In Absolute Friends, one of John le Carré’s lesser works, the central character explains his rebirth as a left-wing firebrand, radicalised by Britain’s support for America’s invasion of Iraq. ‘It’s the old man’s impatience coming on early,’ he says. ‘It’s anger at seeing the show come round again one too many times.’ This is followed by a rant about ‘the death of empire’, our ‘dismally ill-managed country’ and ‘the renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment’ (not Russia, obviously, but the United States).
I felt a similar spurt of rage on learning that Le Carré’s most famous show — the seedy world of British intelligence, or ‘the Circus’, as he calls it — is about to come round again. Later this month, the 85-year-old author will publish A Legacy of Spies, which revisits the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and resurrects several of his long defunct characters, including George Smiley. Once again, the reader will be plunged into the slightly smelly, morally ambiguous universe of the Cold War and its psychologically damaged protagonists. Once again, Le Carré’s fans will be able to tell themselves how sophisticated they are for rising above the good-vs-evil simplicities of inferior espionage novelists. Once again, they’ll give themselves permission to enjoy what is, essentially, an airport thriller by reassuring themselves that Le Carré is really a literary writer who ‘transcends’ the limits of genre fiction. (To read more, click here.)