Each man kills the thing he loves.
When his mother Dorothy disappears from his life and her adored substitute Lippsie kills herself, Magnus Pym blames himself twice over: to lose one parent may be someone else’s fault; to lose two re-directs the finger of blame back to oneself.
In Bern, Magnus Pym betrays his father-substitute Axel and back in England betrays his actual father, twice over: once when he hides the fact that he is studying Modern Languages, not Law, at Oxford and a second time during the Gulworth North by-election when he passes incriminating evidence to his father’s nemesis, Peggy Wentworth. His father only confronts him with the former betrayal, but the text is heavy with the suspicion that he has guessed the second.
In my edition, the bravura narrative of the Gulworth North by-election takes up pages 396 to 439. It is being written by Magnus, holed up at what will be the end of his life, writing his autobiography addressed to his son. At the end of the Gulworth narrative, le Carré writes, “It was dawn. Unshaven, Pym sat at his desk, not wanting the daylight. Chin in hand he stared at the last page he had written. Change nothing. Don’t look back, don’t look back. You do it once, then die” (page 440).
It seems to me entirely plausible at this moment to imagine not Pym at his desk, but le Carré. He has just written forty pages of remarkable Dickensian comedy. He has also offered an extraordinary portrait of his father, both the real one and the fictionalised Rick Pym. And through the character of Peggy Wentworth, haunting his father and telling her tale to Magnus, who is also le Carré, he has an epiphany about his father’s character which leads him straight to betrayal.
The novel runs to 680 pages, cutting constantly between past and present, and cinematically between scenes occurring at the same time in different places as the net closes on the fugitive Magnus Pym. The author remains in full control throughout: a clue handed to Jack Brotherhood at page 166 is not turned to account until page 367, just the kind of thing one would expect an accomplished writer of spy fiction to deliver.
But it’s not really a work of spy fiction. It’s about love and loss and betrayal, ambition and defeat. It’s about growing up – a Bildungsroman in the tradition of Goethe, evoked more than once but most explicitly at page 292:
“…he imagined himself as the young Werther, planning his wardrobe before committing suicide. And when he considered all his failures and hopes together, he was able to compare his Werdegang with Wilhelm Meister’s years of apprenticeship, and planned then a great autobiographical novel that would show the world what a noble sensitive fellow he was compared with Rick.”
A Perfect Spy is a great autobiographical novel, the prose driven (and thus driving the reader) by extraordinary intensity of emotion (none of the main characters are less than intense) which often enough finds expression in remarkable turns of stylistic inventiveness. So the young Magnus discusses radical politics with his father’s loyal lieutenants, the gay couple of Ollie and Mr Cudlove, and it is
“…heartily agreed over stolen canapés and cocoa that all men are brothers but nothing against your dad. And though political doctrines are at root as meaningless to me today as they were to Pym then, I remember the simple humanity of our discussions as we promised to mend the world’s ills, and the truthful good-heartedness with which, as we went off to bed, we wished each other peace in the spirit of Joe Stalin who, let’s face it, Titch, and nothing against your dad, ever, won the war for all these capitalist bastards." (page 192)
Here the intimacy of discussions over cocoa is doubled by the style in which the formality of Magnus turns into the informality of Ollie and Mr Cudlove and the different voices harmonise to sing that all men shall be as brothers.
When it was published in 1986 and John le Carre was fifty-five, the same age as Magnus Pym, Philip Roth described it as “The best English novel since the war”. I am not widely read enough to know if that claim stands up if repeated in 2018. I can only say that there are not many 680 page novels which have held my attention like this one, which I have now read three times.
In the essay “Never Mind. E Weber Love You Always” included in my book Prose Improvements (2017), I discuss the themes of unconditional love and salvation as they figure in A Perfect Spy.