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Le Carre's People: Celebrating fifty years of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

On 7th September the Centre for Contemporary Literature held its latest symposium at the Barbican. The day-long event was devoted to the work of spy novelist John le Carré. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which first brought him great literary success.

The event was organized by Joe Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature. He explains: “Helen Conford, who has responsibility for le Carré at Penguin, pointed out that this was the fiftieth anniversary and suggested that we might stage an event centring on this especially celebrated novel. When I heard that the Barbican was also holding a month-long season of screenings of adaptations from le Carré, I thought that it would be ideal to hold this symposium in one of its venues. It’s unusual for us to be able to dovetail so neatly with such a high-profile film season – but at the end of our symposium we literally hurried across the road to a sold-out screening of the 1965 film starring Richard Burton”. Burton’s co-star, Claire Bloom, then appeared on stage to discuss the film with broadcaster Matthew Sweet.

Talks delivered at the symposium juxtaposed le Carré with George Orwell, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming. His work was read against the nuclear paralysis of the Cold War, and as exemplifying a tendency towards paranoia visible from Ezra Pound to Thomas Pynchon. A final panel assessed adaptations of le Carré’s fiction to television and film history. The last paper of the day, on film, was given by Adam Sisman, le Carré’s biographer.

Joe comments: “The event was a chance to reflect on the particular qualities of le Carré’s work; more broadly, it was the first time that we at the Centre for Contemporary Literature had really engaged with spy fiction. We were reminded of the political pertinence of espionage narratives today – even if, in the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, the politics of information takes different forms from those known to George Smiley.”

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