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A Spymaster Defects

As a member of the last generation of English middle-class boys brought up on great expectations of prosperity, glamour, and power, John Le Carré first became famous in America when his obsession with the failed promise of his own society supplied an analogy for American middle-class readers jaded by the extravagant claims being made for theirs.

Le Carré's first well-known story took for its background the fatiguing realities of the Cold War. For thousands who were feeling the strains of East-West conflict, this disappointed Eton schoolmaster and Ml5 man brought relief in the form of the explanatory theory of "immoral equivalence": However awful the other side is, ours is as bad. According to Le Carré, in fact, ours is probably worse because they at least believe in something, however fatuous, and we believe in nothing at all. A typical Le Carré Englishman lives in an ethical vacuum. At his best, he has a sentimental, schoolboyish loyalty to the symbols of departed power; at his worst, he has the same loyalty to his society that a microbe has to its host, and when he betrays it, it is because it has not provided a rich enough diet.

Even Le Carré, whom an attentive reader will often detect reveling in the nastiness of his world, needed relief from this vacuousness, and he found it in a typical figure of contemporary fantasy, the lone, alienated professional, the master-spy...

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