George and Ann

John le Carré wrote one of the strangest marriages in fiction.

Rosa Lyster
Famous Cuckolds

One thing about having access to the computer is that the death of a writer you love is now primarily an occasion for getting indignant instead of sad. Maybe it was always like this and people were tetchily rattling their big feathery newspaper sheets as they read an obituary for George Eliot that failed to interrogate the mystery of why it is funny when Will Ladislaw of Middlemarch is described as “an Italian with white mice,” but let’s agree that stuff like this is more taxing on the spirit now. A writer you love and for some reason feel proprietorial over dies, and you grit your teeth in preparation for disagreeing with every critical assessment or fond remembrance that is weirdly more about what a winning little upstart the eulogist was when she sat next to the bard of Chicago at the lunch that began their erotic friendship. I once met someone who told me she planned to “go to Turks and Caicos” in the event of Joan Didion’s death so as to avoid this whole business, and while I believe that she was joking, I do think about it every time a writer I love dies: me on an island with no internet, effortlessly turning my gaze away from wrong ideas about Janet Malcolm.

I thought about it when John le Carré died at the end of last year, having long believed that the most celebrated espionage writer on earth was underappreciated and misunderstood. I was sure that people were going to say things that would have me longing for a deckchair in the no-internet Caribbean, such as taking the opportunity to air their grievances about the insufficient reverence afforded to writers of genre fiction, or to say anything good about political idealism as practiced by “Cold Warriors.” I was mostly wrong about this. The obituaries and appreciations indicated that there was a remarkable consistency to the way his work is loved and understood. Everyone praised the same things – genius for plot, atmosphere of creeping dread, interesting about class, feeling of permanently thrashing around in a near-impenetrable thicket of tonal irony, flattering assumption of shared moral indignation regarding opaque political alliances, unbeatable at establishing the basis for obsessive mutual hatred that sometimes resembles love, knows how to describe the slippery feel of an expensive overcoat’s pockets or the weight of a small, important book. All very gratifying.

My only objection would be: not enough discussion about the relationship between le Carré’s greatest character, George Smiley, and his wife, Ann, which plays out over the five novels where George Smiley appears as a central figure and is one of the weirdest portraits of a marriage ever committed to the page. The reasons for this omission are most likely either boring (something to do with expectations of the genre) or depressing (something to do with ambient contempt for women), but it’s nice to think that le Carré’s portrayal of their marriage is not given the attention it is due because it is so strange, to the degree that if you start talking about it you will never stop.

I have been waiting for some months now for the discussion to at least begin. It has not. People are busy and also very depressed, and discussion of novels appears to have degenerated to the extent that I saw a post the other day suggesting that if we were to continue describing the novels of Sally Rooney as “realist,” they should be more about fat American Christians. So, fine (me shrugging my shoulders in imitation of the kind of Slavic-inflected gesture of weary resignation le Carré’s minor characters are so keen on). I will do it myself.

Existing discussion of the Smileys’ marriage tends to focus on George, with only glancing, baffled mention of Ann. George Smiley is “arguably the most memorable character in modern fiction,” the brilliant intelligence officer at the head of the Circus, and Ann is his beautiful, aristocratic, Unfaithful Wife. George is discussed in terms of his underlying melancholy, his penetrating intelligence, his pursuit of Karla (the KGB agent whose chase is the central plotline of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People), his snuffly voice that cannot easily be heard above the bray of the more confidently upper-class members of the Circus, what some reviewers refer to as his “physique,” which is both unexceptional and strikingly disappointing (this man is somehow both physically anonymous and walking around forcibly reminding people of an egg), his lack of illusion as to human weakness, and the forbearance with which he endures the unfaithfulness of his Unfaithful Wife, who is called Ann.

Ann is discussed mainly in terms of how she is his faithless wife, Ann, permanently off to one side but still exerting a slightly occult hold over a man who she appears to have married for no reason other than to humiliate him for five books. She has to exist so that we understand from the offing that a) George is driven to pursue Karla because of a complex sense of betrayal rooted in the fact that his faithless wife, Ann, is single-mindedly focused on fucking him over, and b) his ongoing attachment to his faithless wife, Ann, means that his colleagues sometimes take him less seriously than his intelligence warrants, and they do so at their own peril etc. In this view, faithless wife Ann is an insanely sexy bit of background dysfunction, and the marriage is primarily a site of catastrophe and shame for poor, trapped, inexplicably loyal George.

Some parts of this are accurate — Ann is so, so unfaithful, and George’s colleagues are so, so rude to him about it. Over and over, we see them making jaunty remarks about how once again the old girl has had sex with the maî​tre d' of a once-glamorous restaurant in full view of a number of junior staff members, or how she has personally ushered in a new and frightening phase of the Cold War by embarking on an affair with Bill Haydon, who is both a Soviet mole and for some reason her cousin. These men are always slapping George on the back and going on about how he will never divorce “the lovely Ann,” even as she is using George’s account at the tailors to buy suits for a Cypriot dockhand, and then after George lopes sadly away in his ill-fitting garments, they are saying “poor fellow” in a pleased voice. Nevertheless, to see George as a cuckold and Ann as a bitch is a reductive view of the arrangement, which I would argue is much stranger and more interesting than the standard interpretation would have it.

From the beginning of the Karla trilogy, at least, it is clear that George’s attachment to his wife is his definitive feature. Here is how he is introduced at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet.” A sad-seeming man, initially, whose undoubtedly sad sex life is mercifully none of your concern. Now, the sound of glass shattering at the entrance of Ann: “For reasons of vanity he wore no hat, believing rightly that hats made him ridiculous. ‘Like an egg-cosy,’ his beautiful wife had remarked not long before the last occasion on which she left him, and her criticism, as so often, had endured.”

Ann. What a swerve! Instead of a sad man in big wet clothes, we now have a sad man in big wet clothes embroiled in a complicated set-up with a beautiful woman. Why does she keep returning to him even as she is so critical of his fashion sense? Why does he keep putting up with this shit? A sad man, still, but also a dark horse, all moody and sensual (sorry), and this portrait only becomes moodier and more sensual (sorry again) as the trilogy progresses and the answer to these questions becomes clear.

For every reminder that Ann has once again devised a way to publicly cheat on George with “a twenty-year-old Welsh Apollo at Sadler’s Wells,” there is the equally insistent reminder that George knows what he is doing. His mean colleagues will give him this at least, that he is “one of your flabby oak trees … Think you could blow him over with one puff, but when it comes to the storm he’s the only one left standing at the end of it,” or that “You thought, to look at him, that he couldn't cross the road alone, but you might as well have offered protection to a hedgehog.” Never mind how funny it is that le Carré’s idea of a tough animal is a hedgehog, the point is that the reader is never allowed to forget that George is a calculating and robust operator, who in the words of the most perceptive character in the trilogy (the thoroughly bizarre Connie Sachs), has never been known to do anything without a reason. He says it himself: “Smiley once more rehearsed the reason for his present misery, and concluded with a dispassion inseparable from the humble part of his nature that they were of his own making.”

We can say that this omnipotence fails him when it comes to his pathetic loyalty to his faithless wife, Ann, who is in possession of such powerful sexual charisma that she essentially drives him insane, OR we can say that he has decided to carry on loving her a) because it makes more sense than anything else, and b) because it makes him better at his job. Yes, he is infatuated with her. He can’t look at another woman without thinking about Ann: “Her eyes were timid and grey, she had that period English beauty which had once been Ann’s, accepting and grave.” He can’t look at a statue of a woman without thinking about Ann: “The maquette that might have been by Degas portrayed a ballerina with her arms above her head. Her body was curved backwards and her lips were parted in what might have been ecstasy and there was no question but that, fake or genuine, she bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Ann.” Yes, she is radiantly beautiful and also aristocratic, which is a nice thing for a socially avaricious man. It’s not just that though. It’s that he is lost without her, somehow stupider and less perceptive.

Here he is a little bit after the stuff with the hat, offering the most enigmatic explanation possible for his loyalty to old Ann: “‘I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral…Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things. What do you think of it?’” A good and timely question, and my answer is that while I think this is a weird idea to start throwing around at the beginning of a spy novel, it is also an uncharacteristically lucid clue to the ongoing puzzle of their marriage. What is being spelled out here, I think, is that George’s devotion to Ann is a conscious and psychologically advanced choice, one he has made because he knows what he is about. He is a person with an excess supply of attention to give. It needs a focus if it is to be useful, and what better object for that focus than the number one faithless wife around? Ann. ANN.

Here is George attempting to interrogate Karla. These two geniuses sit across from each other under a broken fan in the Delhi jail where Karla has been briefly detained after “the San Francisco operation” has been blown and another KGB agent (referred to throughout as “Brother Rudnev,” which is not important but still a nice treat for those of us who appreciate le Carré’s high, ridiculous style) is busily denouncing him in Moscow. Smiley tells Karla that he should defect because if he goes back to Moscow he will either be shot or put in jail. He tells him that he should defect because he is “an old man,” and because surely it is evident that his faith in the system has been misplaced. Nothing. Then, who does he start talking to Karla about? Why, Ann! Ann. “As it was, the next thing I knew, I was talking about Ann…not about my Ann, not in as many words. About his Ann. I assumed he had one. I had asked myself … what would a man think of in such a situation, what would I? And I came up with a subjective answer: his woman.”

Still nothing, but as anyone who believes they understand the resolution of these three novels knows, the Ann line of questioning is the one that ultimately leads to Karla’s defeat/defection. Thinking about who Karla loves and why becomes George’s chosen mode of attack and without attempting to paraphrase one of the most complicated plots on earth, this approach works. To George, it is self-evident that everyone in this world has an Ann, someone they love beyond all reason and would do anything for even when the rewards are dubious or non-existent. This belief is repeatedly exposed as false throughout the novels, which are full of people who don’t really love anyone and who are cheating on their pissed-off wives with exhausted violinists, but George sticks to it regardless.

Towards the end of Smiley’s People, when it is clear that Karla has lost, George reflects on how it happened, suddenly feeling sorry for the man “whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was intimately familiar.” Karla defects because he loves his daughter; George does literally everything because he loves Ann, and while he himself may see this as a weakness, it is this quality that allows him to triumph.

It’s all very embarrassing to have your sassy colleagues constantly drawing attention to Ann’s affairs with a hysterical out-of-work actor from Lyme Regis or whatever, but without an Ann, George cannot properly interpret the world. This is romance! This is the purpose of being alive, to find someone who sharpens the corners of the world for you and allows you to peer into the souls of your fellow man! Sorry if you believe that you can fully participate in the human experience without sometimes wishing you could just flush your head down the toilet, but you cannot, and George knows this instinctively. It’s not necessarily that he enjoys being publicly cheated on (he maybe enjoys this a bit), but that he has understood and accepted the key facts about love, which are that it is humiliating, and something to be endured while closing your eyes in the back of a taxi and having the word “SUFFERING” scrawl across the front of your skull. What is the alternative? To cheat on your wife? To just change your mind and love someone else? To not love anyone at all? Please. Let us be real, and submit to the fact that love is agony, pain is unavoidable, and that the presence of an Ann is what makes life worth living.

These are spy novels, but there is a strong case to be made for them being romance novels as well, or at least ones that present a mortifyingly recognizable picture of what it’s like to not be able to live without someone, and to see the world and yourself through their eyes first. There are a lot of books that will confirm your sense that being in love is one of the most embarrassing things that can ever happen to a human being, but I can’t think of that many that go on to persuasively demonstrate that this state of abjection is to be sought out not only because it is exhilarating and consuming and makes you feel like a demon, but because it makes you smarter and better at your job, whether that job is being a spymaster negotiating the end of empires or a woman who has in her time lost her cool over someone to the extent of writing poems about it. This is one of the most comforting things I can think of.

Rosa Lyster, a Gawker columnist, lives in Cape Town.