Book review: George Smiley and other old friends return in John le Carre's A Legacy Of Spies

John Le Carré, who over a 56-year career has virtually single-handedly elevated spy novels from genre fiction into works of high literature, has a new book, A Legacy of Spies, coming out in September. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTimes) - John le Carre's new novel is a throwback, a coda to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963), his best-known book. It rehashes decisions made in the coldest years of the Cold War. Among this book's pleasures is a reminder that adults were once in charge of the destiny of the free world.

This is his 24th novel. He is 85. If his long-ago first book, Call For The Dead (1961), reads at times like juvenilia, our fear is that this one will be senilia, a book necessarily composed with an older man's diminished mnemonic power.

The good news about A Legacy Of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carre's prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly.

This button-down writer even indulges in a bit of showmanship. He hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, for a cameo appearance, as if he were taking a 1960s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage - Smiley's last appearance was 27 years ago, in The Secret Pilgrim - for a jaunty Sunday spin.

Never mind that Smiley must be well over 100 by now. He's a type; one of those ashen Englishmen, like poet Philip Larkin, who seem to be permanently 60 years old. Like Keith Richards and cockroaches, Smiley will be alive after an apocalypse.

A drawback of crime and spy novels, for this reader, is that they turn you into a tough-guy manque. They make you feel you should learn a chokehold and begin carrying a shiv, in case vigilante justice needs meting out in the dairy aisle.

Le Carre's novels have their share of rough justice: murders, torture scenes, bad accidents. But his characters play rugby only when chess has failed them. He is interested in leverage of every sort. It's a typical moment, in A Legacy Of Spies, when a thin man debates how best to use a thick man's weight against him.

He has written that an early draft of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (his books have been blessed with memorable titles) began with this mental image: "a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him".

Move the setting to the south coast of Brittany, subtract a bit of the bitterness, and you have the start of the action in A Legacy Of Spies. His protagonist is Peter Guillam, a longtime protege of Smiley's in the British Secret Service, aka the Circus, and long retired.

Guillam is white-haired now. He has hearing aids. He is hauled back to London to explain some of his long-ago actions, intelligence operations in which people close to him died, perhaps unnecessarily. The children of some of le Carre's best-known characters have grown up and demand justice.

Guillam is forced to recall ancient events in interviews that recall interrogations, and to read newly found documents that bring the past rushing uncomfortably back.

The first page sets this novel's disbelieving and Lear-like tone: "I am driven in age and bewilderment to set down, at whatever cost, the light and dark sides of my involvement in the affair."

There is chaos in the present as well as in the past. Guillam is stalked by a deranged and grieving man. "I have a sense of fighting to the last man," he tells us, "and the last man is me." He carries dual passports; he is half-French and half-English. He is familiar to le Carre's readers. Indeed, he played a role in le Carre's first novel.

A more salient thing about him is that he's a sexy beast. (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a recent movie, played Guillam as a young man.) He is perhaps too sexy. Nearly every woman he comes into contact with, past and present, is leggy and wants to wrestle him into bed.

There's a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging 1960s-era Britain.

At his farmhouse in Brittany, the elderly Guillam lives with Catherine, a much younger woman, and her nine-year-old daughter. Catherine has always been there; her parents and grandparents were tenants on the property.

We're told by Guillam that "I have regarded her as my ward" after the death of her father, and "I watched her grow from infancy". That he sleeps with her after being in loco parentis isn't just unlikely but a bit too Woody Allen for my tastes.

Le Carre is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends - part of their mental furniture. There's something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds.

He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.

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