John le Carré’s Jews

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To mark the passing of the legendary spy author, Phyllis Lassner reflects on his questioning Jewish characters.

John le Carré, who died on December 12, at the age of 89, relished the ambivalences, suspicions, and deceptions that mapped his fictional spyscapes. Like his life story, in the end, they remain riddled with unanswered questions. What has been resolved is the celebrated place of his fiction in the canons of twentieth-century literature.

Like Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’ and Eric Ambler’s novels, le Carré’s spy fiction has been recognized as serious literary fiction, probing the murky depths of imagined and actual espionage to expose unfathomable nastiness on all sides of the political equation. The ends never justify the means. Exhausting and tortuous machinations only produce impenetrable layers of deception. Dedicated and even patriotic agents are sacrificed to sustain the hierarchies and self-serving games of ‘the secret world’.

On all sides, le Carré’s secret agents fare little better than his villains and victims, all of whom occupy states of alienation, and suffer ‘the nausea of guilt,’ as he pronounced in his first novel Call for the Dead in 1961. If by chance moral or political lessons are gleaned from the well-ordered morass of MI5 or MI6, the price is too high, and the lessons have lost their meaning by the time we make our way to the end of each novel’s labyrinthine plot. Except in one case: le Carré’s Jews.

Le Carré’s Jews challenge the expedient excuses that stand for political self-righteousness on both sides of the Berlin Wall. More than collateral damage in the twists and turns of espionage, Jewish characters in Call for the Dead and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) are agents of historical meaning and memory, carrying the tortures of the Holocaust into the Cold War to embody an unending battle, an incurable psychological and political trauma.

In le Carré’s plotting, Jewish characters represent critical questions in response to the Fascism that reemerges in the Communist present. Call for the Dead set the stage with four Jewish characters. Mendel, a Jewish policeman, is really a resistance fighter; he rescues le Carré’s ur-agent, George Smiley, from being attacked by villains and by his own tortured conscience.  Samuel Fennan, working for the Circus but suspected of being a double agent, characterizes the twentieth-century plight of the Jew: ‘The eternal Jew, cultured cosmopolitan, self- determinate, industrious and perceptive. The child of his century; persecuted.’ And so, le Carré’ assures us, antisemitism prevails in the West, fifteen years after the liberation of Auschwitz, a reminder of moral complicity that cannot be wished away in the battle against another Evil Empire. 

Samuel Fennan’s wife Elsa is a German Jewish refugee, sympathetic to no one except Smiley, who recognizes her ‘crooked face’ as that of ‘a child grown old on starving and exhaustion, the eternal refugee face, the prison-camp face.’ A remnant of Nazi torture, Elsa has been robbed of her capacity to feel. She has ‘no more tears – I’m barren; the children of my grief are dead.’ Enraged by British hypocrisy, Elsa was victimized by Nazi Germany and exploited by the German Democratic Republic to which she had turned as a bulwark against the resurgence of Fascism. Both victim and villain, she rejects the possibility of redemption, choosing instead to haunt the spy thriller and its readers with a Holocaust history and memory that cannot be plotted away. Le Carré’s creation of the Jewish woman spy mocks our anticipation of closure and respite from the horrors of twentieth-century genocide.      

Call for the Dead never releases its Jewish characters and readers from the pain of the Holocaust.  Even the most likely suspect for the role of evil incarnate, Elsa’s East German handler and Smiley’s nemesis, Dieter Frey, is also a concentration camp survivor. Charismatic and crippled, victim and villain, Dieter haunts Smiley’s conscience and ours as a historical and literary Jewish exile who challenges the role of the Jew in British spy fiction. With their embodied memories of the Holocaust, Dieter and Elsa Fennan overturn the idea of spy thrillers as escapist entertainment. 

Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, considered a masterwork, again features Jewish characters who are deceived by the expedient plotting on both sides of the Berlin wall. Liz Gold, perhaps too innocent and naïve as a British Jewish communist, is as expendable as Jens Fiedler, the brilliant and principled East German Jewish spy. In le Carré’s empathetic portraits, both Jews are sacrificed to the unwinnable war between East and West, highlighting the empty promises and corruption on both sides. Along with Alec Leamas, the disillusioned British agent, the Jewish agents must be silenced if the systems that betrayed them are to be preserved.  It should be remembered, however, that le Carré despised Communism while he feared for the West as ‘the kind of society that is worth defending’. 

If le Carré created Jewish characters to question the moral costs of the Cold War, the Jews in his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl confront his own position regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the novel represents both sides with complex representations of their yearnings for national recognition, the character of Kurtz, the Israeli head agent, raises questions that highlight the plight of all of le Carré’s Jews: ‘You have some racial objection to Jews overall? Jews as Jews, period?’ Perhaps not surprisingly, the novel led to accusations of le Carré’s antisemitism. I think he deserves the last word:

[E]ver since I started writing, because of the extraordinary childhood I had – the early introduction to the refugee problem in central Europe […] I have been fascinated, enchanted, drawn to and horrified by the plight of middle European Jews. It has infected my writing […] It is the one issue in my own life on which I may say I have a clean record. 

To learn more, please read my book Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film.

Art by Gus Condeixa. Photos by LilithDemoness, LongStock, and Marcus J. Ranum, all can be found in Deviantart.


Phyllis Lassner is Professor Emerita at Northwestern University and has published books and articles on British women writers and Holocaust representation and most recently co-edited The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture.

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