Intellectual porn for introverts: the allure of espionage

I have a soft spot for anything to do with spies. Growing up, I was a reluctant collector of anything, only giving in on rare occasions when I misguidedly thought that doing so would help me to fit in. With one exception. I remember viscerally needing to own a complete set of James Bond videos. Some of my earliest Christmas memories revolve around this need and the sensation of frenzied hopefulness it triggered in me. Nothing, in those days, could be more exciting than the thought of finding Thunderball or Licence to Kill in my stocking come Christmas morning.

I discovered John le Carré about a decade after my obsession with Bond had started and was once again infatuated (I still am). In the three years since the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out (which I think was my first encounter with le Carré’s oeuvre), I’ve read more books by him than by any other author.

Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy-image-18-600x325

It’s fair to say I’m not the only person to have fallen for Bond and le Carré. Both have spawned hugely successful franchises that have dominated Britain’s entertainment industry for more than fifty years. Dr No was released in 1962, a year before le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, hit the shelves.

Many critics and observers in the 80s and 90s assumed that the end of the Cold War would lead to the demise of the espionage genre. From the vantage point of 2014, that prediction looks almost as fatuous as Fukuyama’s proclamation that 1989 marked ‘the end of history’. Neither franchise shows any immediate sign of letting up, with new films from both due out in 2015 – Our Kind of Traitor, starring Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris and Damian Lewis from the house of le Carré, and Spectre, starring Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris (again) from the house of Bond.

So what makes the world of espionage so enduringly mesmerising? How much longer can these franchises carry on for? And – perhaps the most intriguing question of all for any fellow espionage buffs out there – who’s better: Fleming or le Carré?

***

I recently came across a historical gem, courtesy of the BBC archive: a 1966 recording of Malcolm Muggeridge interviewing John le Carré. It’s a wonderful example of the postwar BBC at its elitist, smug, self-satisfied best. Muggeridge fawns over his interviewee, not so much asking questions as encouraging his guest to join him in absent-mindedly musing on the state of the world.

At one point he suggests that the obsession with spying that had made le Carré a household name, was a ‘sort of false mysticism’, tailor made for ‘an age that has no mysticism.’ Le Carré does not demur at this, clearly rather flattered by the notion that his books contain mystical elements. And why wouldn’t he be? Muggeridge seems almost to be implying that le Carré is a replacement for God. I’m a big fan, but even I think that’s taking things a bit far.

Later on in the interview, talking about his own admiration of Graham Greene’s writing, le Carré says that ‘it’s the moral search of a lonely man that … attracts me irresistibly.’ This strikes me as being rather closer to the heart of why spy stories are popular: they offer a model of heroism uniquely suited to introverts. Fictional spies are, typically, lonely men (occasionally women, but rarely) who turn the introvert’s innate ability to keep ears open and mouth shut into a powerful weapon. They’re generally portrayed as fundamentally good people trapped in a bad system. What loner could resist.

But how much longer can this fragile fantasy world be sustained? In an age when real espionage, like so much else, is increasingly digitised, is its allure for writers (and readers) beginning to wear off? It’s notable that while le Carré has continued to set his novels in the contemporary world, many of the best espionage writers of the next generation – Joseph Kanon and Edward Wilson spring to mind – are turning back to the early Cold War for inspiration. For now, these authors will continue to thrive because the world they conjure up is close enough to the present, yet jarringly unfamiliar – a combination bound to intrigue. But if the ideal year in which to set a spy novel has been forever frozen in 1948, then the genre’s potential is surely finite and the well must eventually run dry.

***

Returning to the 1966 interview… interestingly, when Muggeridge asks le Carré about his future plans, the latter makes a couple of stunningly inaccurate predictions. First, he says that, having worked on film versions of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War, he’s been warned off adapting his own work for the big screen ever again. Second, he claims that he’s done with writing spy stories, at least for the time being.

In explaining his reasons for wanting to try other genres, he reveals rather a lot about his attitude towards the creator of Bond:

‘I’m turning away from spying … because it’s become such a commercial product. One is constantly being compared not only with one’s own performance, but with the performance of one’s supposed rivals. One is drawn into a race, which for my part I find abhorrent. It isn’t a question of knocking other people – I don’t happen to like Fleming, I do happen to like [Len] Deighton in parts – but I do resist the obstacle race that I’m supposed to be running with them.’

He goes on:

‘I think it’s a great mistake, if one is talking about espionage literature, to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me that he is more some kind of international gangster … He’s a man with unlimited movement, but he’s a man entirely out of the political context. It’s of no interest to Bond who, for instance, is President of the United States, or who is President of the USSR. It’s the consumer goods ethic really – that everything around you, all the dull things of life, are suddenly animated by this wonderful cache of espionage. The things on our desk that could explode, our ties which could suddenly take photographs. These give to a drab and materialistic existence a kind of magic which doesn’t otherwise exist. A low magic.’

Of course, at this point Fleming was already dead and therefore unable to defend himself against the charge that his fiction is ‘base’ and ‘vulgar’, as le Carré and Muggeridge rather snootily describe it. There’s an irony though in the fact that despite le Carré’s deep desire to prove himself as a serious writer capable of more than just churning out decent thrillers, it’s actually Fleming who, of the two, can claim a genuine success outside the espionage genre. His 1964 children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang needs no introduction.

The extraordinary thing is that almost half a century on, as we stagger into 2015, this rivalry is alive and well. In commercial terms, there can be little doubt that Bond has won and that Spectre will wipe the floor with Our Kind of Traitor in terms of box office receipts, regardless of which is a better film. But it’s also clear that le Carré would reject this as the ultimate measure of success – and rightly so.

The BBC charter famously stipulates that its mission is ‘to inform, educate and entertain.’ This is perhaps closer to the yardstick le Carré would choose to be measured by. On pure entertainment, Bond wins. But where Bond is politically anodyne, le Carré is caustic and insightful. As I’ve written previously, his 2013 book A Delicate Truth is one of the best critiques of our contemporary political and moral decay in any genre – fiction or non-fiction.

For all his bluster, Bond is essentially harmless, irrelevant fun, whereas le Carré holds up a mirror to society and, in doing so, has the potential to provoke meaningful change. So yes, ultimately I agree with the elitists: literature has a higher purpose than mere entertainment and, on that basis, le Carré is superior to Fleming.

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