Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Reluctant defectors: Graham Greene’s The Human Factor and John le Carré’s Smiley’s People

This time I’d like to take a look at two novels from the late 1970s, both of them by “spymasters”: novelists acknowledged to be in — or rather to constitute — the front rank of writers of spy stories. The Human Factor was first published in 1978, Smiley’s People the following year. Until last week, I had read each of these books only once but they had both left a strong impression on me. I was surprised to discover just a few months ago that I remembered the final sentence of Greene’s novel more or less verbatim after so many years.

Until I read Smiley’s People, I’d been a fan of le Carré’s novels. I had passed over The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), put off by a bad review, but I’d read all the spy stories (and A Murder of Quality in which Smiley solves a murder mystery), except The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) — and I’d almost certainly have got around to that a lot sooner if Smiley’s People hadn’t come my way first. Having finished that novel, though, I gave up reading le Carré for 30 years.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that, apart from a brief lapse ten years ago — when I at last turned my attention to The Honourable Schoolboy — I gave up reading le Carré for 40 years. I suppose I felt that, as a reader, I’d been conned. The thing that all the earlier novels had insisted on about Smiley (apart from his unprepossessing, nondescript physical qualities) was his intellectual brilliance. He was devious, farsighted, a peerless strategist. And here he was using simple, straightforward extortion to force his old adversary, Karla, to defect.

He didn’t lay a carefully plotted trap. Instead, he opportunistically exploited the fortuitous circumstance that Karla’s daughter was mentally ill and wouldn’t be given the treatment she needed inside the Soviet Union, so Karla had to make arrangements to send her abroad. Of course, Smiley’s penetrating cleverness is to some extent in evidence. Like Connie Sachs, he is sharp enough to see that Otto Leipzig never provides the Circus with false intelligence about the Soviet Union, however unreliable the information he peddles about other countries. This significant observation eludes most of the Circus leadership.

He concludes, well before Saul Enderby does, that Karla’s reliance on inexperienced, barely competent officials like Kirov/Kursky (and later Grigoriev), rather than on his well trained subordinates, means that this is a personal, unauthorized operation, one that must be kept off the books at all costs.

Toby Esterhase is full of ecstatic praise for Smiley’s unfathomable skill in interrogating Grigoriev, while the truth is that poor young Nigel Mostyn could probably have extracted a statement from the loquacious Russian just as easily. Esterhase’s gushing makes one wonder if the praise for Smiley’s brain that we read in other books is really much more than Sarratt mythology, arrived at by talking up the instructors and the historic (or historical) cases they use as training materials.

So, there’s an inevitable sense of anticlimax and, for me at least, disappointment when Karla crosses over to West Berlin and is taken away to be debriefed. Of course, le Carré is perfectly well aware of this: it’s an effect he’s deliberately aiming for. Spying isn’t a “great game” in which skilled players pit their wits against well matched opponents, he wants us to know. It’s more like a brutal and exhausting scramble for every little advantage that is to be had, and with minimal, and often dimly understood, rules.

Smiley seems reluctant to recognize that he has committed himself to a brutal course of action. So, when Esterhase presses him to grab an unexpected opportunity to pick up Grigoriev, Smiley hesitates but only momentarily:

For a moment, he weighed the method against the prize, and the grey and distant figure of Karla seemed actually to admonish him. (p. 363)

Of course, he gives the green light. He didn’t assemble his and Toby’s “people”, make all these painstaking preparations and incur so much expense, only to have second thoughts at the crucial moment. Smiley may wrestle with his conscience but he’s had enough practice to be confident that he’s always going to win that struggle, at least.

In case we’ve missed the significance of weighing the method against the prize, Smiley returns to that reflection after he’s got everything he wanted to know out of Grigoriev:

He had done everything he had set out to do, and more, even if he had resorted to Karla’s techniques for the purpose. … Unaided, even hampered by those who had called him back to service, he had fought his way through to the point where he could honestly say he had burst the last important lock. He was in late age, yet his tradecraft had never been better; for the first time in his career, he held the advantage over his old adversary.
On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man, and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself from his own tangled life was eminently familiar. (p. 400; all ellipsis in quotations is added)

This is not to imply that Smiley and Karla are morally equivalent. Karla regularly has people killed without hesitation: in the present case alone, his victims include the old Estonian general who tried to alert Smiley to Karla’s creation of a legend for his daughter, the general’s associate Otto Leipzig (who was tortured before being killed), and presumably Kirov. It doesn’t appear that Smiley has deliberately had anyone assassinated.

On the other hand, Smiley’s ruthless use of Karla’s feeling for his mentally ill daughter is not the first time that he has resorted to methods which might need to be weighed against the prize. At the end of The Honourable Schoolboy, just as Nelson Ko, a highly placed Russian asset in the Chinese government, is attempting to come in from the cold, he is snatched by CIA agents, bundled into a bag and taken away by helicopter. The honourable schoolboy himself, Jerry Westerby, is shot dead by a figure in the helicopter who may or may not be Fawn, a kind of bodyguard for Smiley. (Fawn is several times described variously as a babysitter or a factotum.)

Fawn is either a psychopath or a sadist, or conceivably both — as Guillam discovered when a boy on a bicycle tried to steal Fawn’s watch and ended up with two broken arms — so the first unavoidable question is why does Smiley keep him around? Is it because he fines his thuggishness useful?

And, if it was Fawn in the helicopter, why was he in the company of the Americans? Smiley had earlier protested loudly but ineffectively against CIA interference in his operation against Nelson Ko’s brother Drake. Fawn’s possible presence suggests that Smiley may have been protesting for appearance sake only, and that he wants the Americans to have Nelson Ko, perhaps on the grounds that their more robust interrogation methods will get more out of him.

The operation at the centre of le Carré’s first big hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), referred to as “Windfall” in his much later novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017), was (apparently) not planned by Smiley but by his old boss, Control, who told Leamas that Smiley did not approve of it. All the same, Smiley was deeply involved in the operation: in A Legacy of Spies, we learn that it was he who turned Hans-Dieter Mundt, and how he did it.

In an introduction to a 2010 edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, William Boyd argues that the death at the Berlin Wall of CPGB member Liz Gold was actually part of the plan:

Leamas hears Smiley shout: “The girl, where’s the girl?” But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead.

Liz is a loose end who might leak embarrassing information. Smiley himself addresses this question at the end of A Legacy of Spies, when Guillam seeks him out in a German library:

”… I counted on Mundt’s ruthlessness, but I underrated it. The temptation to kill off the witnesses was simply too much for him …” (Chapter 13)

It jarred with me a bit that he says “underrated” rather than “underestimated”, as if he can’t bring himself to deny outright that he knew how Mundt was likely to act. Smiley didn’t will or require Liz Gold’s death — still less Alec Leamas’s — but he knew Mundt and must have foreseen what Mundt would do in those circumstances, even if he is now inclined to play down the extent of his prescience.

In summary, I don’t think le Carré is trying to paint Smiley as being as bad as Karla, but rather as someone who would in the end, almost as a matter of course, find it necessary and expedient to resort to similar cruel, ruthless and unprincipled methods in order to win “the prize”. In most cases, the prize would elude them, in spite of the dirty methods.

The sacrifice of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, for example, failed to consolidate Mundt’s position. In the end, nothing at all was gained as a result. As Tabitha, Guillam’s Service-approved lawyer in A Legacy of Spies tells her client, Mundt was promptly called to Moscow and never again appeared in East Germany. Presumably Bill Haydon had either been in on the plan or worked out what Control and Smiley were up to and tipped off Moscow Centre.

Greene’s novel similarly features an intelligence operation which is, from the point of view of the protagonist, at best futile. That protagonist, Maurice Castle, is a cautious, deliberate man. He lives a circumscribed life, working in an unglamorous corner of the intelligence service handling reports from southern Africa. He always returns from lunch exactly on time, even if he’s been late getting away. He doesn’t remove work material from the office or leave it lying around where unauthorized eyes might catch sight of it.

He’s scrupulous about telling the truth — except about the important things, which are few — rather than trust his memory as to what lies he has told. He habitually drinks a brand of whisky that he doesn’t much care for because its colour makes it difficult to tell how much water he has added. He’s drinking too much but his carefully cultivated reputation for sobriety is such that his superiors don’t believe they can make his murder look like liver failure, as they successfully did in the case of his office colleague.

They’re wondering if they can quietly kill him because they’ve belatedly concluded that the leak in their department is coming from Maurice and not from the unfortunate colleague.

Castle lives quietly in Berkhamsted with his wife Sarah and young son Sam. Sam is not his biological child but Castle always describes him without qualification as his son. He discovered during his first marriage that he can’t have children of his own. When Sarah presses him as to whether he regrets not having a child with her, he insists that he does not:

“… I love Sam because he’s yours. Because he’s not mine. Because I don’t have to see anything of myself there when I look at him. I see only something of you. I don’t want to go on and on forever. I want the buck to stop here.” (p. 25)

Maurice Castle is, more than anything else, a disciplined man. He walks their dog, Buller, every evening, even though it’s revealed late in the story that he hates the animal. He leads what looks like a dull existence and it’s not an exaggeration to say that he appears to be a dull man. But his intelligence and his survival instincts are sharp. He is calm under pressure.

Seven years earlier, he was attached to the embassy in South Africa where he was gathering intelligence under the pretext of writing a book about apartheid. Hauled in by BOSS officer Cornelius Muller for questioning, he assumed that his network was in danger but it turned out that what Muller actually wanted was to pressure him over his relationship with Sarah, who is a black South African. Muller didn’t suspect him of being a spy after all, and Castle avoided giving himself away.

Their interracial relationship contravened the criminal law, but Castle had dipolmatic immunity, so Sarah was the one who had something to fear from Muller. Castle arranged with a communist lawyer, Carson, to have Sarah (then pregnant) smuggled out of the country to Mozambique, where he was to meet her.

It was partly out of gratitude to Carson and the local communists that Castle began to leak intelligence. The other, related, reason is that he hates apartheid. He is not in the slightest ideologically sympathetic to communism but is willing to work with the communists where South Africa is concerned.

Feeling that the investigation is closing in on him, Castle arranges a face-to-face meeting with his handler, Boris, who assures him that if he flees to Moscow, his wife and son will be allowed to follow him. Eventually, Castle does indeed flee but there turn out to be complications where Sam is concerned. He isn’t on Sarah’s passport and she’s warned by Dr Percival (the doctor responsible for killing her husband’s office colleague) that any attempt to apply for a passport will be subject to long delays.

There are other obstacles too, including the threat by Castle’s mother (who is horrified by her son’s betrayal of his country) to have the boy made a ward in Chancery. Some of these threats are undoubtedly bluffs but Sarah can’t be sure which. So she and Sam remain stuck in Britain, while Castle feels increasingly lonely and out of place in Moscow.

Boris visits him and tells him that the intelligence he supplied wasn’t particularly useful as far as southern Africa was concerned but was very valuable in bolstering the credibility of a double agent: somebody the British intelligence service thought was working for them in the USSR but who was in fact feeding them false information.

Castle’s mother said her son had always had an inclination to excessive gratitude. As a schoolboy, he had shown his thanks for the gift of a chocolate muffin by giving his benefactor an expensive fountain pen in return. Now, for the past seven years, he has been thanking the communists for Sarah’s escape by giving them far more than he thought, and in an area of activity where he never intended to help them.

The ending of Greene’s novel is heartbreakingly poignant. It shows, I think, that it’s possible to write a novel that demonstrates the futility, waste, brutality and frustration of spying without its being as hollow and dissatisfying as I found Smiley’s People on first reading.

Having said that, I also must admit that I found le Carré’s novel distinctly more satisfactory this time. The retrospective light thrown on it by A Legacy of Spies may have helped.

Editions: Graham Greene, The Human Factor (Vintage Classics paperback, 1999)
John le Carré, Smiley’s People (Penguin paperback, 2020)

Other books by le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Legacy of Spies are cited from ebook editions, so no page reference is given.


I mean to write two more posts about spy fiction, but not immediately. One of them will focus on Kate Atkinson’s Transcription and possibly one of the novels in Andrew Taylor’s Blaines series (which I haven’t read yet). In the other, I hope to look at two novels by Ian McEwan, The Innocent and Sweet Tooth.

But in the next issue, in two weeks’s time, I’m planning to feature Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, probably with some reference to his earlier novel, When We Were Orphans. Till then.


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