John le Carré's post-Cold War vision is shot through with a sense of longing

The historical era that defined the master writer may be long gone, but something deeply compelling remains in his work
December 7, 2019

The question that hangs over John le Carré is whether what he writes still matters. This is the author who brilliantly savaged Britain’s deluded ruling class, as the country sank into its post-war decline, and who expressed more clearly than anyone the moral ambiguities of the Cold War. But the Berlin Wall came down 30 years ago now. Where does that leave him?

He can still write, that’s for certain. Like Georges Simenon or Agatha Christie, it’s the authorial control that’s so impressive and which gives this, his 26th book, its sense of tautness. Nat, a washed-up spy, is given control over an obscure London department of the intelligence services. He knows it’s a bad position, but he takes it anyway. A message from a former agent sets off a series of wickedly sharp plot twists, which leads to a showdown with Moscow Centre.

The territory is familiar, the dialogue is a little too expositional and the characters still chirp at one another in anachronistic mid-20th century Oxford banter (does anybody really use “my dear fellow,” as a greeting any more?) And yet something about le Carré remains deeply seductive. The smatterings of anti-Trump and anti-Brexit rhetoric will chime with a good many readers, but it’s the emotional quality of the writing that really makes the book sing.

Like all his novels, this one is shot through with a strange kind of longing. Each character is desperate for the attention of others. And so the man who seeks out Nat at his sports club is looking for Nat and Nat alone; a former agent later telephones him, childlike, for help; and, all the while, Nat himself struggles to understand his own daughter.

All of them long for affection and understanding—just like le Carré himself, who was abandoned by his mother as a young boy and raised by his father, a con man. The young boy learnt the art of persuasion early on, and how brilliantly he now uses it on his readers. The Cold War may be long gone, but in le Carré’s writing, something deeply compelling remains.

Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (Viking, £20)