Friday, August 20, 2010

Close encounters

This week, the BBC has put a treasure trove of archive interviews with 40 British novelists online, and for fans of espionage fiction there are two real treats: John le Carré being interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966 (here), and Len Deighton being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg in 1977 (here).

These are rare interviews with the two giants of British post-war spy fiction, and are well worth taking the time to watch. Deighton's last published novel, Charity, came out in 1996, and even before then he was becoming rather publicity-shy, so it's a delight to watch a full-length interview with him in his home in Portugal, in which he discusses several of his books in detail. He seems very relaxed and the dry humour of many of his novels shines through, but he also comes across as a very thorough, passionate and thoughtful writer with a strong set of guiding principles: he discusses what he feels is a writer's responsibility regarding the depiction of violence, for instance.

There has been more press interest in the interview with John le Carré, notably an article in The Daily Telegraph, James Bond was a neo-fascist gangster, says John Le Carré. Well, le Carré didn't quite say that, in fact. In the interview with the BBC, he said:
‘I’m not sure that Bond is a spy... I think it’s a great mistake if one’s 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 it is said, a licence to kill.’
Reflecting on that interview now, in a new interview with The Radio Times, le Carré said:
‘These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we've lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we? I was a young man and I knew that I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a deliberate fantasisation of Fleming's own experiences when he was safely in New York. But at the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist. You felt he would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry.’
But I suppose 'James Bond was "some kind of international gangster", says John le Carré' or 'John le Carré feels the character of James Bond has neo-fascistic and materialist roots' would not have been as snappy newspaper headlines. Take the best bits of both quotes - 'neo-fascist' and 'gangster', said 44 years apart - and you have something distinctly grabbier. (It's nevertheless rather an intriguing idea of being kinder on le Carré's part!)

The interview with Muggeridge is interesting for reasons other than the comments from both men about James Bond: I'm not sure how well known it is that le Carré wrote a screenplay for The Looking Glass War, for example, and he also says that he is thinking of abandoning espionage fiction, despite the fact that several of his best spy novels were still to come, including the Karla trilogy. But I'd like to discuss his comments about Ian Fleming and James Bond a little more. They aren't the first he had made on the subject. Bond is a le Carré bugbear. In 1965, he was quoted as saying that he felt that Bond would be 'the ideal defector' because 'if the money was better, the booze freer and women easier over there in Moscow, he'd be off like a shot'.

He expanded on this idea in an article he wrote for the British magazine Encounter in May 1966 (published just three months after the BBC interview with Muggeridge, and in an issue that also featured Muggeridge).

Titled To Russia, with Greetings, the article takes the form of an open letter to the editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Soviet Union's leading literary magazine of the day, concerning an article it had published several months earlier by a V. Voinov reviewing two of le Carré's novels, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking Glass War. Voinov had argued that, by assuming the role of impartial observer in the Cold War, le Carré was playing a subtler, but more insinuating, game of propaganda than that played by Ian Fleming, and that his fame in the West was a result of readers growing tired of Fleming's 'cheap romanticism'. Voinov also alleged that le Carré had been an intelligence agent.

Le Carré ignored the latter charge (which was true), but rebuffed the rest, pointing out that he was not an apologist for the Cold War at all, but opposed to the methods of both sides:
'In espionage as I have depicted it, Western man sacrifices the individual to defend the individual's right against the collective. That is Western hypocrisy, and I condemned it because it took us too far into the Communist camp, and too near to the Communist's evaluation of the individual's place in society.'
The letter/essay ends with an analysis of James Bond:
'The problem of the Cold War is that, as Auden once wrote, we haunt a ruined century. Behind the little flags we wave, there are old  faces weeping, and children mutilated by the fatuous conflicts of preachers. Mr Voinov, I suspect, smelt in my writing the greatest heresy of all: that there is no victory and no virtue in the Cold War, only a condition of human illness and political misery. And so he called me an apologist (he might as well have called Freud a lecher).
James Bond, on the other hand, breaks no such Communist principles. He is the hyena who stalks the capitalist deserts, he is an identifiable antagonist, sustained by capital and kept in good heart by a materialist society; he is a chauvinist, an unblinking patriot who makes espionage exciting, the kind of person in fact who emerges from Lonsdale's diaries.
Bond on his magic carpet takes us away from moral doubt, banishes perplexity with action, morality with duty. Above all, he has one piece of equipment without which not even his formula would work: an entirely evil enemy. He is on your side, not mine. Now that you have honoured the qualities which created him, it is only a matter of time before you recruit him. Believe me, you have set the stage: the Russian Bond is on his way.'
I discovered this article while browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Rome about a decade ago (and some of the ideas in it influenced me when I came to create my own character, Paul Dark). But while I find le Carré's comments on Bond fascinating, I think they address a popular perception of the character, especially as seen in the film adaptations, but are not borne out in Ian Fleming's work. Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, is by no means a magic carpet taking us away from moral doubt. Yes, James Bond smokes, drinks and dresses well. But he is also betrayed and tortured, and wracked with doubts about his profession, motivations and more besides:
'Take our friend Le Chiffre. It's simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it's simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn't hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I'm afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.'
Fleming's character is a patriot, but as can be seen here he is by no means an unblinking one. (And if he were, how would that square with le Carré's idea that he would defect to Moscow if he thought he could have a better time there?)

In this passage and others, Fleming was influenced by earlier British thriller-writers, notably Geoffrey Household. But he also knew and was a great admirer of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and Somerset Maugham - the influence of the latter is very clear in his short story Quantum of Solace; one could not get further away from the idea of 'banishing perplexity with action' than that story (which I analyzed here). In short, James Bond is a secret agent, and stories about him do therefore belong in the category of espionage fiction. Ian Fleming's work has, in fact, shaped the genre to a significant degree - and is still doing so today.


  1. You put it into context what la carre said Jeremy. Anything to get a headline that sells. I agree James Bond deserves his place in spy fiction. Casino Royale can be a little bit under rated in the spy stakes. I just started to watch this series on the BBC so I can't wait to see Deighton and La Carre interviewed, thank you for the tip off.

  2. Thanks, Nicholas. You can watch both interviews online already - I've added the links in the article.

    I'll be putting up some posts related to a few of the subjects raised in this one at some point. Hope you enjoy them!

  3. Just watched the Le Carre interview 1966, thank you for the link. He was quite honest back then. I can only think he envied Fleming's success a little so had to pick at Bond a little for his own self comfort. Must get annoying with Bond popping up all the time in interviews over the years.

    Deighton from 1977 was fascinating.

    I'll be keeping an eye out for the new posts here. Very intresting.

  4. You wouldn't believe the reaction at your old stomping grounds, Jeremy; they're being a lot less kind to Le Carre than you were... :-S