Three Monkeys Online

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John le Carre on the mysticism of espionage

In 1966 John le Carre, who at the time was a 34 year old best-selling novelist flush with the success of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, gave an extensive interview to the BBC’s Malcolm Muggeridge.

The interview is a classic black-and-white talking heads format, with the delightfully plummy duo of Muggeridge and le Carre freewheeling through a discussion on fame, literary success, and much more. Of particular interest though are le Carre’s comments on espionage literature, mysticism, and why he doesn’t consider James Bond to be part of that genre.

Muggeridge: Are you going to go on with spies, or have you come to the end of them as a writer?

I think that certainly, for the time being, I’ve come to the end of them. I might go back to them when I have, for my own satisfaction, proved myself in other fields. I confess that partly I’m turing away from spying – I would like to go on with it in some ways, there are still some things that I want to say – but I turn away from it because it’s become such a commercial product. One is, because of the ‘champ’ instinct, being constantly compared not only with one’s own performance but with the performance of one’s supposed rivals. One is drawn into a race, which for my part I find abhorrent.

It’s not a question of knocking other people; I don’t happen to like Fleming; I do happen to like Deighton in parts. I do resist though the obstacle race that I’m supposed to be running with them. It isn’t opting out. It is, in a sense, opting in to what I want to do.

Muggeridge: This obsession with spying and with subterfuge is a sort of false mysticism. It’s an age with no real mysticism – no sense of a secret world. I mean the greatest sense of a secret world is a mystic, isn’t he? He thinks of a marvellous, secret world

[interupting] Mystic is the right word, because it’s unmediated communion, and there’s nobody between him and those who control him.

Muggeridge: I think it’s a false mysticism, which you work out intellectually, but which I would say, in the case of Fleming, produces something base, very vile [grimaces]

I’m not sure. I think we both have this in common – Fleming apart, as it were – we both dislike Bond. I’m not sure Bond is a spy, nor for that matter is he a mystic. I think it’s a great mistake if one is talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all.It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as is said, a licence to kill. He’s a man with unlimited movement, but he’s a man entirely out of the political context. It’s of no interest to Bond, for example, who is the President of the United States, or who is the President of the Union of Soviet Republics. It’s the consumer goods ethic really. All the things around you, all the dull things of life are suddenly animated by this wonderful cache of espionage. The things on our desk which could explode, our ties which could suddenly take photographs; these give to a drab and materialistic existence a kind of magic

Muggeridge {interupting} – a base magic

A base magic, a low magic. They’re a kind of social soporific because they convince us that the material things which so desperately need animation are of themselves sufficient.

[…]
I think that the true mystic, in some ways, needs that communion we were talking about. His real relationship is with his controller

Muggeridge – which is God

Which is God – it must be. If you take the case, for example, of Petrov, isolated from his controller by 6,000 miles or more – Canberra to Moscow – I think he must have taken a real pleasure from these sort of ex-cathedra orders: Where will you meet a man, on what street corner, what car will you hire, how much will you pay him, what dialogue will you raise with him, these things which no ordinary person could accept as a discipline. These things he needs. In such isolation, when a person defects – as Petrov did, it was almost to feel on his own back the wrath of those who controlled him.

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