Coming in from the Cold
On Spy Fiction
John le Carré. A Legacy of Spies. Viking, 2017.
David Ignatius. The Quantum Spy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Daniel Silva. House of Spies. Harper, 2017.
Over the past year, it has become impossible to ignore the fact that spy terminology has infiltrated everyday discourse. One does not have to be an intelligence analyst to speak confidently — or at least with knowing, giddy pseudo-confidence — of cut-outs and assets, dezinformatsiya and kompromat. Politics is less about speeches and party platforms than about declassified files, leaks from grand-jury testimonies, and the “dossier.” Collectively, we long for interrogation rather than debate; we yearn for the proofs that only a clandestine bureaucracy could offer. What did the President know and when did he know it? What was in the contents of that secret meeting? Only the spies — secreted in tapped wires and behind hidden cameras — know the truth. It all has had a childish glee to it, as well as a childish comfort: if the spy world seemed narrower than the one we were used to inhabiting, its confines promised protection and some kind of order, a durable state if not a deep one. So it was that I, assailed and assuaged by agency talk, read spy novels. It was 2017, and I was in need of reassurance. I also needed to know what that reassurance was costing me.
To debrief: there are in the world real spies, in possession of real secrets, hired by real organizations with fantastic — if, according to their recipients, forever inadequate — budgets, who may prevent harm but also, very often, perform it. (John le Carré, writing in 1991, on the cold-war intelligence services of the US and the UK: “Both services would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded.”) But the spy is always also a fiction. It isn’t simply that the spy relies on “covers,” or fictions, for their work. It is that no profession has greater traffic with the business of fiction writing itself. Studies in Intelligence, the in-house and partly classified academic journal of the CIA, reviews spy fiction with a connoisseur’s discernment for shoddy verisimilitude and thematic flimsiness. Put aside the covert funding of postwar writers by CIA fronts like the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Spy novelists themselves are routinely ex-agents or intelligence personnel — most famously John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell; Ian Fleming; and Graham Greene — while in the US we have the less illustrious examples of ex–CIA officer and Nixonian ratfucker E. Howard Hunt, or blown agent Valerie Plame; and if they are not former agents they are journalists who cover the world of secret intelligence. So tight is the relationship that in burying myself in spy novels I became a cliché of agency life itself, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, working at the American Literary Historical Society, reading thrillers for plot elements and reporting to his superiors on his discoveries.
Spy novels narrow the world to the dimensions of agencies and their rivals or targets. They are realist in texture, never experimental, resolutely focused. Characters become their functions: agent, handler, mole, director, or operational head. Like Balzac in La Comédie humaine, spy novelists reuse characters: though the plots are byzantine, the people are familiar. The locales are far-flung, but in an enclosed, airless way: casinos, hotels, safe houses, clubs, airports, and passport checkpoints. (The spy blends the solitary tourist’s isolation with the native’s blasé familiarity.) There is, of course, the lingo, which manages to be well-known while parading its exclusivity: walk-ins, babysitters, sleepers; to be burned, rolled up, exfiltrated. Spies in spy novels also read other spy novels — Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver reads le Carré; le Carré’s Jerry Westerby reads Greene and Conrad as Saigon falls. Thus the weariness of the literate, worldly spy: there is nothing new under the sun.
The limits of its thought-world defined, spy fiction comfortably becomes a literature of expertise — the literature, perhaps, of the knowledge worker. Written by former participants and experts, thanks to the conventional alibi that the secrets of their world can only be expressed allegorically or fictionally, the spy novel gives us a world with handles. How-to is as important to the spy novel as it is to Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe, and evoking it is one of the spy novelist’s most fundamental tasks. In David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, the novel’s putative villain — a mole inside the CIA who passes her Chinese masters scientific information out of the ideological principle that science should not respect borders — is caught, but arranges a plea agreement in which she writes “a manual on tradecraft”: “She wrote it in the form of a novel, which captured what she had come to understand about intelligence. . . . Ford’s book was circulated widely within the intelligence community. It gave Ford what she had sought through her career but had only achieved after she became a foreign spy, which was a reputation as a brilliant and intuitive operations officer.”
Tradecraft: the spy’s professional fetish. The dead drop, the brush pass, the dry clean. Knowing how to evade surveillance, make a convincing legend, encrypt a message. Every action in the spy novel is done badly or well, clumsily or skillfully. The mystique of tradecraft lies somewhere between secrecy and simplicity, the suspicion a reader has that one could, with training, also do these things well. So wrote William Hood, former OSS and CIA officer, who in his 1982 memoir, Mole, asserted: “Tradecraft may seem mysterious to outsiders, but it is little more than a compound of commonsense, experience, and certain almost universally accepted security practices. . . . The fact is that tradecraft is like arithmetic: it has been around for centuries. The basics are easy to learn and good texts can be found in any library.” It is also, in its way, fun; when the American Oulipo member Harry Mathews was mistaken for a CIA agent in the early 1970s — as he writes in My Life in CIA — he played along: he invented a false travel agency to act as cover, commissioned maps woven into shawls, and left enigmatic chalk marks on Parisian walls.
The neutral respect for a job done well, the professional’s code, overrides every other consideration. What is the first thing Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin in The Bourne Identity learns about his identity? “If he had learned anything about himself during the past forty-eight hours it was that he was a professional. Of what he had no idea, but the status was not debatable.” James Bond himself, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, observes his abductor, the Corsican ganglord Marc-Ange Draco: “James Bond sipped his drink and watched the other man’s face with respect. This was one of the great professionals of the world!”
The ethic of tradecraft is larger than the items that usually constitute it; it saturates the lifeworld of the spy novel. It is dedicated, without irony, to the art de vivre. In Fleming, one learns how to play chemin de fer, how to ski, how to seduce. In the work of Howard Hunt, CIA figures cultivate the high-cold-war manner. They smoke pipes and plot grand strategy, are skilled men of action who mingle headmaster with buccaneer in the manner of the OSS. David Morgan, protagonist of Hunt’s The Hargrave Deception, is the fantasy: New England boarding-school boy turned CIA agent, fluent in various languages, adept at killing, intimate with grand hotels and secret restaurants in various European capitals, always sure of what wine to order. Like a child trapped with an irritatingly well-informed adult, Hunt’s reader learns how to fish for dolphin (and that “dolphin was the finest eating-fish in the Caribbean”), how to wrap sidearms in condoms to keep them from corroding in salt air, and how to properly make scrambled eggs, “with a splash of cream and two drops of Worcestershire.”
The art de vivre, of course, aims to make everything knowable; and a knowable world shades imperceptibly into a world of stereotypes:
Later they feasted on broiled dolphin and fried platano, drinking a chilled chablis-type Paternina that Morgan had come to know in Spain. Afterward he sipped Felipe II brandy while Marisa sang to her guitar, and toward ten o’clock they went to bed where they fell asleep in each other’s arms, moonlight filtering through the slatted blinds across their bodies and the bed.
The cartoon earnestness of Hunt’s Floridian espagnolisme, the fussiness about the proper drink and consort: it offers narcotic comfort. To the spy, no choice is accidental; everything is deliberate. It’s as if the spy — or the spy’s narrator — wants to weep at the loveliness, and transience, of well-arranged things.
This intensely throttled emotion is a male sentimentality that gives the spy novel its tonality. Few female characters, vanishingly few female authors. So often the spy is fatherless, father haunted, in search of a father figure, or otherwise burdened by the weight of patriarchal lineage: le Carré’s Peter Guillam, his father a French Resistance hero murdered by the Gestapo, finds a second father in George Smiley; Steinhauer’s Weaver, his father ex-KGB, reemployed in a secret intelligence bureau at the UN, is himself sterile. The service women render as guides to the male spy’s self-discovery is classical in its simplicity. How else to explain Jason Bourne, who abducts a young woman who then devotes herself to making sense of his past and making him whole? Or take the textbook case of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, where a homosocial struggle over a Vietnamese woman ends in the narrator’s strangled quasi apology to his dead rival, an American spy: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
No genre is more masculine than the spy story, more impervious to revisionary feminist versions. Still, it attempts to inoculate itself against charges of bravado, because it depends on the poignancy of male failure and insufficiency with pitying self-regard. It is filled with male failures and betrayals; with men who let other men down. The paradigm is Kim Philby: the charismatic friend one loved and trusted, color in a gray world, who takes the color with him when he flees into an outed mole’s ignominy.
What glamour male heartache still has is suffused with the pathos of obsolescence and the struggle to keep current. Sometimes a cultural code in even the most au courant of these novels would stride confidently out of a couple of generations back: “Flanagan did look like a perpetual undergraduate,” Ignatius writes. “He was dressed, as ever, in a tweed jacket, chino pants, and his Bass loafers.” Not just a male kind of story, it is a middle-aged one.
As I read these novels in public and stumbled across sentences like these, I began to feel self-conscious. It is the literature of Father’s Day gifts and the half-populated shelves of vacation cottages, the leisure reading of think-tank apparatchiks, as smugly incurious in its purview as a well-paid pundit. Yet spy novels are also rights-optioned as thrilling crowd-pleasers and reviewed as serious geopolitical statements. This least cool of genres retains an aura of suavity, insider expertise, cosmopolitanism. (The spy is traditionally of dual nationality or ethnicity: Bond is half Scot and half Swiss.) Could any other popular narrative genre be so given to a critique of Americanism and forgiven for it, celebrated for it? Le Carré’s well-known left-leaning politics are closer to the rule than the exception; American spies are naïfs or pallid sidekicks, playing Felix Leiter to various Bonds, in need of British adroitness or, as in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels, an Israeli gruffness about moral niceties. Like a Henry James heroine traveling on a false passport, the American spy is continually wandering with passionate ignorance into complicated foreign snares.
The spy novel is silly, when it isn’t claustrophobic; urgent, but with an urgency severed from any link to the various impending geopolitical alarms — German invasion, Soviet infiltration, Chinese technological advancement, terrorist havoc — that the genre’s history continually sounds. There is something in the condition of existence in these novels, the presuppositions of their world, in other words, that seems, finally, to be at once illness and cure.
Since there have been states, there have been spies. Herodotus tells of Greek spies who infiltrated the court of Xerxes. The modern spy story, however, seems to have its origins in the early 19th century, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, there is an inconsequential episode of international espionage. The novel’s parvenu, Julien Sorel, has been taken on as the secretary to the Marquis de la Mole, who has organized a secret group of reactionaries conniving at the restoration of prerevolutionary norms. But this coterie of plotters needs to make contact with foreign assistance.
Julien craves mentors. He also has a talent for memorization, which makes him the ideal courier. He is tasked with memorizing four pages of notes on a secret meeting; disguised as a fop traveling for leisure; and, at a mysterious chateau inhabited by figures he takes to be priests, given a false passport. His handler, the marquis, worries about infiltration within their group — and on his trip Julien is drugged and has his papers searched by enemies who seem to have been tipped off to his route — but Julien nonetheless arrives safely in foreign territory, where he flashes a prearranged signal to his contact, who might well be, of all people, Prince Metternich. He is led by the prince to a dingy inn to repeat his message, then has to lie low in Strasbourg for twelve days while waiting for a reply, which he duly returns to the marquis and his coconspirators.
If this is a recognizably modern story, it is because of the peculiar linkage of precise tradecraft and broad political impulse. There is the detail — the watch Julien takes out with practiced ordinariness as his princely contact passes on the street, the disguise that fools the alert border guards — and there are the windy generalizations of the reactionary group that Julien, privately a radical, willingly serves. This is the doubled allure: the meticulous techne of navigating a hostile world undetected, linked to the ability to see the secret levers of power, the table of irascible and dangerous men who, be it in a Parisian salon or a Langley boardroom, see the big picture. (As Fleming called them in the opening pages of Casino Royale, “those few cold brains that made the whole show work.”) It is seductive enough to get the parvenu to risk his life on behalf of exactly the stultifying principle he has otherwise tried to dismantle: maintaining the balance of power. The spy is put in service of preservation; and yet that preservation is somehow also thrilling. That paradox gives the secret agent their moral ambivalence, long before Greene or le Carré made it famous. The spy craves the thrill of making sure, with professional élan, that nothing changes.
From Stendhal onward, from Metternich’s balance-of-power Europe to realpolitik and into the age of mutual deterrence, the spy story’s narrative bones are uncannily similar. It tends to start in a place of becalmed retreat, a literal “safe house” where the spymaster pretends that history has stopped. Le Carré’s Smiley is repeatedly dragged from his scholarly pursuit of baroque German literature; Silva’s Gabriel Allon labors quietly at restoring old master canvases. Patient, hypercivilized men master arcana in a setting — the research library, the conservation lab, the desk job — where nothing happens, as they try to forget their past, romance, or sense of duty. Then, things lurch into action. Peril is imminent. The agency is compromised by the Soviets from within (le Carré’s famous Karla trilogy). An Iraqi terrorist mastermind named Saladin has begun to carry out attacks across Europe (the Allon novels). The Chinese have a source inside the CIA, providing them access to the quantum computing secrets of the US tech industry (Quantum Spy). The agency is galvanized. Or — with the invernal coda to a long series — the protagonist emerges from retirement and gathers the band again for a lucrative farewell tour.
What matters, very often, is the mole — whether to flush it out or place it. Along with the father or mentor, the mole is the key function of the spy story. Gabriel Allon and the Mossad have to place a mole inside terror networks in Syria and the south of France; Ignatius’s CIA operatives have to find the mole in their own ranks. Le Carré popularized the term, and in his first major novel, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the plot function is doubled: Smiley places a false defector inside East Germany, one intended to be easily unmasked, as a ruse to protect the real MI6 mole. But it is a function as old as the spy story itself, dating back at least to Joseph Conrad’s 1907 The Secret Agent, which narrated the attempt of a mole inserted into London revolutionary circles — as an agent provocateur for a foreign power and also an informer for the British police — to initiate a terrorist bombing in order to spur British repression of those circles. The mole offers the spy story its mise en abyme: their every act is at once real and false, an embodied double negative; they threaten at every moment to double or triple themselves.
The mole is a function of the past — generally speaking the betrayal has already happened, has always already had its disastrous effect. One only finds Philby, Burgess, Maclean, or Ames after they have done their work. What the spy does is reconstruct the damage that has been done and stop the bleeding. The open secret of so many spy novels is how little can happen within them, aside from the constant succession of interrogations, a type scene that is retrospective. The spy novel gives us the drama of research (files gathered, traces read), a forward momentum that is also a backward pull. But the irreversibility of time hangs over the espionage operation. As Harry Mathews was told by a French intelligence official, “there is no way to unrecruit an agent.”
The mole is also a creature of interiors, of getting “inside” and being “blown”; it is the personification of the spy world’s endogamy, which involves moving into smaller and smaller spaces. Le Carré, as ever the most alert to his world’s schematics, has Smiley arrive at the classic metaphor in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “one of those wooden Russian dolls that open up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside him.” Here the spy novel departs from its social-realist cousins, even the police procedural: crime gathers a large web of social interactions; espionage remains sealed off from the world at large. Cause and effect do not ramify outward, in horizontal networks; they move from big, those cold brains in a small room, to little, in a vertical cascade. The answer is inside, but it is also obvious, a purloined letter too large for any other genre’s frame. Even if the novel’s mechanics are complexly baroque, the knotty explanations of the plot finally bend back around, in the genre’s post-Euclidian logic, to something truly unsubtle. Why, in Steinhauer’s The Tourist, is Milo Weaver called back to active duty? Nothing less, and also nothing more complicated, than the need to maintain US hegemony over China. “But the answer that gets the gold star is empire,” he is told. “It’s about the big picture. That’s all it’s ever about.”
Weaver works for the “Department of Tourism,” an elite cadre of black ops specialists run out of an innocuous Manhattan office. Like any high-ranking professional, Weaver’s antagonists are other professionals at his level — particularly “the Tiger,” the nom de guerre of the field’s most well-known figure, whom Weaver corners at the novel’s outset. But the Tiger is already dying of poison, and he reveals that he too had been a Tourist, recently hired to kill a Sudanese Islamic radical — and then himself nudged toward death in order to cover the traces. Who gave the order to kill the cleric, and then kill the assassin, is Weaver’s opening puzzle. Steinhauer’s syuzhet proceeds through the usual interrogations, with their static dynamic of question and answer, thrust and parry, and the familiar psychological awkwardness around someone finally telling the truth — as well as some near-miss escapes for Weaver to provide thrills. But the fabula is beyond psychology or individual will: the Tiger had been hired by a Russian oligarch, working as a front for the CIA, to kill the Sudanese radical in order to destabilize the Sudanese government and force China to involve itself to protect its oil source there, all to create an Iraq-style quagmire for China — a game not even plotted by the CIA itself, but by a senator. As Weaver muses, “each fragment of order we find is connected to the other fragments in a meta-order that is controlled by a meta-meta-order.”
The great realist novel diffuses, the spy novel concentrates. Everything leads back to China; to competition for oil or computing speed; to globalized jihad; to SMERSH or to the Black Stone, the organization contracted by the Germans to help in the invasion of England in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. From that vast but single cause comes the complexity of the spy story’s chess moves. And that cause has a momentum that can be resisted, but not reversed. The successful espionage operation disables a terrorist plot, disrupts an infiltration, fends off disaster for another day. No wonder the spy is so often a closet pedant, like Smiley or Allon in love with the past, conservative in temperament if not always in politics. “Unhappy Europe!” the spymaster of The Secret Agent declares on his deathbed. “Thou shalt perish by the moral insanity of thy children!”
The spy despairs. The epiphany of Jerry Westerby, the hero of le Carré’s underrated 1977 The Honourable Schoolboy: “For a moment it was all one vanishing world; here, Phnom Penh, Saigon, London — a world on loan, with the creditors standing at the door, and Jerry himself, in some unfathomable way, a part of the debt that was owed.” Even the spy’s sexiness is bathetic. Take the mode retro FX series The Americans: two KGB castaways in the early 1980s, moles in American life, always playing from behind, hoping to keep the cold war game going a little longer even as we know it won’t. They spend their secret nights out fucking some echt suburban single person — a lonely executive secretary, an engineer at a bar — not out of desire but out of some sad, misguided attempt to keep the Soviet past alive.
The big picture is there to be seen, but for agency men, it offers no consolation. Le Carré’s operatives, raised for greater things, find themselves handling the external affairs of a small island. At their worst these moments have a flimsy grandeur: Allon’s mentor Ari Shamron, looking out over Lake Kinneret, muses that “the Jews had managed to pull off one of history’s greatest second acts” but that “they were already on borrowed time”; Milo Weaver’s boss Tom Grainger muses on “Roman outposts in hostile lands.” Such moments seem meant to have a heady and bitter savor, redolent of adult sophistication: all empires are one, and you know this best when the end is in sight. If the British became identified with spy fiction in the 20th century, it is not because, as some have it, of a native tendency toward deception and secrecy. In the agency, they’re wised up and they know nothing lasts.
A postulate, then: the spy novel, that peculiar 20th-century genre with roots as far back as early 19th-century reaction, has as its ideological dominant a pessimistic, fatalistic nationalism. Think of a world where the revolution will never come — the world Julien Sorel’s clandestine employers try to bring into being; that is the world of spies. Instead of rapid change, the glacial melt of national power. If you doubt the sensitivity of intelligence analysts to the contours of a world like this, read the declassified 1985 CIA report on the demise of French high theory (“France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals”) and its replacement by the “new philosophy” of André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy. The report quotes an anonymous figure at Paris Nanterre, a center of leftist theory, as saying, “This is the permanent nonrevolution.” The agency, any agency, doesn’t want to tamper with that state of affairs, it wants to preserve it in amber — despite its lingering, melancholy awareness of the world’s entropy. This is the importance of le Carré’s shabby spy milieu; its slow, dingy decay literalizes the genre’s historical position rather than revises it.
Fatalistic about what he serves, the spy is cool — both engaged and detached. The code is already present as early as Kipling’s Kim, another early spy story, about the recruitment and training of an Irish urchin into a British spy combating Russian influence in Central Asia, although it is presented in split form. Kim oscillates between the breathless excitement of working for the Sahibs — mastering tradecraft, pursuing the Great Game against Russian spies — and the profundity of following his mentor the Lama, a Buddhist monk seeking release from the cycle of rebirth, who offers a world of quasi-stoic detachment. In Kipling, Kim’s two worlds are largely a binary, in competition with each other: exuberant, restless adventure against the idea that “all doing is evil,” the plotted thriller against static philosophizing. Kim must choose, although he manages for the most part to keep deferring his choice. The later spy novel, on the other hand, merges the two. Doing is evil, and the spy reluctantly engages in “doing,” or plot — if with a certain embarrassed relish — to keep the world’s balance. The traditional spy is both actor and contemplative, and when they are drawn into action it is unwillingly.
The ethos of this historical condition, in Western terms, is a muted stoicism, and the spy novel, of all our narrative genres, might be our best guide to it. The Victorians had the novel of religious doubt; we have the spy novel, our story of forlorn service to a vanishing ideal. Instead of the church, we have the agency — that compromised, alluring, ridiculous, frightening, and still durable institution, dedicated to ideals that seem no longer viable. The agency may in fact be the villain in most postwar spy stories: it tries to eliminate Jason Bourne, it traduces its employees like Milo Weaver or David Morgan, it cannot be trusted by George Smiley. But one hates most where one has loved. The Service, be it MI6, CIA, or Mossad, is always being dismantled, always needs reconstructing, never seems healthy, never quite collapses — there’s a background sense of some constant partial recovery from a prior disaster. How can you continue to perform your duty to such a flawed thing, a thing whose damage is usually more evident than its healing?
This is not just the agency; it is the liberal order the agency has shielded. That has been John le Carré’s insight, and it is Smiley — forever the anti-Bond, the bespectacled small shabby master of counterintelligence — who acts as the last saint of the liberal West, who doubts his cause even as he pursues it. In the Karla trilogy he is both implacable and full of misgivings. He tries to snare his ideologically driven Soviet nemesis while having no strong counterideology to offer. Once, Smiley does trap Karla, in a Delhi interrogation room; but Karla cannot be turned. “Did he not believe, for example, that the political generality was meaningless?” he remembers asking his counterpart. “That only the particular in life had value for him now?” Le Carré’s thoughtful spies have a way of sounding like Niebuhr as rewritten by George Eliot, with the added quality of being unsure of their own position. “I behaved like a soft fool,” was Smiley’s verdict. “The very archetype of a flabby Western liberal. But I would rather be my kind of fool than his, for all that.”
Fine enough for the cold war, since Smiley’s unpersuaded half-faith ends up prevailing: Karla defects, the hard yields to the soft but persistent. Last year, Smiley returned, in A Legacy of Spies, le Carré at 85 extending Smiley’s life to cover essentially the entire 20th century. The novel is an exercise in amplifying the spy novel’s usual retrospection: the surviving children of the two British nationals (one an agent, one an unwitting coconspirator) killed in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold have decided, at some point around the turn of the century, to sue for reparations. Aging former spy Peter Guillam is hauled into the agency’s garish new Vauxhall Cross headquarters to be interrogated, every past indiscretion and mistake flayed open by agency counsel for whom the cold war is only a childhood memory. Additional documents are brought forward, deepening the story of the 1963 novel. But only Smiley can offer more than documentary details: a moral defense of the human cost of that long-gone operation. And so in the novel’s final pages Guillam finds him, in a Freiburg reading room, alone.
What now is the creed of one of his century’s greatest spies — what was all that tradecraft good for?
“For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes, of course. There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone will be left standing, as our Russian friends used to say.” He fell quiet, only to rally more vigorously: “Or was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.”
A sip of wine, a smile of puzzlement, directed not at me, but at himself.
“So was it all for England, then?” he resumed. “There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? 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.”
The Brexit irony draped over the passage — if like some Tiresias of MI6 he had lived to see it, Smiley’s heartbreak at the vote would have been mortal — only partially conceals the paradoxes of his confession. Espionage is grubby nationalism for idealistic cosmopolitans, ends-justify-the-means calculation on behalf of sweet reason’s balance. It is both utterly disabused and almost innocently idealistic, if one can idealize something so purely notional. No wonder Smiley looks puzzled at himself.
He isn’t so unusual. Spies are devoted to the old world — whatever old world one believes in — once it becomes clear the old world is setting. In this, the Marquis de la Mole and Smiley are not so very different. Wistful, self-doubting, almost despairing idealism and the disenchanted exercise of skill: if we’re all spies now, it doesn’t mean we commit ourselves to any particular politics; it means we commit ourselves to this mood. It’s the kind of refuge that suffocates.