secret Service, is sent out on one last mission to feign defection and defeat Mundt once and for all. 

During his long and fruitful literary career, le Carré, a former spy for the British M-15, then M-16, exposed the duplicity and moral ambiguity intrinsic to the world of espionage. In his books, he paints a dark portrait of those who become entangled in and destroyed by dirty plots aimed at preserving an elusive greater good. He deconstructs the spy’s futile, anxiety-driven attempt to disrupt and contain the iron machine of Communism and exposes the dissociation from the heart that all spy work ultimately sows and feeds upon.

My own father, a CIA case officer during the Cold War, served, like le Carré, in post-war Germany on behalf of American intelligence at the beginning of his career. From that point of initial, state-sponsored engagement in spy work, a part of my father was necessarily walled off due to secret operations he became involved in. The necessity and irony of any oath to secrecy—and this can be true whether one is protecting entire governments or one’s own indiscretions—is the unfortunate requirement to mask who you really are at your core. One operates not only against the object of deception, the perceived enemy, but against oneself; against the human impulse to achieve spiritual integration and wholeness. From the pressure of such dissonance, the self splits in two. The real self knows the entire score but performs only the party line out loud. In the case of my father and the CIA, he held secrets without wavering because lives depended on it. As a result, my father lived until 2014 in the grey shadow of duality that duty to the United States had required of him from 1950-1969. My father placed loyalty to country first and foremost and this contract effectively exiled him from full expression of his own heart. In his later years, he reflected upon his experience externally, abstractly, perhaps even unwittingly, through a fascination with intellectual concepts of duality in his own writing and painting. The heart was the old country, the place I believe he longed to return to, but never could. While it may be difficult to imagine my father’s brand of loyalty in government today, it was a palpable part of him, and of the colleagues of his I met when I was a child. In the harsh and unforgiving realm of psychological warfare between nations during the Cold War, lives depended on duplicity.

“Did your dad ever kill anyone?” Such questions asked by innocent cocktail party goers are one reason I don’t talk casually about my father and have only recently begun to write about his intelligence career. Though the history of the CIA is in many respects dark and fraught, perhaps we can learn something from it now, in the wake of Trump’s confounding authoritarian allure for so many in this nation, and to remember the enormous personal sacrifices so many of our World War II veterans and Cold Warriors made on behalf of the fight against authoritarian regimes. Le Carré’s fiction gives us a place to reflect on the true spiritual costs of misinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare.

As we remember John le Carré and his complex characters, we can remember, too, the real life Cold War spies and appreciate how much more their lives mirrored the harsh realities of Smiley and Leamas rather than “Bond. James Bond”. For many, the “game” was far more psychological than physical—and losses in the field were grieved quietly, but relentlessly. There was a lot more sitting at tables smoking and analyzing situations and a lot less martini swirling, tuxedo wearing and womanizing than Bond movies would have us believe. 

The people my father worked with were just people with real families. They juggled raising children while living in dangerous territories doing risky work. The ones I knew, most of whom are gone now, had diplomatic skills, strategic minds, and terrific table manners. Some spoke three or four languages. Some had performed heroic duties for which they’d received secret medals in the inner conference room at Langley—medals presented then confiscated and locked away. Medals they could not keep, look at again, show to anyone nor talk about. All of these people shared a love of country that drove them into a world where they could no longer be whole. And none of them looked or acted like James Bond. 

Not that there weren’t some colorful moments. In his retirement, my father did come to a point at which he needed to figure out how to dispose of an old cyanide pill he’d once carried in case of the need to commit suicide in an emergency. But generally speaking, these guys were not exploding gadgets or poisoning people on trains. Rather, they were exhausted, anxious and flawed thinkers who believed they were doing the right thing. Human beings charged with carrying out nationalistic dirty work, operating on behalf of the greater good in a seedy vortex of mistrust. 

The aging, short, plump George Smiley, le Carré’s disenchanted British agent engaged in a dark search for truth, makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but in terms of le Carré’s canon, Smiley is his key player, a sweetheart of a spy if there ever was one. He stands in stark opposition to glitzy Bond, the iconic fictional spy of the Cold War era. 

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming ignited the reading public’s imagination with a hard, sophisticated and unshakeable modern spy in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker.  In 1956, the Soviets outed the existence of the secret Berlin tunnel that the Americans and Brits had dug into Berlin Soviet Headquarters to intercept communications. The Soviets were aware of this clandestine activity long before they sounded the whistle on it, thanks to the cunning efforts of British double agent George Blake (who also blew my father’s cover in the early 1950s in an event unrelated to the tunnel). The revelation was not good PR for Britain or the United States to say the least. In 1956, the Soviets also squelched the Hungarian uprising in a bloody show of domination. That same year, Fleming released Diamonds Are Forever, and offered Britain a sense of relief from its own fumbling—a fantasy super-hero to hang onto in the face of her deteriorating efficacy. My eldest sister recalls sinking down in her movie theatre seat with horror when my father roared with laughter during the most tense parts of the movie. The journalist William Cook observes that, with the British Empire in decline, "Bond pandered to Britain's inflated and increasingly insecure self-image, flattering us with the fantasy that Britannia could still punch above her weight.” Although Stalin’s reign of terror had stalled out upon his death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev would soon demand that Western powers pull forces out of West Berlin, or else. This three-year crisis over Berlin’s future led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And the shooting of a compromised agent at Checkpoint Charlie is the eerie starting point for The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, as if le Carré set out to answer Fleming’s cavalier portrayal of bullet-proof spies in this mood-driven thriller, though he claimed he wrote simply to entertain his readers. In a live performance entitled Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré, Anthony Horowitz, bestselling author of the Alex Rider spy novels and David Farr, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of the BBC’s adaptation of le Carré’s The Night Manager face off to determine which author is the better writer, with final votes to be collected from the audience. Horowitz claims that James Bond is bigger than fiction and like Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, he’s lodged in our collective DNA. Horowitz makes salient points about Bond’s popularity. He muses that only 007 could have escorted Queen Elizabeth II from a helicopter to open the 2012 Olympics; this was hardly a job for George Smiley. Horowitz praises Fleming’s sense of timing, use of language and iconic action scenes. 

For me, it is difficult to get on board the Fleming train. Perhaps this has less to do with craft and more with the flagrant celebration of misogyny that infuses his novels. Phrases such as, “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” (The Spy Who Loved Me) Or this, from Goldfinger:

Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits—barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

Clearly, both le Carré and Bond write from a linear mid-century male perspective and papers could be written weighing the evolution of binary gender roles in spy literature. However, for the sake of this argument, I’d venture to say that Fleming pens stories devoid of deep introspection to titillate rather than challenge our perceptions about the complexities of truth vs lying for the greater good with such lines as, “Goldfinger could not have known that high tension was Bond's natural way of life and that pressure and danger relaxed him.” Goldfinger deserves a modicum of credit in the kitsch department as he sits on his throne drunk with the desire to dominate, red marks on his throat, instruments next to him. And, okay, I’ll cast a weary nod to the unimaginative trope of the beautiful, yet terrified girl strapped to a chair just out of Bond’s reach. But I tire quickly of Goldfinger’s lengthy soliloquy as the circular saw approaches 007’s private parts. SPECTRE, SMERSH and the man with the third nipple don’t bring me closer to a new level of understanding about good and evil, much less, myself within the context of good and evil. 

There are no men with third nipples in le Carré’s work. In fact, nipples are not the focal point, so to speak, nor are the women “honeypots”. Liz Gold, Alec Leamas’s love interest is no Pussy Galore, though okay, yes, she is of course, far younger than Leamas. To me, she symbolizes a brand of spiritual innocence that Leamas has lost and cannot regain. The ordinary, uncompromised life. A simple kind of love that Alec will never be able to have because of his entanglement with espionage and his inability to be whole within his own heart. Le Carré writes Liz Gold subtly. She’s nice looking but not a material conquest. It is she who kindles the relationship with Leamas—and she’s fairly complex. Le Carré answers Fleming’s pornography with something of the heart. 

Farr reminds the Fleming vs. le Carré audience that the Bond books are not to be confused with the movies and agrees with Horowitz that Fleming creates “wonderful cartoons”. He says, “Fleming is a stylist, a skillful writer of action.” But, he adds, “The movies have blessed him.” Farr sees Bond as a superhero who fulfills our fantasies, but warns le Carré knows:

 … no such solutions are possible. He has tasted the reality of post war Europe and knows that no number of Aston Martins and martinis can solve them. Le Carré’s world is seedy, it’s ugly, it’s evil and it’s banal, yes, but most problems in our world do not come in black and white, they do come in gray. Far from being glamorized, the spy in le Carré is dragged down in some level of compromise, he is desensitized. Many of the practitioners in the novel are incompetent.

Farr goes on to say,

I would argue that le Carré is a truly great novelist. He delves into the human soul… he takes big existential risks. The spy novel is basically all of our lives writ large. We’re all seeking to find out who we are…what masks do we present in our lives…what double agents do we meet in our own souls? 

Farr asserts le Carré’s greatness is in the search within his own heart. In the end of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the trap Leamas and Liz Gold find themselves in, and the reckoning we see in Leamas as he decides to join her in death, is far more sophisticated and emotionally devastating than any two-bit lecturing/slicing/dicing tyrant with a circular saw could dish out. Though Leamas believed all along he was working to get revenge on Mundt, in the end, he discovers that he himself has been had by the British Secret Service. He has been used, one last time, as a pawn by George Smiley and “The Circus” who had sent him to compromise Mundt’s second in command, Fiedler, who had started to suspect that Mundt was a double agent. As it turns out, Mundt is indeed the Brits' man and Leamas unwittingly saves Mundt from being outed by Fiedler and inadvertently condemns Fiedler to his death.

“Then why didn’t they shoot you?” Liz asks the compromised Leamas. “You conspired with Fiedler against Mundt, that’s what they said. You killed a guard. Why has Mundt let you go?”

“All right!” Leamas shouted suddenly. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you were never, never to know, neither you nor I. Listen: Mundt is London’s man, their agent; they bought him when he was in England. We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin. To save him from a clever little Jew in his own department who had begun to suspect the truth. They made us kill him, d’you see, kill the Jew. Now you know, and God help us both.”

In the end it is Fiedler, whom Leamas had befriended, who meets his maker. Mundt is safely intact as London’s primary asset. And what about the moral responsibility for the death of Leamas’s agents? Eh, that’s the price tag of doing business. 

In an article entitled Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, William Boyd writes that when Leamas and Liz Gold try to escape over the wall,

George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of bluff and counterbluff, is waiting for him. Leamas hears Smiley shout: "The girl, where's the girl?" But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead. That is the key implication...that she's never coming over and was never meant to. Leamas suddenly understands this—it is the final betrayal he suffers—and he climbs back down to the east and meets his death. 

Boyd admits having read the book several times before understanding that the rubbing out of Liz Gold was required: 

Leamas was meant to make it over the wall—the service was going to bring him in from the cold, but Liz Gold, by association, knows too much to be released back into society. She was always destined to die on the wall. 

Farr asserts that le Carré explores deep existential questions relentlessly. He notes how le Carré pays homage to Joseph Conrad: 

Le Carré is on a search for the secret sharer, “the person who knows us better than we know ourselves. He explores complex ideas around doubles and selves. Someone is always seeking someone else. Leamas seeks Mundt. Smiley is seeking Karla. Magnus seeks Axel. Or does Axel seek Magnus? The heart of darkness is the soul of the other.” 

And underlying it all, adds Farr, is the dark, existential notion that “the person you love most is the person you know least well.”

Le Carré’s characters are on a journey into the heart of darkness of Cold War Berlin and London. Their inward struggles stand in stark opposition to Fleming’s cursory take on interiority as this moment from Goldfinger suggests: 

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death."

At the end of the evening, the audience in the Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré event sides with Farr, and with me, with 60 percent agreeing that le Carré writes circles around Fleming. Sure, our culture will always enjoy entertainment that infuses us with a false sense of addictive power. We imagine ourselves running the show, overcoming the foe with our unique brand of cunning and cool. We imagine ourselves standing at the bar commanding specific cocktails despite our precarious location in a pit of snakes.

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet...Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?” (Casino Royale) 

While Bond inflates our sense of control, le Carré makes us feel as if we ourselves inhabit the dark, porous, gritty world of Alec Leamas. His genius as a writer lies in his ability to illustrate a sense of nihilism. He writes the stark minimalism of Berlin and London and squares off with the tensions between East and West and the degradation inherent in the spy profession. In his final conversation with Liz Gold, Leamas utters the famous lines:

“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” 

Le Carré requires us to look at ourselves as we watch the action. We cannot remain bystanders. This note by Matthew McVeigh, that I found buried in the comment section of the YouTube video of Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré gives us the essence of the important difference between the two writers:

He turned a genre that was previously about action fantasy into a realistic psychological exploration of bureaucrats, detective work and ethics. He did indeed bring an element of the European existential novel to his stories, and it would be more interesting to compare him to Kafka or Heinrich Boell than Fleming or other spy writers. I don't like Bond, I don't find him exciting or attractive and don't like the implications Fleming is making about his world. Le Carré's protagonists have just as bent a set of ethics as Bond but it's addressed differently: rather than expecting us to bluntly accept behavior that would ordinarily be seen as appalling on account of the espionage context, le Carré wants to reconnect the spy world to the rest of the world, and to re-connect the lost, confused characters in search of their identity to the humanity they are fleeing by taking refuge in espionage. 

In the end, le Carré includes us in this terrible world of mistrust. We are all in it together. We are forced to reckon with those parts of ourselves that move between shadow and light, to confront the double agent in our own hearts.


Anna I. McClain is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, at work on a memoir about uncovering her Russian-American emigre father’s Cold War experience. @annaimcclain

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