John Le Carré through a psychological lens

Gary Oldman; La Mer: Julio Iglesias

John Le Carré has died, aged 89. He was around for so long, and so productive with it, I had the sense he could go on forever.

Many pieces have appeared extolling his brilliance as a writer (e.g. this, and John Banville here). I only recently really started reading him seriously: I’ll focus a little here on some psychological insights apparent to me from his writing, rather than doing the literary critic thing.

His memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, is superb and enlightening, summarising themes of family appearing in some of his novels; he had a disastrous and unresolved relationship with both of his parents, and this fractured set of relationships is reflected through much of his writing. His characters often seem on a quest to belong, to be attached, to be in a relationship, to affiliate: but they make the mistake of trying to find belonging and affiliation in impersonal institutions - which discard them with impunity when they are no longer needed.

The Spy who Came in From the Cold is justly celebrated as a taut and frightening masterpiece. The basest of human motives are on full display here: a completely instrumentalist betrayal and counter-betrayal storyline, with the protagonists used and discarded as the game requires.


I’ve recently been reading A Perfect Spy solely on the strength of Philip Roth’s remark that it is ‘the best English novel since the war’, and at least one critic thinks it his best book. I originally bought A Perfect Spy on Kindle, and found it a virtuoso piece of writing, but really hard going in eformat - you need to regularly flick back and forward to make sense of the book. . I decided to go back to the hardcopy, and I’m delighted I did - it’s so much easier to read this way. There are several asynchronous plotlines coursing through the book, told in real-time and retrospectively, and from several points of view, with elision between personally-experienced streams of consciousness, and the world beyond the brain. Is Roth correct that A Perfect Spy is ‘the best English novel since the war’? I don’t know - not being enough of a literary critic - but it is quite unlike any other book I have ever read. It requires careful attention and occasional re-reading; I suspect it will still be read for generations to come.

His final novel, Agent Running in the Field, is super reading, well-paced, witty, and (and all the more remarkable given he was 87 when he wrote it - his powers were undimmed by age). And to whom is he referring when the following words emerge from one character who speaks of a British Foreign Secretary who is an ‘Etonian narcissistic elitist without a decent conviction in his body bar his own advancement’? I’ve no idea…!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ - the movie - is an underestimated masterpiece; truly breathtaking performances from all concerned, with John Hurt’s standout acting as a broken, dying, shabby Control, central to the paranoia driving the plot. And was everything so brown in the early 1970’s? The BBC adaptation from 1979 is also wonderful; the drabness and smallness of the incestuous and inward-looking group of spymasters, each member scrabbling for status with the others in the group - and a quest for status and belonging with others they fear and loathe. Much of the plot is told in silences: the opening sequence sees barely a word uttered; and Alec Guinness’s ‘Smiley’ peers at the other characters through his thick glasses, seemingly without curiosity, and often without uttering a word. A masterclass in acting. A favourite character actor of mine, the late Ian Richardson, plays the mole, Bill Haydon, in the BBC version; we meet him first balancing tea and saucer, negotiating a tricky doorway, en route to a smoky meeting table: all is silence, until Control opens with ‘Right, we shall start’. You look at them, and think, ‘Surely this shabby lot are not charged with the security of a nation’? And then you are drawn in… with the Russian doll opening montage catching the tone perfectly.

One line on the belief systems of ideologues has stuck with me from TTSS - George Smiley says of Karla: ‘He's a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.’

Here’s Gary Oldman on playing Smiley, and the closing the trap on Haydon.

Maybe this is why the technique of deep canvassing seems to change minds and behaviour effectively - a method of obliquely engaging in active, respectful, rapport-based conversation. See this on peer-reviewed field experiments focused on ‘Reducing exclusionary attitudes through interpersonal conversation: evidence from three field experiments’, which concludes that ‘on insights from psychology, we argue that non-judgmentally exchanging narratives in interpersonal conversations can facilitate durable reductions in exclusionary attitudes’.

As the meme has it: ‘change is possible’…

Le Carré had some experience as an interrogator, too, and intuitively cleaved to modern, rapport-based approaches to interrogation: he was quoted in his New York Times obituary as follows: ‘He was particularly angry at reports of Western torture, something that did not happen when he was a spy, he said. “It was a softer world, of course, mine — the Cold War,” he said in an interview in 2008.  “I know about interrogation. I’ve done interrogations, and I can tell you this: by extracting information under torture you make a fool of yourself. You obtain information that isn’t true, you receive names of people who are supposedly guilty and who aren’t, and you land yourself with a wild-goose chase and miss what is being handed to you on a plate, and that is the possibility of bonding with someone and engaging with them.”


And of course, all the available evidence shows that torture doesn’t work as a veridical information gathering practice, but ethical, rapport-based methods do.

Ending of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - La Mer: Julio Iglesias

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Previously: George Orwell’s 1984 through a neuroscience lens