on 9 March 2004
"Love is whatever you can still betray... Betrayal is a repititious trade." (from: A Perfect Spy)
Concentrating on his signature themes of love and deceit, Le Carre gives us what is perhaps the definitive account of the psychology of betrayal. Following the death of his father, the disturbed and grieving spy Magnus Pym withdraws from the world and begins a series of reflections on his life while his wife and spymasters frantically try to find him. The 'public' action of this search, and the personalities of those conducting it not only provide an effective foil for the intensely personal and sometimes dark nature of Pym's inner search, it also amplifies the moral theme of the book--that there is no clear line between good and bad, and that our best intentions are no guarantee of goodness--especially when there are secrets involved.
Le Carre spent a long time honing his voice for this powerful novel. His writing in the decade or so before this book was published (in 1986) displays the trademark qualities of detail and subtlety that a cold war spy needed, and Le Carre's spare prose mirrors the Machiavellian cold war game his stories centre around. In this work--strongly influenced by the real-life death of his father--he reached the height of his powers. On top of his renowned ability to make highly technical plots gripping, Le Carre adds a new quality--the wistful--and it works as well as in anything by Graham Greene--another gimlet-eyed writer who had connections with the spying trade. Le Carre packs more feeling into this work than in all his other novels put together and the effect is both disturbing and intensely moving. Pym is sententious and elegant in his reveries, and his Hamlet-like angst stays with us, provoking difficult questions, long after the book is closed.
A perfect Spy is not a happy tale. The description of the young Pym and his father playing football along a Dorset beach "from one end of the world to the other" is a rare moment of joy that is nevertheless saturated in pathos--for we know that Pym's dissolute father will spoil the moment yet again soon.
Several of Le Carre's previous novels (Small Town in Germany, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, and especially the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trilogy) are examples of fine literature that just happen to centre around the world of espionage, but since 1980 he has also dropped some Desmond Bagley-ish shoot-em-ups into the mix too, which, although well crafted, rather let his literary reputation down. A Perfect Spy is a first class novel (one reviewer described it as one of the best British novels since the war) and in my opinion remains his finest.
on 19 December 2006
The first and most important thing to remember about this book is that it is a semi-autobiography. The background, schooling and parents of the main character of this book are all Le Carre's own, with just the slightest veneer placed over them, and I do mean the slightest. Like Magnus Pym, the main character in this book, Le Carre, for example did have a father who was a crook; his father did fight a by-election in Norfolk under the Liberal colours and was, during it, exposed by an elderly Irishwoman; he did have to leave Eton when his father could no longer afford the fees.
And like Magnus Pym, Le Carre was recruited into MI6 and probably, like Pym, was recruited while studying in Bern, although unlike Pym he left after five years to write novels. However, for anyone who knows a little of Le Carre's life story, an added frisson is added by the questions that inevitably provokes - did Le Carre get up to anything naughty with Eastern Bloc intelligence services? Unlikely, but amusing to ponder.
However, the spy stuff, as beautifully crafted as it always is, is only a backdrop for the real theme of the book - Le Carre's relationship with himself, his father and his country.
Yes, his country; this is as much an elegy for the English upper-middle class as anything else. A melancholy, fatalistic patriotism seeps through every page of the book, as Le Carre writes an elegy for his people - perhaps patriotism isn't quite the write word; he has no feeling for nor interest in the St. George's flag waving, football supporting masses. It's an elegy not for England, but for his England, of `sound' men in tweeds and pipes emerging from Southern country towns to rule colonies; of the respectable sadism of the public school; of the sense of duty of a military class that has all but disappeared. The theme of fallen empire runs through all Le Carre's works, but nowhere more strongly than through this one and does so with characteristic brilliance.
With regards to his father and himself, he says what he may not have been able to say for decades, even to himself, before, and his writing bursts forth in great, emotional, torrents. Some of it moving and powerful; some of it is unnecessary but quirkily interesting; and some of it, frankly, is twaddle that needed a good editor to batter into shape. But this was Le Carre's magnum opus, and bestselling authors are allowed a little latitude in their magna opera. That's a pity, because this could have been a great book; but at times it takes a chapter to say what a sentence should have; and at times it is so hopelessly self-indulgent that it sends one to sleep.
I bought this when it first appeared in 1986 (and have been first in line for every Le Carre since then), read it a couple of times, and have dipped into it occasionally over the years. I re-read it last week and was reminded all over again of Le Carre's great gift for description and dialogue. With just a few words, he can give you the voice (and a lot about the character, nationality and background) of the person speaking so exactly that they become instantly familiar. This rich vein runs throughout his writing, but it's particularly noticable when he describes a meeting - as here, when representatives from the Americans and British secret services are discussing the whereabouts of Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of the title.
The story is a kind of autobiography, as Pym sets out to describe his life's journey for his son, aiming - for once - to avoid any duplicity in the telling; in addition, as others have pointed out, it contains many elements from Le Carre's own life - his crooked father, his education in Berne and Oxford, and his career in MI6. If, at the end of this memorable book, we feel we don't understand Pym as well we do the other characters we've met - his wife, his father, his handlers (British and Czech) and his American colleagues, that could be the greatest tribute to Le Carre's powers: to have given such a detailed account of every aspect of his life, and yet to have retained an air of mystery around him.
Rereading this book, I had a mild sense of nostalgia for the era it describes. I was fortunate enough to visit Czechoslovakia not long after it was published, and a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution, after which the country became (amongst other more worthy things) yet another location for Planet Hollywood, Borders and cheap stag weekends.
on 11 January 2007
Spying it seems, although an exciting occupation in some ways, is bad for the soul. If you're hoping to read a gripping, very plotty spy story you're likely to be disappointed with this book. This is a deeply personal but fascinating, philosophical book on the nature of identity, loylaty and love. For me this book is about belonging some where: to a country, to a class, to other people. Pym it seems has been searching all his life for somewhere to live where he feels he belongs. His father, a crook and professional liar is a constant disappointment but probably worst of all a deeply destablising influence in Pym's life so much so that Pym's desperation to please propels him into all sorts of trouble and betrayal.
Gripping, thought-provoking intelligent, semi-autobiographical but not for lightweights.
on 12 August 2007
This is a whopper of a book! A great story - the piercingly honest account of a man both reacting to, and living in, the shadow of a powerful con-man father - with a vivid decription of betrayal and spycraft, and fantastic entertainment as well. But I am thoughly biased, as his prievious work, particlarly early in his writing career, has given me so many hours of pleasure. You can pick holes in it, but I'm not going to. Take it for what it is - a master of fiction treating us to the anatomy of deceit from the inside. He should know - he lived it. A jewel in the crown of Le Carre acheivement and a masterpiece of autobiography.
Dr Michael Rowlands
on 20 April 2015
This is one of several John le Carre spy stories I have read and although it has some marvellous passages ( some of the best I have read from him ), it has basic flaws that make reading it, at times, more a chore than a pleasure. The main problem is that the strange and unsettling kaleidoscope of time frames which le Carre usually manages with such dexterity and panache, are, in the case of this story, either laboured or apparently random. His plots usually tease and tantalise ( which is part of the attraction ), but A Perfect Spy tends to frustrate and confuse. There seems to be little plan to it and the way in which the events and incidents, at different times in Magnus Pym's life, are cobbled together seems capricious, unplanned ( and uncharacteristic ); it neither illuminates nor delights. ( It's noteworthy that the film of the book tries to make sense of these arbitrary and dishevelled 'sequences' and puts them in some sort of comprehensible order. ) Having said that, there are virtuoso moments - the best of which is Rick's bid to be elected Liberal Party MP: a superb pastiche of a parliamentary candidate both crudely and brilliantly rhetorical. It has a wonderfully contemporary quality: a practised con-man ( and Rick makes his living as a fraudster ) uses all the arts and blandishments of the popular political salesman to overwhelm the voters of Gulworth ( superb irony in the name! ) The characters in the story elicit both contempt, affection, grudging admiration and at last compassion - a strange mixture - and as Magnus's own persona ( personae? ) develops, we see him, finally, as someone so groomed from childhood to deceitfulness that he finds himself with no identity that he can call - or recognise as ) his own. He is everybody at will and, therefore, nobody at all. We feel for him; and only in our knowledge of the collateral damage to other people of his ruthless betrayals - perpetrated, always, with charming indifference - is sympathy overwhelmed by appalled hostility. I had difficulty reading this lengthy experiment to its end with full concentration and would not want to repeat the experience, but the best parts made the trip worthwhile. These I ear-marked for future reference and would return to them with glee.
Every once and a while one reads a work of fiction that transcends the conventional to such an extent that words of praise fail to do it justice. John Le Carre's "A Perfect Spy" is one of these.
The character of Magnus Pym, the narrator, is beautifully delineated. The author, in fact, depicts an anatomy of betrayal, as he draws us, his readers, inexorably into his antihero's tangled thoughts. Consequently, we experience the alternating intensity and detachment of Pym's emotions as the narrative switches--sometimes in mid-sentence--from first to third person.
In the introduction, Le Carre confesses that he has based the characters of Magnus Pym and his con-man father, Rick, on events of his own life. This, and the fact that the author, as is well known, is a former officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service (not, however, a double agent), is undoubtedly a reason why the narrative rings so true.
Magnus Pym seems to embody Everyspy. The novel could, in fact, as easily have been based upon the life of Kim Philby, Cambridge graduate and Soviet mole in SIS during WWII and the beginning of the Cold War. Also the son of a dodgy father, who was interned for a year by the British at the beginning of the Second World War, Kim Philby--like Magnus Pym--was all things to all men, both British and Soviet. Like Pym, Philby experienced the conflicts of loyalties and crises of emotion that constitute occupational hazards in the life of a double agent. Unlike Pym, however (undoubtedly to the regret of British Intelligence), Philby did not resolve his dilemma to the satisfaction of most of the parties concerned.
In praising this book, it is so easy to fall into platitudes, which cannot begin to capture the engrossing power of "A Perfect Spy,"a novel that is guaranteed to enthrall the discerning reader from the first page until the last.
on 12 August 2012
This book is John le Carre's magnum opus - it is also his most personal work drawing on his own admittedly unsatisfactory relationship with a somewhat dubious father. I enjoyed the work. Le Carre has a style that is all his own as he circles around a plot and you wonder where he will alight next - it is a trait he shares with Conrad.
Another element that I like about 'A Perfect Spy' is that it is not marred by the somewhat old-fashioned (and embarrassing) anti-American sentiments that can make other le Carre novels a bit of a drag. One feels that much as le Carre may protest this point he is of a generation that has never forgiven the US for saving Britain's bacon in WWII.
on 27 March 2016
I can count on one had the number of books I've given up on, but after 100 pages I couldn't take any more. The story is agonisingly slow paced, with a catalogue of rambling scenes, presumably meant to develop charaterisation, but the characters lacked any kind of appeal for me. I'd rather spend my time staring at a wall.
on 29 September 2012
I wish I had read all the glowing reviews before starting to plough through this book. I assumed that the author's name would be a guarantee of a "good read" -- yes, some people do find that sufficient! -- but the first half of the book is turgid and confusing. I couldn't keep straight who was who or who was speaking. Is this because I was only reading late at night when perhaps my concentration was going?
After reading The Constant Gardener, I feel truly let down by the opaqueness and self-conscious writing and wordsmithing of A Perfect Spy. Yes, I'm willing to go back and start again, now that I have a clue about the subject matter, but is this what the author really wanted of us lesser mortals of more restricted understanding?A Perfect Spy