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Alex Beam

Is John le Carré the greatest living writer?

John Furniss/Wire image

A few weeks ago, I read that Philip Kerr, the creator of the successful Bernie Gunther mystery series, thought that John le Carré was the one living, English-language writer likely to be read and revered by future generations.

Kerr’s comment didn’t interest me in the least. Reputation-speculation just isn’t my thing. Most people know that Herman Melville’s “classic’’ “Moby-Dick” was out of print during the author’s lifetime, and became a classic only decades after his death, when 20th-century critics canonized the work. Melville thought he had written a great novel, but his contemporaries thought otherwise.

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Yet I couldn’t banish Kerr’s comment from my mind. I decided to e-mail him. Did he really think le Carré was the Herman Melville of the 22nd century? Why?

Kerr’s answer: “Just as the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald define the early part of the 20th century, so those of John le Carré define the end of it. His work not only bookends the Cold War, it defines it and provides its glossary. ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ will surely stand as the greatest novel of a time which lasted almost 50 years.

“Still active in his eighties, still asking challenging questions in the Snowden era, he is certainly our greatest living writer in English and ranks alongside Greene and Waugh. Long after the likes of Updike and Bellow are long forgotten, people will still look to le Carré to discover a world that now seems to us almost unthinkable.”

Although these aren’t the words I would have chosen, I think Kerr has a strong argument. I was touring Australia a few weeks ago, tagging along on my wife’s business trip. Not for the first time, the depth and breadth of Great Britain’s commonwealth and colonial culture overwhelmed me. Canada, India, Australia, and of course the United States — that’s quite a brood.

The magnificent, creative, and tormented children of empire, to be sure.

The great story that le Carré tells, perhaps better than anyone, is the transfer of power from the British Empire to the American Empire after World War II. I think all of le Carré’s work boils down to a few pages in the novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” when turncoat Bill Haydon, modeled on the real-life traitor Kim Philby, explains to the pathologically diffident George Smiley why he chose to betray Britain and work for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union:

“In capitalist America, economic repression of the masses is institutionalized to a point which even Lenin could not have foreseen,” Haydon says. le Carré narrates: “[Haydon] hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed that he did.”

Authors hate to be identified with their fictional protagonists, but I would argue that a part of le Carré similarly bemoans this grand, bad bargain of the 20th century, substituting the azimuth-stretching empire that gave us Shakespeare and Lord Nelson for a world order perhaps best known for “Baywatch” and the Big Mac.

I think le Carré, like the fictional Bill Haydon, has come to hate America very deeply. His novel “A Most Wanted Man,” now a movie starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, “ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent,” Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote when the book came out in 2008. I agree.

Like many others, le Carré came unhinged during the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney war on terror. I hope he will come to see that in a world of multifarious evils, America is not the worst among them.

Faint praise for America, but high praise for le Carré. Kerr is right; of living writers, he may be the best among them.

Bonus le Carré Material: Former Globe editorial page editor David Greenway's forthcoming memoir, “Foreign Correspondent,” has a charming anecdote about le Carré, who dedicated his masterpiece, “The Honourable Schoolboy,” to Greenway.

le Carré wanted to shadow Greenway — then working for The Washington Post — in Hong Kong, to gather color for “Schoolboy,” published in 1977. So Greenway arranged for the famous spy novelist to become a Post lensman. Lenswoman, actually. To disguise his identity, le Carré adopted the nom de plume “Janet Leigh-Carr,” which appeared alongside Greenway’s dispatches.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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