Not so long ago academics paid attention to popular fiction only when, in the style of the Leavises and Denys Thompson, they were looking for evidence of cultural decay. Now it is considered a proper object not only of serious but even of approving study. The structuralists, for whom the recurring conventions of popular genres have an inevitable appeal, probably turned the tide. And gradually critics have gone beyond broad generic considerations and are beginning to produce full-length studies of individual authors. The trend is to be welcomed when, as in the case of a writer such as John le Carré, the topic of the first book under review here, it makes possible a proper assessment of an obviously major novelist whose achievement might have been neglected in the past simply because he chooses to discipline his art by the conventions of a popular genre.
Tony Barley's Taking Sides, published in 1986, is in fact the third book to be devoted to le Carré (Peter Lewis's John le Carré and my The Novels of John le Carré: The Art of Survival both appeared in 1985). However, he probably thought that his was to be the first extended analysis of le Carré's fiction. Despite this, Barley's work in no sense sets out to be an introduction to the author. His announced topic, "le Carré's political and psychological materials and their specific intersections," particularly as expressed through "interrogation," is major but narrowly focused. Barley further limits himself to those works he considers "spy-thrillers," excluding from consideration the straight novel, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, as well as Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, both of which he places within the genre of detective fiction.
This decision is based not so much on a desire to talk about le Carré as a spy novelist, although Barley certainly doesn't ignore generic questions, as on his conviction that le Carré's political concerns are revealed most clearly in his espionage fiction. These concerns, according to Barley's analysis, manifest themselves in a running debate between communism (or rather Stalinism, as Barley emphasizes) and liberalism. For Barley, who bases his judgment on extra-novelistic sources, le Carré is clearly a liberal, and yet he argues that the novels reveal [End Page 371] no confident ideological preferences. Indeed, the communist position often emerges triumphant from specific political dialogues. The failure of liberalism to achieve ideological supremacy has two sources according to Barley. First, it constitutes an essentially undefined and unphilosophical approach to experience and therefore is ill-fitted to compete in logical argument with the much more programmatic communism. Second, there is a significant gap between Britain's liberal ideal of "nationhood" and social reality, which le Carré defines as rule by the self-serving élite of the Establishment. A liberal such as Smiley is consequently, as Barley astutely analyzes, caught repeatedly in the third corner of a triangle, the other two corners of which (communist ideology and British social practice) challenge equally his already vaguely defined position.
The ironies and ambiguities inherent in le Carré's career-long attempts to resolve the unresolveable dilemmas implicit in the liberal stance are the main focus of Barley's attention. An important secondary and related theme, however, concerns the implications for marital and romantic relationships of male commitment to and escape into the institutions of the Establishment. Viewed from this perspective, Barley argues that le Carré's true heroes are those wives and mistresses who have a much more commonsensical grasp on the reality around them than their emotionally crippled and evasive males.
In its main thrust, Taking Sides goes close the the heart of le Carré's fiction. But it tends to fall down in the detailed working through of its thesis. There are two obvious reasons for this. First, important as interrogations and dialog may be in le Carré's fiction, significant portions of the ideological debate that...