Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

Sweet and Innocent: Spy stories by Ian McEwan

Front cover illustration The Innocent

This is my third time to discuss spy fiction in Talk about books. The earlier posts were about Graham Greene’s and John le Carré’s reluctant defectors and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. This time, I want to write about two novels by Ian McEwan published 22 years apart: The Innocent (1990) and 2012’s Sweet Tooth. The Innocent was his fourth novel and nine more adult novels came between it and Sweet Tooth, since which he has written another four, so spy stories make up a small part of his published work.

Coincidentally, this is also my third post about McEwan’s novels, the earlier ones being about Saturday and Enduring Love. I expect to have more to say about some of his others, particularly two very short ones, Amsterdam (his only Booker win) and On Chesil Beach.

While I was writing about le Carré’s Smiley’s People earlier this year, I gradually started to realize something I really ought to have noticed long ago: that spy fiction is largely about sex. In particular, it tends to concern itself with seduction, coercion, betrayal (le Carré’s stock in trade), jealousy, suspicion, insecurity and ultimately paranoia. That, it seems to me, makes the spy story a very fertile field for a writer like McEwan.

The Innocent

His 1990 novel was greeted at the time as a return to the gruesome, after the relative decorum of The Child in Time, which never reveals what happened to the missing child. At the climax of The Innocent the protagonist finds himself attempting to stroll nonchalantly around Berlin, carrying two large cases which were awkward enough when empty, and are now loaded down with the freshly dismembered remains of his new fiancée’s ex-husband. He is sleep-deprived, uncomfortably hot and intermittently hallucinating, and his problems are only beginning.

These passages are at once hilarious and almost unbearably tense; if anything they’re even less bearable than the episode in which he spends the night after his engagement party cutting up the body, so that his fiancée can fit the parts into the cases.

The innocent of the title is Leonard Marnham, a 25-year-old telephone engineer with very little experience of life (and none of sex) who is sent to Berlin in 1955 to help set up telephone tapping and recording equipment for use as part of Operation Gold. In Berlin, Leonard meets and quickly falls in love with Maria, a divorced German woman five years older than he is. Many years later, Maria will write to him:

When I think of you, I don’t only think of the terrible thing with Otto. I think of my kind and gentle Englishman who knew so little about women and learned so beautifully! We were so easy together, it was such fun. (p. 242)

Otto, of course, was her ill fated ex, whose jealousy and injured pride led him to hide in the wardrobe in her bedroom, where he lapsed into a drunken stupor, with disastrous results for all of them, him worst of all. But Leonard, for all his kindness, gentleness and eagerness to learn, is not immune to similar masculine traits to those that destroyed Otto. His (correct) suspicion that Maria and his brash American boss, Bob Glass, share a secret that he’s not party to, and his (wildly off the mark) speculation as to the nature of that secret are, more than anything else, the factors tending to push Leonard and Maria apart.

The flat that the British authorities have provided for Leonard is upstairs from one that is occupied by George Blake and his family. It was Blake who gave away Operation Gold to the Russians. As Maria wrote long after the event:

He was right in on it from the beginning, at the planning stage. The Russians knew all about it before the first shovelful had been dug out. So much wasted effort! (p. 241)

The Russians had allowed the tunnel and the wiretap to remain in operation to protect their double agent, so there is some uncertainty as to how much valuable intelligence the US and the British were able to extract. In McEwan’s fictional version, Blake eventually told his Russian contacts to break though into the tunnel because of something Leonard said to him. Leonard was frantically trying to cover up his possession of a butchered corpse, but Blake understood that top-secret, state-of-the-art decoding equipment would be stored in the tunnel for just 24 hours.

In the meantime, Leonard tried to protect his own secret by leaking the existence and location of the tunnel to the Russians, only to find that Blake had beaten him to it. In the early 1960s, Blake was sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years in prison for his many betrayals, of which the tunnel was clearly not one of the most serious.

So, it can certainly be argued that Leonard’s treachery was nowhere near as reprehensible a breach of faith as Blake’s was, but it still comes as a shock that he was prepared to write off a major operation involving years of work, planning and expense — so much wasted effort! — in an attempt to save his skin (and Maria’s, to be sure). The attempt would have been ineffective anyway, as the Russians didn’t react to the discovery of the tunnel in the way that the Americans and British expected them to. (It was assumed that the Russians would be too embarrassed to make the discovery public; but instead they denounced the operation as the Americans’ breach of international law.)

Having recited to himself and dismissed a list of actions on his part that might appear blameworthy, Leonard quickly passes over the most serious of them:

To have betrayed the tunnel? A sad necessity, given everything that had gone before. And now Glass, MacNamee and everyone else was saying that it was always bound to happen. It could not have gone on forever. They had had almost a year’s run at it.
He was innocent, that he knew. (p. 216)

But Leonard’s innocence has somehow become corrupted. On the face of it, it looks as if it has been corrupted by love. But surely that can’t be right?

Sweet Tooth

McEwan’s later spy novel tells a more complicated story. It’s set in the early 1970s, at a time when female recruits to MI5 were told that they couldn’t become “officers” but would effectively be restricted to secretarial work. At one point the narrator, Serena, and her friend Shirley are offered a break from the office routine when they’re sent to clean up a safe house. Shirley is incensed:

”Our cover,” she kept saying in a loud whisper. “Our bloody cover. Cleaning ladies pretending to be cleaning ladies!” (p. 89)

Serena is a bishop’s daughter who has a facility for speed-reading and would have liked nothing better than to study English in a university far to the north or west of her father’s see — specifically in Durham or Aberystwyth. However, she also has a flair for maths and a mother who is determined that Serena should “excel and become extraordinary” (p. 4), so she finds herself studying mathematics at Cambridge.

It’s said that all mathematicians eventually come up against the limits of their ability to understand the subject. It’s Serena’s great misfortune that she encounters her particular limits during her first term at university! She continues to read, mostly novels, and writes about them for a student magazine, and she begins an affair with a Professor of History who is thirty-three years older than she is, married and dying, though she doesn’t know about the last of these.

He is Tony Canning, an eminent conservative thinker with connections to MI5. Serena is surprisingly sympathetic to his right-leaning politics for a 70s student (though she would vote for Harold Wilson in February 1974: p. 308). She has developed an enthusiasm for Solzhenitsyn and other critics of the Soviet Union. So when Canning encourages her to apply to MI5, she goes along with it, even after he ends their affair.

Serena has been accepted into MI5 (despite having only a third class degee) just a few years after CIA funding of the magazine Encounter was exposed. A few months in, she is told that MI5 now wants to develop its own lower-key, smaller scale cultural offensive by channeling money to writers who have shown themselves to be of an anticommunist or anti-Soviet inclination, to enable them to write more in the same vein. Because of her knowledge of fiction, Serena is asked to evaluate the short stories of Tom Haley (who has yet to write a novel but would like to) and, if he’s judged suitable, to approach him.

Of course, Haley is not to be told where the money is really coming from: it will appear to be paid by a charitable foundation. Haley makes it a condition of accepting the offer that Serena should remain his contact with the paymasters. Serena and he soon begin an affair and, not long after that, Serena believes they are in love.

This obviously puts her in an awkward position. She believes that Haley would be furious if he knew that he was unknowingly the paid stooge of the security services. She clearly can’t tell him. She wants to remain with him but, if she is to do so, she must continue to deceive him.

I couldn’t have known at the beginning where we were heading, and as soon as I did know, it became too precious to threaten. I could tell him and resign, or resign then tell him, but I would still risk losing him. All I could think of was never telling him. Could I live with myself? Well, I already was. (p. 312)

However, the source of Tom’s funding is leaked to the newspapers and the existence and workings of Operation Sweet Tooth are publicly exposed. In a letter to Serena, written just before he flees the country in (presumably temporary) disgrace, Tom compares it to the wartime Operation Mincemeat (which deceived the German High Command as to British plans for the invasion of southern Europe):

Mincemeat succeeded because invention, the imagination, drove the intelligence. By miserable comparison, Sweet Tooth, that precursor of decay, reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention. (p. 368)

In the final chapter, McEwan introduces an extraordinary narrative trick that has the reader frantically searching back through Serena’s story, trying to work out which parts are reliable and which must be inventions or fabrications. I may write about that trick in a separate post on my personal site. If I do so, I’ll link to that post in the next email.

Serena, we know, disapproves of “tricky” narratives, as does Peter Nutting, who is ultimately in charge of Operation Sweet Tooth. But Tom, the writer, finds this view naive:

Without leaving the chair, he stretched forward and picked up John Fowles’s The Magus and said he admired parts of that, as well as all of The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I said I didn’t like tricks. I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks. (p. 214)

(Serena’s attitude has something in common with Henry Perowne’s in Saturday, pleading with his daughter to stop urging magic realist books on him.)

Dotted throughout the book we get summaries of some of Tom’s earlier short stories, published in magazines and journals. Serena is reading them as part of the evaluation process, and later for pleasure. Two or three of the stories ascribed to Tom are versions of short stories from McEwan’s own early books — the first two books he published were collections of short stories. In the end, it becomes clear that these stories of Tom’s prefigure his own relationship with Serena. He says of one of his characters:

All right, she was a rehearsal for you before I knew of your existence. And I don’t deny the common root is me. (p. 360)

These story summaries have seemed incidental to the main narrative but in the end are integrated into it. Another narrative trick.

I see the novel’s ending as a happy one — though in heavy disguise. Certain circumstances, not least the novel’s publication approximately 40 years after the events it describes, seem to imply that the proposal that Tom makes at the end will be accepted. But then we go back to the first paragraph and remind ourselves that Serena there says that she “ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing” (p. 1), so maybe not so happy after all.

The ending of The Innocent is likewise ambiguous. Revisiting Berlin in 1987, Leonard resolves to do something that might better have been done at any point in the previous 30 years.

He had to stop on the corner of Neudecker Weg and stand in the shade of a sycamore … The heat was intense and there was still half a mile to the Rudow U-Bahn. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the young trunk. It could take his weight. (p. 245; ellipsis added)

Leonard is not as young as he used to be, though he sounds very sure about what he is going to do. I’m almost sure he’s going to make it.

Editions: For The Innocent, I’ve used the Picador paperback from 1990, and for Sweet Tooth the Vintage paperback edition, 2013.


The next post will be on 2 November to bring me back onto the cycle of every other Wednesday. Unless something changes in the meantime, it’s going to be about Middleton and Rowley, The Changeling.


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