The New Statesman Profile - John le Carre

A literary barbarian? Or a writer to whom future generations will turn for insights into our times?

How serious is John le Carre? There is a feeling among his admirers that he is very serious indeed, not just an accomplished genre writer, but more than that: the natural heir of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, a writer whose superb worldliness and commanding interest in the great movements of contemporary history have resulted in a postwar body of work of unrivalled political complexity. But le Carre himself, you suspect, has long felt undervalued by what he sweetly calls the "literary bureaucracy" - by which he means the coteries of critics, career novelists, agents and publishers who gather at the same London parties and events to gossip and scheme. Who's in? they ask, who's out? "If you move in these circles," le Carre once said, "you trip over connections at every point . . . I don't know the people who review me, I don't go to their parties - I never will. I have the most profound contempt for the system - a total alienation from it."

David Cornwell (le Carre was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover), now 67 years old, removed himself early in his career from this closed, airless world, when the international success of his third (and wondrously plotted) novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), offered him a route out from the British "intelligence" service into which he had stumbled as a student linguist. Since then he has lived for most of the time in Cornwall, while keeping a house in Hampstead, a self-styled outsider largely spurning the tawdry ephemera of literary celebrity - the interviews, festivals, television appearances and newspaper columns. And perhaps he was right to do so, since self-contentment and metropolitan networking are seldom compatible with radical creativity; most of the innovative writers of the century - Celine, Beckett, Conrad, Kafka, V S Naipaul - are voices from the margins, operating beyond the boundaries of bourgeois society.

Yet, in many ways, le Carre, as a former diplomat and servant of MI5 and MI6, has been at the centre of conventional society; and indeed he can be a conventional writer, enclosing himself in the prison of genre, no matter how much he attempts to stretch and bend the bars that constrain him. His new novel, Secret & Secret (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99), about the intrigues of the bandit capitalists of the new Russia, displays his obvious weaknesses: the flat, inexact dialogue, the unhappy flirtation with cliche (people drift down "memory lane") the perfunctory description, the febrile, over-elaborate plotting, the inevitable certainty of closure.

Still, there is something mysterious and unaccountable in his ironic, low-toned style that make his best books - From the Cold, A Perfect Spy (1986), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1977) - hard to forget (his novels written since 1989 are no more than accomplished footnotes to his espionage fiction). It is something to do, I think, with his acute understanding of, and engagement with, the contemporary world in which he grew up. From the beginning, he had an urgent subject - the cold war - and a compelling preoccupation - secrecy. As a novelist, he is addicted to secrecy, as Conrad was, secrecy as a way of life and as an extended metaphor through which to understand human motivation (public and personal betrayal are inextricably bound up in his novels, as the cuckold George Smiley realises when he contemplates his marriage).

Le Carre understands that there is no one lonelier than the double agent: addicted to duplicity and loyal only to himself, he lives in a condition of acute watchfulness. His fiction, with its suspensions, narrative absences and aporias, leaves much unsaid. Even when his novels reach their inevitable resolution, as the genre demands, there is nevertheless a powerful sense of incompleteness, of uncertainty and baffled wonder, as though the spooks themselves are unable to comprehend the events that have just passed, or indeed what they are working for or against. So always in le Carre demystification leads to a greater mystification. Beyond the apparent worst there is a worse suffering.

If le Carre is to be believed, he did not have to search long to find his subject; the secret condition, as he points out, "was imposed on me by birth, under the influence of that monstrous father. Then that brief passage through the secret world sort of institutionalised it." That monstrous father is Ronnie Cornwell, an inveterate conman and recidivist who spent several terms in prison and about whom le Carre wrote so memorably in A Perfect Spy - described by Philip Roth as the most accomplished British novel since the war. Such a claim is not as absurd as it might sound. A Perfect Spy functions on many levels: as a thriller, as a complex family history, as a study in memory, as an exercise in multiple narratives and time shifts; and as a metaphysical quest narrative, where the actual search for a missing spy, Magnus Pym, is mimicked on a more local level by Pym's own internal search for the deceitful father whom he hates but never really knew. In every way, it is exceptional.

There is something appealingly complex in le Carre's willed withdrawal from fashionable society, in his fondness for casting himself in the role of elevated outsider, in his attempt to embrace shipwreck as an ontological condition. To meet le Carre is to meet, on first impression, a lifelong member of the professional middle-upper classes, a tall, handsome, smooth-talking member of the Oxbridge elite. It is a false impression. "I just think that it's a part I put on," he has said. "It never occurs to me that people could imagine I was well born, or that I was secure in the company of the British establishment, because it really isn't so. I mean, I've shafted it for as long as I've been writing."

So there you have it: le Carre as the loner attracted to labyrinthine institutions and secret conclaves yet paradoxically working at the same time to subvert them; the former Eton schoolmaster and MI6 officer who purports to loathe the social prejudices and class structures of English life; the multi-millionaire, hawkish cold war propagandist who claims to be a man of the left and to despise the "ever-growing gap between the very rich and very poor" in Britain. All these careful contradictions, along with his chaotic, itinerant childhood (Ronnie was always defaulting on his son's school fees) have made le Carre the most gossiped-about writer in England. As a result, he has withdrawn even further.

"I don't think David is secretive in a bad way," says his former agent George Greenfield, through whom le Carre met his second wife, Jane. "I agree he is very elusive and doesn't like to give anything away, particularly to interviewers; but there's more of him in A Perfect Spy than in any other of his books. It's all there."

Yet, like the spook he once was, he occasionally breaks cover to thwart unwanted interest into his private affairs. This happened when the writer and journalist Graham Lord's confidential synopsis of his proposed biography of le Carre, which had been circulated to publishers, was leaked. "I was served with a writ for libel by David," Lord tells me. "It was a very uncomfortable experience to be pursued by a very rich man for libel, especially as at the time I was suing the Express for constructive dismissal and my ex-wife was demanding more alimony. I had too many lawyers after me. I concede that there was material in the synopsis that was defamatory and would have needed a great deal of checking; but it wasn't meant for publication." As part of the eventual settlement, Lord agreed not to write his unauthorised biography (Robert Harris is thought to be working on the authorised one).

Le Carre, too, enjoys tossing grenades of dismay - usually in the form of letters to newspapers - at Salman Rushdie, Tina Brown or any other metropolitan sophisticate for whom he has long nurtured a kind of wounded contempt. His feud with Rushdie stretches back to the late 1980s, when Rushdie wrote a sneering review of The Russia House, le Carre's novel about the early years of perestroika. "John le Carre," he wrote, "wants his work to transcend the genre and be treated as Serious Literature . . . [But] much of the trouble is, I'm afraid, literary. There is something unavoidably stick-like about le Carre's attempts at characterisation."

Le Carre was later accused of being "unfeeling for Salman's position" following the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses. What he had said was that someone of Rushdie's background "made light of the Book at your peril . . . A peculiar justification used by Rushdie's most vociferous defenders is that his novel has great literary merit - some insist it is a masterpiece . . . Are we to believe that those who write literature have a greater right to free speech than those who write pulp?" Most recently, in an exchange of letters in the Guardian last year, Rushdie called le Carre "an illiterate pompous ass"; and le Carre in turn ridiculed Rushdie as "a self-canonising, arrogant colonialist".

What is interesting about the feud is not only what it reveals about le Carre's motivation and sense of self-worth, but also how vividly it dramatises the disjunction in English fiction between the literary and popular novel, a disjunction originating in the mould-breaking modernism of Joyce, Eliot and Pound, and in their contempt for generic repetition and established forms.

But le Carre is not the literary barbarian that Rushdie and his supporters would have it. In The Secret Pilgrim (1990), his requiem for the cold war, an aged George Smiley warns, while addressing an audience of young recruits, that Russia can never be trusted. "For one reason, the Bear doesn't trust himself. The Bear is threatened and the Bear is frightened and is falling apart . . . The Bear is broke, lazy, volatile, incompetent, slippery, dangerously armed . . . "

Conrad famously said that he wrote Under Western Eyes (1911), his great novel of espionage and betrayal set in pre-revolutionary Russia, "to render not so much the political style as the psychology of Russia itself". In this he was enormously successful: Conrad's Russia, a huge snow-covered terrain which he depicts as a "monstrous blank page awaiting the record of an inconceivable history", is a country on the edge of complete moral collapse. Le Carre, while sharing none of Conrad's verbal virtuosity, has provided, too, a valuable psychological record of Russia's inconceivable history. That is his considerable, fittingly contemporary achievement; and that is why I suspect, too, his work will enjoy a long, radiant afterlife as future generations turn to him for an insight into the texture of his times, into the looking-glass world of the cold war - and for an intricate understanding of the clotted, frozen heart of an English ruling class that once sought to rule the world but ended up unable to preserve the unity of even the British union itself.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.