John Le Carré, who died this week, was one of those rare writers who transcends his genre. His books were about spies, especially British ones. But his best novels were full-blown masterworks that explored enduring themes like betrayal, illusion and (his favorite) late middle age. Since hitting middle age myself, I've re-read his three greatest novels in every year.
The appeal of Le Carré's writing can be hard to state simply, because in some sense it is really an anti-appeal. His characters might be spies, but they aren't dashing or handsome. They don't take heroic action or engage in leaps of faith. Le Carré's characters plod.
Yet for all their superficial ordinariness, Le Carré's characters are memorable for the richness and complexity of their inner lives. George Smiley, Le Carré's greatest creation, is short and "podgy." He wears clothes that are too big for him and polishes his glasses on the silk lining of his tie. His wife, Ann, is chronically unfaithful. In his mind, however, Smiley bestrides the world like a colossus. He sees all — or at least, all that he is able to see in the light of his limitations.
Warning: spoilers ahead. In the first of Le Carré's great trilogy, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," Smiley manages to uncover a mole (a word he popularized and possibly invented) in the heart of the British Secret Service. But it takes him longer, much longer than it should — because the mole had an affair with Ann.
In the hands of lesser writer, jealousy would make the husband hate his rival. But in the post-war England that is Le Carré's milieu, it's the opposite. Smiley becomes overly solicitous of the colleague who sleeps with his wife. He is so eager to overcome any jealousy that he cannot see the professional betrayal because of the personal one. This is one of the twists that make the novel so brilliant. (There is another famous plot twist that is also astonishing, but I'll leave that one unspoiled.) It's a portrait of English restraint and fair play, and a warning that such restraint can easily fuse into willful blindness. It also stands as a metaphor for Britain's post-imperial decline, especially as facilitated by the rise of the US — of which Le Carré was always highly skeptical.
The trilogy's second novel, "The Honourable Schoolboy," takes the reader to East and Southeast Asia in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Hong Kong, Vietnam and Laos are depicted through the experience of the Cold War in its most pointless phase. The protagonist is a rather simple-seeming English reporter who doubles as a part-time, second-tier spy. He falls in love with a woman he barely knows, a pathological liar who is harmless but much abused. The love of one concrete person rather than any abstraction represents Le Carré's idea of conscience. But that love is also based on a basic delusion about its object.
The trilogy's conclusion, "Smiley's People," pits Smiley against his opposite number in Soviet intelligence, known by his code name of Karla. Smiley wins in the end. But only because Karla, whom Smiley calls a "fanatic," is capable of a kind of love. That love is Karla's downfall. Again, it's hard to think of another writer who would arrange his hero's victory over the enemy by an exploitation of the enemy's only redeeming feature. Smiley is ambivalent about it, as he is about everything. When he's told he has finally defeated his greatest adversary, his only answer is, "I suppose I have." It's not what Holmes would have said about Moriarty.
In his many post-Cold War novels, Le Carré often struggled to find non-Soviet enemies worthy of his protagonists' effort. Often the villains are money-hungry or neo-conservative or both. These novels aren't as successful from a literary standpoint. Le Carré always did better when he went deep into the spy's interiority than when he tried to depict bad guys as soulless.
In the end, what makes Le Carré so great is his premise that our inner lives are perhaps best understood as a study in self-deception and self-revelation. That's what middle age is about after all: moving through false views of yourself until you learn, somehow, that no single image can be correct. Not everything fits together. It's not alright. But it's what we have.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.