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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 527-529

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Book Review

The Spy Novels of John le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics

Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe

Myron J. Aronoff. The Spy Novels of John le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics. New York: St Martin's, 1999. xi + 317 pp.

Myron Aronoff, a political scientist, has written a fine full-length study of the complex interplay of ethics and politics in the work of John le Carré. This kind of ethical criticism may not be the latest thing in this age of "critical theory" when neo-freudianism, race and gender analysis, and cultural studies vie with the residue of literary deconstructionism, but it is just the ticket for this writer. Le Carré has long had an ambiguous relationship to the contemporary literary canon. Since he is a perennially best-selling writer whose work grows out of the popular tradition of the spy thriller, critics have found it difficult to place him in a contemporary canon dominated by postmodern narrative experiments. However, le Carré continues to go his own way, working with traditional structures like tightly plotted stories, chronological narrative, and consistent points of view. He is certainly aware of race and gender issues, but these are not, on the whole, central to his tales. Aronoff's careful study of all of le Carré's fiction, except for his most recent novel, Single and Single, makes a very persuasive case for him as one of our greatest political novelists. In the course of his discussion, Aronoff also makes some interesting points about the political novel as a literary genre, and offers, as well, some useful insights into the climate of opinion that shaped the course of the Cold War. [End Page 527]

To begin with, Aronoff suggests that the idea of the "political novel" refers to "an approach to interpretation" as much as it does a generic category. Any novel can be viewed in terms of its political dimension, but Aronoff suggests that the arena in which novelistic narrative and politics most significantly interact is that of "internal tensions between the immediacy of human experience and the general inclusiveness of the underlying political ideology." This, he suggests, is where le Carré is a true master.

Dealing with both specific novels and general themes, Aronoff begins with an insightful discussion of the character of George Smiley. The central figure of five novels and an important presence in several others, Smiley illustrates the archetypal tension between moral idealism and political realism. Smiley's struggle to establish a balance between the contending claims of political necessity and of individual human beings exemplifies the basic narrative and ethical tension of le Carré's various fictions. Aronoff goes on to analyze le Carré's treatment of the dialectic of loyalty and betrayal in contemporary international politics and the perennial ambiguity of means and ends created by geopolitical struggles. He shows how "different representations and misrepresentations of reality" affect the fate of human beings in novels like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, and The Little Drummer Girl and how coping with the conflict between versions of reality requires a healthy skepticism. He is also very acute on le Carré's treatment of the ambiguities of motive and personality in human beings as it relates to the convoluted workings of bureaucracies. Finally, he neatly characterizes the dialectic so characteristic of the Cold War between ideologically produced fictions, complicated further by the "craft and culture of espionage" and the realities of society and history.

Aronoff's analysis shows us how le Carré portrays some of the basic human dilemmas faced by people who lived through the historic era of the Cold War and now face in its aftermath. Just as le Carré's Cold War novels so powerfully dramatized the world of illusion created by espionage bureaucracies and the political establishments they advised, his later novels portray the tragic failure of many leaders to reconstruct a meaningful understanding of the world without the clash of communism and the "free...


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