October 19, 2021

Halfway through John Le Carré’s final, posthumous novel, Silverview, an MI6 investigator of security breaches talks to his wife over the phone. Her story is that she’s on an archaeological dig in Turkey, and is going to stay a few days longer than intended, out of his reach, with her ridiculously handsome supervisor. He probes: “‘So you’re staying on so as not to be unfair to the others,’ he said acidly. ‘What exactly have you dug up?’ ‘Wonderful things, Stewart. You wouldn’t understand at all.’”

A glorious Le Carré moment, this sly, clever, allusive joke, and insouciantly placed to flatter the reader who gets it. He knows that when an archaeologist extracts a mouldy old pot fragment from the mud, one of them is bound to say what Howard Carter said on entering the tomb of Tutankhamun: he also knows that this kind of sardonic insiders’ joke is going to be flaunted at outsiders, especially in a marriage in trouble. John le Carré knew this stuff. He was, like many of the best novelists, intensely knowledgeable — specifically, that strain of knowledge we call worldliness. There ought to be more of it about.

The classic advice to novelists, “Write about what you know” is pretty good if, like John le Carré, you know a hell of a lot. There are probably corners in the novels which have been filled in by specific, purposeful research. But no-one can doubt that the author of these novels knew his subjects, in detail, long before he set to work. The casual placing of individuals within very specific, even recherché social worlds hardly ever puts a foot wrong, and the range is awe-inspiring. An ordinary sentence in le Carré might run: “The village was one of those half-urbanised Georgian settlements on the edge of Bath where English Catholics of a certain standing have elected to gather in their exile.” This may all be made up; my God, we trust the circumstantial detail.

We’re quite in need of worldliness at the moment. Among novelists, it isn’t compulsory, and some novelists, like poets, are very unworldly indeed. But the decline in worldliness, and the fall in our esteem for it, is to be regretted. It’s something that needs to be defined. In part, it’s the fact of having seen a lot, and gone through all sorts of different experiences. Le Carré’s life before becoming a full-time novelist is a good example: his father was a confidence trickster; he taught in a school; he worked for the security services, first as a stringer and then full-time. He spoke excellent German, and knew all sorts of societies from the inside until he had to leave the Service, his cover blown by Kim Philby, in 1964.

Having done stuff is part of it, but not the whole thing. After all, a lot of people have had interesting jobs. The difference between Le Carré’s books and Stella Rimington’s, say, is not in the experience they could draw on, but on the powers of observation and understanding. Like another very worldly novelist, Anthony Powell, Le Carré was superb at discerning “types”; small but distinct groups of individuals, sharing an apparently miscellaneous range of qualities. When Jim Prideaux explains to Bill Roach at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that he must be a good “watcher” — “us loners always are” — there’s someone behind that who has looked at a lot of different men and women, and understood them. This knack for analysis and categorisation sometimes got Le Carré into a little trouble with those unwilling to be so coolly categorised. Once, the film director Mike Nichols was sitting next to Mrs Thatcher at an official dinner, and said to her “My friend John le Carré says you’re a very sexy woman.” “Well,” Mrs Thatcher said. “I’m not.”

Le Carré’s worldliness consisted of these fine distinctions, and his characters — even Smiley, even Rick Pym in A Perfect Spy — are excellent examples of types we feel we could glimpse elsewhere. In that, he resembles those other very worldly writers, Dickens, Anthony Powell, Waugh and Kingsley Amis. We feel that there are other Pecksniffs out there, other Widmerpools, Tony Lasts, other Jim Dixons on the make; it is just that these are unusually good examples.

Is this kind of worldliness on the decline? It’s certainly hard to think of many novelists now who have had the kind of large-scale experience Le Carré had. Ferdinand Mount is one, having worked very close to a Prime Minister and having lived close to the great from childhood. But there’s no doubt that his novels, excellent as they are, are a little out of tune with current taste. For the most part, if a lot of current novelists want to write about public life, or a range of social settings, they are obliged to undertake research, to look at something unfamiliar from the outside. Often, it shows.

And the predominant spirit of our times might be a certain unworldliness. One of the characteristics of worldliness is taking an interest in the idiosyncrasies of very small, and perhaps very unsympathetic groups and milieu. (It’s worth remembering that Le Carré’s politics were very remote from Mrs Thatcher’s, who he found so alluring). There isn’t a lot of that sort of interest around. Recently, Sam Leith, talking about the response to David Amess’s murder, very convincingly argued that those we disagree with have melded into an “amorphous enemy mass”, not interesting individuals and small groupings, but “they’re just them: the ‘wall of gammon’, the ‘wokies’, ‘the blue-hair-and-pronouns’, the ‘Terfs’”. Reading some popular commentators, it’s striking how readily they reach for the word “we”, sometimes conflating some extraordinarily distinct groups. One such wrote a column explaining that fundamentalist Muslims and “the LGBTQ community” were basically exactly the same in the way they looked at society.

This level of astonishing unworldliness is not, perhaps, on the increase, but rarely before has it received such prominent circulation. Nor, perhaps, has it been at the expense of writers who are interested, in inconclusive ways, not in “diversity”, but in the diverse; the way that people are very different to each other, that they act very differently in different settings, and that sometimes we needn’t agree with an individual to find them fascinating, and worth spending some time with.

Some time ago, I met a middle-aged writer who declared, as a matter of pride, that she thought she could enter into any character’s mind imaginatively “except,” she went on, “a Tory MP”. Having spent time with a fair number of Tory MPs, who seemed to me to cover a fair stretch of possible human types, I thought this was a curious admission of failure. No: that kind of willed unworldliness was, in the view of the writer, a confirmation of her authenticity and even literary quality. That sort of thing is on the increase: a novelist who wrote about political actors with understanding and sympathy, whatever his or her subject’s views, would quickly find some sharp critics emerging from the unworldly grottoes of social media groupuscules.

I hope Le Carré isn’t the last of his type. The inner resources which allowed him to walk his plots from the leisurely outskirts towards the terrifying kernel, accounting convincingly for every step and milieu, never failed him — Smiley’s People, for me his masterpiece, starts from the furthest possible point. This last novel is both intricate and trimmed down, and makes a graceful gesture of farewell at the end, as the mole is hunted down, cornered, and vanishes into thin air, leaving an empty stage with no-one to take a bow. Will worldliness come back, and that will to understand, to describe, to know stuff? Sooner or later, and when it does, the readers will be waiting.