Still shot from the film version of ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’ (1965) starring Richard Burton.

Fragile Systems: On John le Carré and Europe

John le Carré has died. His career as part of the literary heritage of Britain seemed to have the endless capacity to evolve and progress while still telling the same story: the tragedy and inevitability of how our desires get intertwined with the systems we create. With his last two novels taking clear positions on Brexit, there is something eerie and poignant about his passing for relations between the UK and the continent. Particularly as the Brexit trade talks attempt to find closure before the end of the year.

The last novel he published, Agent Running in the Field, is explicitly set in the margins of Brexit. Before that, 2017’s gorgeous and revelatory A Legacy of Spies concludes with a final encounter between the characters George Smiley and Peter Guillam, where Smiley tells Peter that he is a European. In both these books and several interviews over the last five years, le Carré made no secret of his feelings about the trajectory of the UK and particularly the ‘spiritual’ or psychological impact of Brexit. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defined spirit as the relationship between parts of one’s own self. In this way, whatever one thinks about Brexit, if by the ‘spiritual impact’ of Brexit we mean Britain’s relationship with itself, then the phrase is very apt indeed.

What of Britain’s spiritual relationship to its identity as European? It is here that one can see in le Carré a deep understanding of the tragic inevitability of how our desires get involved with the systems we create. Le Carré understood this about men in particular. They form the mirror to the psychological and spiritual questions at stake in his books. In many ways, his novels represent a man’s world — men chasing after women and chasing after fathers and rebelling against them both. Men manipulating other men, preying on their desire for meaning. Men harvesting the intellect of other men and yet those same men wanting to believe in the systems they serve, wanting to put a concrete form, a label to the meaning they hunger after. This man’s world can limit the horizon of the novel’s world. But it also seems to knowingly critique it. Le Carré tells the story over and over again of men longing for home in their grand structures, Christianity, the University, the army, the intelligence service, England, and yet again and again finding that these grand structures are not home but a trap. The opening image of The Spy who Came In from the Cold, where an agent attempts to cross a checkpoint into West Berlin only to be shot just as he is about to arrive into safety, somehow speaks for his whole project as a writer.

How does this self-critical, self-reflective question that he may ask to his male readers about their own hubris, pose a question to the project of Europe? In A Legacy of Spies, when Smiley tells Peter that he is a European, it is perhaps a confession. It is not simply a confession, as one may initially think, of le Carré’s views on the referendum. It is rather a confession, on Smiley’s part, of the failing of the system he’s served his whole life in order to fulfil his desires and ideals. All the way from some of Smiley’s earliest appearances, he openly muses on the point of his own service as an intelligence officer and the point of The Service. In le Carré’s literary legacy, Smiley is always the character that seems keenly aware of the shortcomings of the British systems he has helped build and yet, in spite of these, he still rejects nihilism. We see his character clearly working on behalf of something. But what?

When Smiley confesses to Peter that he is a European as the two men depart from a University library together in Germany, he is confessing that the system he had attempted to serve, could not fulfil his desire and his longing for home. In confessing an identity as a European, Smiley is perhaps hinting that he’s learned that if systems fail, perhaps one finds a home and an identity in the work itself. What is the work that Smiley finds himself at home in? European unity is never stable and can never be fully actualised. We, dear reader, are acutely aware of this fact today. But, perhaps, in working for something that can never be limited to the inevitable fragility of our systems, one finds a home — it’s something like coming in from the cold. The EU itself is a frail system. But Smiley doesn’t mention the EU but rather that he is a European. This is a subtle, but perhaps key difference for our purposes. Because one thing le Carré’s literary heritage might suggest to us is that perhaps the point of the EU has never been the system itself but rather the provision of a practical context for the ongoing struggle for unity.

Whatever form the trade deal takes as the cold months draw in and the year moves toward a close, whatever form Britain’s future with Europe takes, le Carré’s legacy suggests a lesson to us: it is in the task itself of the endless negotiation of unity that we find something like a home for our desires. It is by risking exposure of our own fragility, that we find a home, beyond our own systems, in the fragility of others. Whatever the future holds for the UK’s relationship with Europe, if le Carré’s cultural contribution to the literary heritage of the English language has taught us one thing, it is that this truth must be central.

I’m the Thyssen Research Fellow at QMUL’s Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations. This blog is my space for work in progress or ‘Halbzeug’.