What I’ve Read: A Perfect Spy

Philip Roth hailed John Le Carre’s novel, A Perfect Spy as “the best English novel since the war.” While your list of top English novels since 1945 may not be quite as clean as you’d like, or misplaced like mine, or perhaps you’ve forgotten to create one altogether, the book still shines 34 years after it was first published. I would rank Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy as a late competitor, though the entirety of her work came after Roth’s statement.

I do find it interesting that Mantel’s work, and Le Carre’s, both fit solidly within genre fiction: historical fiction for the former, and a spy novel for the latter. I’m reminded of that crucial writing adage, that you must show up as yourself. I think of times I’ve come to writing with affect, in order to be someone more literary or someone with the requisite pathos of those I love to read, and I think of how my writing falls flat in such instances.

Fortunately, this desire to be someone I’m not affects none of my life outside of writing.

I’ve heard it said that every novel is about growing up, and especially those called literary fit this trope, partially because they are more about the interior movement of the hero — or at least as much about this movement — as the exterior plot. And this would be true of the novels you read in high school, even if your diet is genre fiction nowadays, and this is the difference between genre fiction and what might be called literary. Genre fiction often neglects such interior movement, whether development or destruction.

But I was writing about A Perfect Spy. While this isn’t a review, now 34 years after the publish date, it’s a reaction. We read books not simply for entertainment, but to enlarge our worlds, and we share our thoughts to show how our world was enlarged; we share because we are wired to share. So I have three comments about how Le Carre pulled this book off and what it might say today.

First, I love the trust Le Carre has for his readers. In his classic book (and a competitor for one of his best, even if it’s oddly not a competitor for one of the best English novels since the war), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he makes a monumental jump after Alec Leamas first receives his assignment, but we’re able to follow (even if we face a few paragraphs of confusion). Such trust allows us, as his readers, to continually “figure it out,” as the story of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy jumps to Pym writing his autobiography and Jack Brotherhood on the trail of his spy who has gone dark. It’s not bedtime reading: I find I can read few of Le Carre’s novels as I’m drifting to sleep, because they make me sit up and pay attention. In this way, they mimic the genre of which they comprise, because the spy is continually trying to put things together.

I saw, yesterday, a video of a black British man explaining his experience of racism, and he told stories about experiencing racism: being denied a job, being mistaken for a security guard as the CEO of a company, being mistaken for a waiter. He told these stories in the context of his comments on racism and did not explain what they meant. He let the stories resonate. I don’t know if this is a British trait, to tell the story and trust your audience with it, as opposed to an American trait which desires to tell the point of the story for the next five minutes. Or, it may simply be the trait of good storytellers.

Second, Magnus Pym writes his autobiography in this novel while on the run, and we see how his father’s dishonesty and life that was one long con has affected his son. Pym writes, however, to his own son, Tom. In the final pages of the book he realizes, “You see, Tom, I am the bridge…I am what you must walk over to get from Rick to life.” We see, in this novel, generational influences and the desire to break free from them. Again, I wonder about this movement from grandfather to grandson, another British move because we Americans seem to think each generation has only the generation before to rebel against, but there are sins and virtues that go further back into the past than we know. At the very least, the novel declares our rootedness, as we cannot escape our families and create ourselves anew. We cannot walk out of our pasts and become new people with no reference to what has gone before.

As my friend Ryan notes, “Bags fly free,” and they follow us in new locations and roles and lives.

In this way, the work of the spy to piece disparate clues together is work for all of us, to make sense of the lives that have both come before us and that we have lived to this point, and to find some meaning them. We are all searching for clues that point to some deeper meaning of the events in our lives, some coherent story. A Perfect Spy could only be written by someone with the life experience to know that we don’t do this alone, or are the first person to ever do it, or do it without any influence. We search for clues within the context we know, handed to us from our parents and society. The British, with both their longer view of history and their tendency to rub shoulders with other cultures in Europe more readily than their American cousins, seem to know this more innately.

Finally, Le Carre calls this his most autobiographical work [plot spoilers ahead in this paragraph and the next]. He alludes in the introduction to his own father, and similarities with Pym’s father. Indeed, I could not stop from seeing the author behind the author (since Pym is writing, too) of this work, most clearly in the final pages of the novel. Pym finishes his autobiography and is exhausted, enervated, spent. He knows Jack Brotherhood is closing in. He gives himself, however, entirely to the work. And, he commits suicide after writing his opus. My friend Kristopher, a visual artist, speaks about a wounding after we create. I could not help but think of Le Carre, spending himself in this work.

Of course we only spend ourselves when we show up as ourselves, which brings me back to where I began. It’s no surprise that the most autobiographical of Le Carre’s novels is also described as the best, for the author has given us the most of himself. In the end, A Perfect Spy is also a book about writing, about showing up to the page as you are and giving yourself to it. If you’re not a writer, it could be about any of those passions you follow, and the urge to spend yourself. For, the vision of suicide in A Perfect Spy may be morally dark, but it follows this ancient and religious idea: Unless a kernel of wheat falls…

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