John Le Carré, Patron Saint Of Disillusioned Academics

Last year I fell down a John le Carré rabbit hole. I had enjoyed the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and bought the book immediately after seeing it. However, I found the novel too opaque and put it down. For some reason years later I picked it up again and was hooked. Soon a few months had passed and I had read nine other le Carré books, consuming them like a bag of literary potato chips.

My obsession did not just stem from his memorable characters, intriguing plots, and masterful prose style. Nor was it because I became a middle-aged dad in the interim between my first and second goes at Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and thus was obligated to read spy novels and watch the History Channel. Beyond all this, I slowly came to realize that le Carré was a kindred spirit: we were both disillusioned from the prestigious professions we chose to pursue in our youths. Le Carré had been a spy, I had been a professor. We both quit. Just as he was never able to shake what he calls “the secret world,” my disillusionment with academia was shot through with longing. 

As Lou Reed once advised

A decade ago when I quit my tenure track job and the Great Recession was destroying the few remaining opportunities for junior scholars, the rats fleeing academe’s sinking ship wrote essay upon essay about their decision. This genre of “quit lit” was so pronounced that it soon became a cliche. To be honest, I was responsible for a good portion of my own quit lit on my blog (remember blogs?). Little did I know that John le Carré had elevated quit lit into something sublime and deserving of literary awards, rather than my overwrought internet Weltschmertz. 

Before he became John le Carré, David Cornwell was an agent for both MI5 (roughly the UK equivalent of the FBI) and an undercover operator for MI6 (roughly the UK equivalent of the CIA) before quitting the services in 1964. Reflecting that choice, his books question the myths and allure built around espionage. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold agent Alec Leamas characterized his fellow spies thusly: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?” His most famous spy, George Smiley, is kind of an anti-James Bond: old and pudgy with a wife who cheats on him.

The “secret world” is much more similar to academia than most might imagine. Both professions demand a level of loyalty and sacrifice few others approach. When I was a professor I likened it to the priesthood. Like the priests sent out to far-flung parishes chosen by their bishops, professors have to take work where they can find it. In my case I never would have chosen to live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Nacogdoches, Texas, on my own volition. (The former ended up being a fine place to live for a couple of years. The less said about the latter the better.) 

In le Carré’s novels, spies too must make sacrifices in their personal lives. Their spouses will never truly know them. They must live a double life and can be sent around the world, from Hong Kong to Istanbul. George Smiley endures the constant cheating of his wife Ann as a kind of penance for the negligence forced by his job. Similarly, academic spouses also bear the brunt of forced moves to the far flung provinces hundreds of miles from friends and family. 

Plenty of marriages do not survive it. I left academia in large part so my wife and I could actually live together in a place where we both wanted to be instead of 1500 miles away from each other. For that reason I especially enjoyed le Carré’s new novel, Agent Running in the Field. In it a middle-aged agent named Nat happily partners with his lawyer wife Prue to thwart the intelligence agencies and help a young dissenter in MI5 escape the country. As I found in academia, the only way to make a marriage work in such a world is to prioritize your partner above the profession’s ridiculous demands. 

In another parallel between espionage and academia, the spies in le Carré’s novels are almost always recruited at university by professors with covert connections. Most academics also have a profesor along the way to give them encouragement and initiate them into a new, arcane world. I remember it well myself, the feeling of excitement that someone on the inside would be opening the door to let me in. I never thought little old me could ever be a professor until that moment. And like Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy I later hated my young self for his naivete and resented the mentors who sent me into a world that demanded so much and gave so little in return. 

A Perfect Spy, which is le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, is a truly captivating work of quit lit. Magnus Pym has decided to sell out his agency and the book flips back and forth from the present to his memories of the past. The memories reveal that Pym, a neglected child of a con artist father, was trained from youth to practice deception as a survival skill. The lack of care and affection from his parents made him easy pickings for the Service, where he could at last have a sort of family. This is why he was “the perfect spy.” 

In le Carré’s other novels the plot often hinges on characters being conflicted over the moral compromises that their profession forces them to make. Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold poses as a double agent to undermine an East German counter-intelligence officer named Fiedler who is close to discovering an MI6 double agent in the East German organization named Mundt. With the help of MI6 Mundt is able to turn the tables and have Fiedler destroyed. The man Leamas unwittingly helps get killed is Jewish, the double agent he protects is a former Nazi. A Small Town In Germany also deals with how Western intelligence agencies were more than happy to overlook the Nazi associations of many of their German intelligence assets.

Academia typically does not require moral compromises of that awful magnitude, but it is a profession that so obviously fails to live up to its own ideals. Every university in America runs on the cheap labor of adjuncts and teaching assistants. Friends who find themselves on the hiring side of the line know the system is rotten but are now taxed with recruiting the adjuncts their departments need to function. They hate having to be complicit, but feel like they do not have a choice. Graduate departments determine the size of their cohorts based on how much labor they require. I still remember sitting in on a faculty meeting as a grad student and hearing professors discuss that they needed to admit a certain number of students to meet their labor needs. This imperative seemed to override other concerns, and I was shocked to hear it laid out so bluntly. Whether those students would later be able to find the job they went to grad school to get would be a different story. 

Like the “joes” (Circus slang for informants) their lives and fates were not the ultimate concern of the people at the top of the profession. The Looking Glass War is my favorite obscure le Carré novel, and revolves around a World War II-era Polish informant named Leiser who is sent into the East by an over the hill bureaucrat trying to recapture his faded glory. They send him with an antiquated radio set and minimal training, assuming he is still proficient in intelligence skills he has long forgotten or never learned. Leiser soon finds himself over his head and gets caught. His bosses back in London opt to cut him loose to minimize their own failure, letting him take the horrible brunt of their mistakes. It reminded me of being a “visiting assistant professor” right out of grad school and being set up with a full slate of four classes and no institutional support. One “visitor” colleague in this job read his world history lectures straight out of a textbook. As long as the students did not complain, the people in the building’s version of Whitehall didn’t mind. 

Once I got a job in the academic Whitehall as a tenure track professor I soon learned that as tough as it was to be a neglected grunt in a contingent position, I had been shielded from the horror of academic office politics. Soon I would be immersed in them to the point of having anxiety attacks when walking into the building where I worked. 

So many academics seem to love Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, probably because it is the ultimate story of passive-aggressive workplace warfare. No one can survive in an academic department without being versed in its arts. In the novel, former head Control dies after informing George Smiley of the presence of a mole at the highest levels of MI6, aka “the Circus.” Smiley must find the traitor among his own colleagues, all of whom he resents to a greater or lesser extent after he was forced out of the inner circle. It’s the ultimate academic office politics wish fulfillment, since the biggest jerk ends up getting found out and removed, and the biggest toady gets completely embarrassed in the process. In reality, dysfunctional colleagues with tenure never go away and the toadies become deans.

The characters in le Carré’s Cold War novels try to justify their lies, manipulations, and allyship with horrible people by reminding themselves that the Soviets are doing worse and that the other side cannot be allowed to win. Academia does not conceive of itself in this adversarial way, but still thinks of itself as elevated from the rest of society. When I was in graduate school I was always struck by the unspoken assumption that we were in a world that was more enlightened and just than the one off campus. There’s a whole genre of campus novels that get a laugh out of poking holes in this self-serving conceit, but le Carré works better at demolishing those pretensions because he plays it straight. 

As to be expected, le Carré’s characters often question the point of their profession. Is their work actually winning the Cold War? Are their lies and breaches of morality in the service of their country truly the lesser of two evils? Le Carré himself was pretty skeptical. In his episodic memoir The Pigeon Tunnel he relates being assailed by a former colleague at a party after The Looking Glass War had come out. In response to being called a traitor and misrepresenting the secret services, le Carré said that he typically showed the profession as more coherent and competent than it actually was in real life. He also archly relates that another agent confided in him that The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was inaccurate because no double agent scheme had actually ever worked. 

We did it Brooklyn! We did it!

Even successful spies like George Smiley, the consummate operator, have doubts. At the end of Smiley’s People he finally catches Karla, his Soviet nemesis. He uses threats against Karla’s mentally ill daughter to do so, forcing Smiley to acknowledge Karla’s humanity and how he has compromised his own. The idea that his opponent was some kind of fiendish fanatic that he had a claim of moral superiority over him drops away, making Smiley’s ultimate victory bittersweet. At the close of the book his loyal associate Peter Guillam tells him “George, you won” as Smiley absent-mindedly wipes his glasses with the fat end of his tie, one of his tics. Smiley’s response, ending the long saga, is “Did I?…Yes. Yes, I suppose I did.” 

This kind of uncertain soul-searching has been a cottage industry in academia over the last decade or so. The stakes are high, because universities and state governments are slashing and burning whole departments. Scholars in the humanities have been forced to come up with reasons to be funded beyond the inherent value of their work, which society no longer seems to accept at face value. Humanities professors must bow to the neoliberal Moloch and say how much learning English or philosophy will help give students an edge in corporate jobs. 

Le Carre’s Karla Trilogy of the 1970s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) hits the theme of obsolescence hard. With the Cold War thawing during the superpower detente, the government is cutting the spy agencies’ budgets. The Circus feels weak compared to its American cousins in the CIA, and is desperate for a breakthrough to prove their worth. The Circus headquarters itself, a non-descript old fashioned building, reflects the low status of the organization. Humanities professors who have spent time consigned to the most ancient and creaky campus buildings may nod their heads as they read Le Carre’s description of the route to The Circus’ archives: “The Circus archives were not accessible from the main entrance. They rambled through a warren of dingy rooms and half landings at the back of the building, more like one of the secondhand bookshops which proliferate round there, than the organised memory of a large department.”

I still have inexplicably fond memories of the teaching assistant office area I occupied as a grad student, an unventilated collection of windowless rooms, broken down chairs, and ancient desks. I have less fond memories of the classrooms in the basement with bolted down desks where World War I doughboys must have sat after coming home from Belleau Wood. During my time in academia I never failed to notice how my classrooms were full of broken furniture and outdated equipment while flat-screen televisions popped up on library walls and the gym added a lazy river and rock climbing wall. 

The ramshackle Circus headquarters embodied its loss of status, and in the Karla Trilogy the agents look nostalgically back to their glorious past in World War II. Connie Sachs, a crack researcher sent into an alcoholic early retirement, tells Smiley of the war that “Englishmen could be proud then.” (The line is delivered so perfectly by Kathy Burke in the recent film adaptation.) In his memoir le Carre notes that as someone of a slightly younger generation, he could not share that nostalgia, which he constantly heard from older agents. 

In a similar fashion, older professors I knew as a student and colleague talked about a time when the academic “job market” mostly consisted of their advisor calling some people to get them a job. (The room for racism and sexism in this process does not make it something to be idealized, however.) The job and tenure process today are akin to the labors of Hercules. The publications that could get someone a full professorship at a regional state university forty years ago would not even get them a job interview today. Underneath all of this was the feeling that the salad days of the postwar university when the money and jobs flowed and prestige mounted were gone and lost forever, just like the morally unambiguous war against Nazi Germany. 

However, I part ways with le Carré a little in my feelings about my old job. Despite my disillusionment with academia, I still believe in the promises it has failed to live up to. I anguish over seeing history departments cut and friends losing their jobs. I taught at regional state universities and witnessing such institutions destroy anything that isn’t “useful” makes me sad for first generation students being robbed of an opportunity to get a broader understanding of their world. The coronavirus will likely force many other colleges to close completely. Not only are le Carre’s novels exemplary quit lit, their stark judgement provides an escape from my more complicated feelings about the world that I left behind. And for that I am grateful to have them.