Frowning on George Smiley: Real-life spy ‘detested’ portrayal in le Carré novels

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

Author John le Carré is arguably the greatest spy novelist of them all, with his breakout novel, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” ranked as one of the greatest books of all time.

However, the man who inspired le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, says he completely disagreed with the author’s portrayal of the British intelligence service MI5 during the Cold War.

In a letter to the London Telegraph, British historian Alistair Cooke Baron Lexten quotes the late John Bingham as saying of le Carré’s fictional portrayal of him in books like “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy,” “I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services.”

Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, worked with Bingham in MI5, with Bingham reportedly serving as a mentor to the future author.

Le Carré responded with his own letter to the Telegraph published on Wednesday. In his letter, he acknowledged that Bingham had a different “generational” view of Britain’s intelligence service.

“Bingham was of one generation, and I of another,” le Carré writes. “Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.”

And while le Carré has spoken favorably of Bingham, readers of his George Smiley novels know that the character was portrayed as a complicated, often weak, man. But far greater criticism was reserved for the British intelligence service, referred to as The Circus, in the novels.

His novels have been both commercially and critically successful, pushing terms such as “mole” into the popular lexicon. Throughout the novels, the British and American governments are often portrayed as morally equivalent to their Soviet counterparts, even as le Carré clearly identified with the ultimate goals of Western democracy in its struggles against Communism.

“John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion,” le Carré wrote. “I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence.”