The Russia House by John le Carré (1989)

It is the time of perestroika and glasnost. Poor ill-fated Mikhael Gorbachev is trying to modernise the great failed Soviet experiment. An Anglo-Polish emigré publisher is in Moscow for a trade fair. A strange woman approaches and asks him to take a package on behalf of the publisher whose stand is next door but who hasn’t shown up. He does. He smuggles it back to Britain. He presents it to the Security Services. And thus begins the plot of The Russia House, le Carré’s 12th novel.

Her indoors Most le Carré protagonists have sad, broken, jaded middle-aged man-of-the-world relationships with woman. Over the course of the Smiley trilogy I became weary of Smiley’s failed marriage to the absent-but-constantly-asked-about Anne. It became a tic, the tired man’s failed marriage a synecdoche – his failure in this respect, and her betrayals and infidelities in another respect, standing for the multiple betrayals and failures of the milieu, of the spying life as a whole.

There was little of this in A Perfect Spy – or rather Pym’s asides about betraying his wife Mary and the suicide of his father’s Jewish refugee mistress, Lippsie, though they recur like motifs, are swamped by the other highly coloured and varied material.

But in The Russia House with its relatively smaller cast, the periodic narrator – the Service lawyer who gives the false name of Harry – rarely reflects on the action without referring to his oh-so-doomed affair with Hannah, wife of the senior partner at his law firm, and oh the betrayals and oh her long-suffering and oh I wish he would shut up.

‘And, God help me, I think of Hannah again. He has woken the pain of her in me as if she were a brand new wound.’

This self-pitying stance, this attitude of the jaded man of the world sadly lamenting the little lady feels incredibly forced, dated and patronising:

‘Married, Harry?’
‘Not so you’d notice,’ I replied.
‘Hell does that mean.’
‘I have a wife in the country. I live in the town.’
‘Had her long?’
‘Couple of lifetimes,’ I replied. (page 134)

Posh Like all the many 20th century English writers who went to public school (how many of them didn’t?), le Carré can satirise the preposterousness of his class, but he can’t escape it. The tone strays into PG Wodehouse territory. The shabby but pukkah publisher, Barley, whom a Russian dissident has sent secret documents to, is the drunk, jaded owner of a feeble publishing house, in reality funded by his maiden aunts but he went to Harrow, dontcha know? In one scene Harry the narrator is sent to manage the aunts:

I had already squared the sainted aunts [comic reference to the dated exclamation]. Over luncheon at Rules [posh restaurant or club] I had wooed and won [Wodehouse comic hyperbole] the Lady Pandora Weir-Scott [posh], better known to Barley as the Sacred Cow [learnèd joke, geddit] on account of her High Anglican beliefs [who cares which strand of Anglicanism people belong to nowadays: the high Anglicanism is a pointer to class].

[Harry then tells her he’s authorised to award her a bursary for deserving publishers even though there are other contenders.]

‘Well I’m a bloody sight more deserving than anybody,’ [bathos of titled posh girl turning out to be rude and selfish…] Lady Pandora averred, [ironic use of high diction], spreading her elbows wide to get the last scrap out of her lobster […and comically greedy and graceless]. ‘You try running Ammerford [presumably her stately pile] on thirty thousand a year […and comically unself-aware, ignorant of her wealth and privilege].’ (p.136)

Le Carré’s narrators often satirise, in a fairly familiar way, the English upper classes. But they are part of it, they come from the same cloth, with the same assumptions, style, phraseology, in-jokes, public school fetish for games, its anti-intellectualism and, when it really matters, its well-known fondness for treachery and unreliability. In the Russia House an Old Harrovian ends up betraying his country and the surrounding posh boys Harry and Ned sympathise with him. Is anybody wonder the Americans mistrust them?

Paucity of plot Not much happens. The Soviet physicist with his ludicrous talk of changing the world may or may not die a natural death. No-one else dies or is even threatened. British publisher is approached with Russian secrets. British Secret Service coach him to go back to Russia to make direct contact with dissident physicist and get more. Publisher falls in love with physicist’s former lover and turns himself in to the Soviet authorities on condition she is not harmed. She isn’t, he disappears for a while but then reappears in his Lisbon flat where Harry meets him for an all-night chat in which the events recounted in the novel are clarified.

Traitor or not There’s a built-in limitation to the outcome of these kind of books in that it is binary: either they’re a spy or they’re not; either a traitor or loyal. In Tinker Tailor is Haydon, Bland or Esterhase a traitor? In The Perfect Spy is Pym a traitor? In The Russia House will Barley be loyal or a traitor?

I didn’t feel the slightest shred of tension, possibly because the two previous novels had covered similar ground but with much greater psychological depth and variety. By page 300 I quite wanted it to hurry up and be over. Le Carré himself seems to lose interest at the end of the book: the last 20 pages or so are disconnected fragments. The interest, in other words, isn’t in the plot, it lies elsewhere.

World-view It is, I suggest, partly in the posh but jaded, the shabby English milieu of 50-something, public-school-educated white men drinking scotch and gin in embassies and clubs, in safe houses in Hampstead and secret meeting rooms in Whitehall, the world of their cynicism and mutual loathing and their failed marriages and ungrateful children. These are not young people’s books. It is a Daily Telegraph mind-set, of retired military men who think the modern world is going to the dogs.

Pen portraits But the interest is also in le Carré’s phenomenal ability as a writer. Sometimes he’s flat and factual, but sometimes he can turn on a sixpence and conjure magic out of the air. Many pages in his books contain vivid, leaping turns of phrase; a good example is his way with quick devastating portraits of minor characters:

A burly man came tripping down the crazy-paving path to greet us. He wore a blazer of British racing green and a tie with gold squash rackets on it, and a handkerchief shoved into his cuff.
‘You’re from the Firm. Well done. I’m O’Mara…’
O’Mara had grey-blond hair and an off-hand regimental voice cracked by alcohol.His neck was puffy and his athlete’s fingers were stained mahogany with nicotine. (page 222)

There was a knock at the door and Wintle came in, an eternal student of fifty-seven. He was tall but crooked, with a curly grey head that shot off at an angle, and an air of brilliance almost extinguished. He wore a sleeveless Fair Isle pullover, Oxford bags and moccasins. He sat with his knees together and held his sherry glass away from him like a chemical retort he wasn’t sure of. (page 223)

I had to Google Fair Isle pullover and Oxford bags to find out what they were. I suspect they were old-fashioned in the 1980s of loadsamoney and the Stock market Big Bang. Now they’re getting on for needing footnotes, like a lot else in the novels.

Anti-Americanism This is the first of his novels where Americans play a major part and le Carré’s characters pour various forms of scorn on them. They have money the Brits can’t dream of, technology we can’t afford, and it is no surprise when they pretty much take over our contact, our case and our man. And inevitable that they prompt snideness and awe and resentment in the British characters.

… the American interlopers… They wore navy blazers and short hair, and they had a Mormon cleanliness that I found slightly revolting… I looked again at the new Americans, so slight, so trim, so characterless… (page 218)

The implication being that we Brits are the opposite: scruffy, hairy, unshaven, ramshackle and stuffed full of character, which generally seems to mean knowing the rules of cricket and being a drunk. O’Mara and Wintle stand as good examples of the Brits; Bob, Cy, Sheriton and Brady standing for the can-do, gung-ho, over-confident Americans. But our Old Harrovian betrays them too.


The Russia House by John le Carré, published in 1989 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1990 Coronet paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was swiftly turned into a movie, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer and released in 1990. Apparently it was one of the first movies to be shot on location in the newly ex-communist Russia.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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  1. The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré (1990) | Books & Boots

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