Launching a Novelistic Love Affair: Character Creation & Romantic Attraction in John le Carré’s The Russia House

As with every John Le Carré novel, there is so much brilliance in The Russia House: the dialogue, the pacing of the scenes, and most of all—as in anything by this master craftsman—the characters. In The Russia House I was especially affected by the love affair between two principal characters: Barley, the hapless British publisher who is recruited as a spy, and Katya, the idealistic Soviet literary professional who tries to help her friend and former lover, a government scientist, get his vitally important work out to the western world.

Consider the scene where we meet Katya for the first time, at a Moscow book fair. In the scene, she approaches a minor character, Landau, about her urgent desire to publish her scientist friend’s “novel,” which contains highly combustible secret information about the shortcomings of the Soviet nuclear program. Here’s the encounter:

She was earnest. She was intelligent. She was determined. She was scared, even though her dark eyes were lit with humour. And she had that rare quality which Landau in his flowery way liked to call the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow. In other words, she had quality as well as strength. And since in moments of crisis our thoughts do not run consecutively but rather sweep over us in waves of intuition and experience, he sensed all these things at once and was on terms with them by the time she spoke to him again.    
 ‘A Soviet friend of mine has written a creative and important work of literature,’ she said after taking a deep breath. ‘It is a novel. A great novel. Its message is important for all mankind.’    
She had dried up.    
‘A novel,’ Landau prompted. And then, for no reason he could afterwards think of, ‘What’s its title, dear?’      
The strength in her, he decided, came neither from bravado nor insanity but from conviction.     ‘What’s its message then, if it hasn’t got a title?’  
‘It concerns actions before words. It rejects the gradualism of the perestroika. It demands action and rejects all cosmetic change.’      
‘Nice,’ said Landau, impressed.  
She spoke like my mother used to, Harry: chin up and straight into your face.    
‘In spite of glasnost and the supposed liberalism of the new guidelines, my friend’s novel cannot yet be published in the Soviet Union,’ she continued. ‘Mr. Scott Blair has undertaken to publish it with discretion.’    
‘Lady,’ said Landau kindly, his face now close to hers. ‘If your friend’s novel is published by the great house of Abercrombie & Blair, believe me, you can be assured of total secrecy.’ 
He said this partly as a joke he couldn’t resist and partly because his instincts told him to take the stiffness out of their conversation and make it less conspicuous to anybody watching. And whether she understood the joke or not, the woman smiled also, a swift warm smile of self-encouragement that was like a victory over her fears.

The key thing to notice here is that Le Carré is introducing Katya in such a sympathetic and accurate way that we immediate feel we know her, and at the same time we really want to like her. Le Carré can do this because he’s such a gifted novelist, which in itself is a helpful thing simply to acknowledge and witness. But let’s break it down a little bit to see if we can figure out exactly how he does it.

The first thing he does, through Landau, is to tell us directly about the essence of her personality: “She was earnest. She was intelligent. She was determined.” As it happens, these are all qualities that readers are likely to find highly sympathetic in a fictional character. She’s also scared, which both plants a question and heightens our sympathy for her. And she’s got a sense of humor about the situation (“her dark eyes were lit with humour”), which makes us admire her all the more. So already, in just a few lines, there has emerged from the story this extremely compelling, sympathetic, interesting character.

Another writer might have left it at that and gone back to unspooling the plot, but Le Carré knows better. He has Landau dwell on her more, deciding that, “she had that rare quality which Landau in his flowery way liked to call the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow.” Because of the accurate way le Carré portrays Landau’s thought process—“ since in moments of crisis our thoughts do not run consecutively but rather sweep over us in waves of intuition and experience”—and because of various other things the author has ensured we know about Landau—he’s a widely experienced and notably discriminating sexual adventurer—we trust this judgment. Perhaps we think of other people we’ve encountered in our lives who have “the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow,” and perhaps this further cements Katya’s attractiveness as a character.

What Le Carré is doing is stacking one positive character trait on top of another, but it’s far from haphazard. Katya’s making sense to us as a human being even as she emerges as the kind of person we’d very much like to meet. Our recognition of the internal logic of the character, combined that character’s basic attractiveness, draw us irresistibly toward her.

After several lines of unmediated dialogue we get another stroke: Katya’s strength, Landau observes, “came neither from bravado nor insanity but from conviction.” Yet another point in her favor—we admire people whose strength comes from their convictions—but think about the ordering here. If the strong sense of conviction had come before we perceived her determination, her vulnerability, and her “Class that Only Nature Can Bestow,” she might not have been so immediately alluring.

It’s interesting to note that up until now most of what we know about Katya (aside from the fact that she has dark eyes) comes in terms not of her physical being, but of the content of her inner character. Now, we get a more imagistic stroke: she speaks “chin up and straight to your face.” This physical description is vague enough that the reader is allowed to construct his or her own uniquely vivid image of Katya, and it’s of a piece with what we know about her essential character. By this point in the scene, I would venture to say, we’re sold on Katya. We want her to be our fictional friend, and we may even—because a novel is a vicarious experience, after all—want her to be our fictional lover.

At the end of the scene, we have Katya’s final introductory stroke:a swift warm smile of self-encouragement that was like a victory over her fears.” Again, this is a brilliant physical description, because it mirrors her internal conflict—her determination struggling to overcome her fear—and, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, a character’s internal conflict is intrinsically fascinating in fiction.

A second very interesting progression in the development of our fictional love story is the meeting scene at a crowded Moscow literary event between Katya and Le Carré’s protagonist, Barley, the British publisher and newly recruited spy. We observe the meeting from an omniscient (or alternatively put, because we only enter two mindsets, a dual close third) point of view:

As actors Barley and Katya were dressed for different plays: Katya for high drama in her blue dress and old lace collar that had so taken Landau’s fancy; and Barley for low English comedy in a pinstripe suit of his father’s that was too short for him in the sleeve, and a pair of very scuffed buckskin boots by Ducker’s of Oxford that only a collector of bygones could have regarded as still splendid. 
When they met they surprised each other. After all they were still strangers, closer to the forces that had brought them here than to one another. Discarding the impulse to give her a formal peck on the cheek, Barley found himself instead puzzling over her eyes, which were not only very dark and full of light at the same time but heavily fringed, so that he couldn’t help wondering whether she was endowed with a double set of eyelashes.  
And since Barley on his side wore that indefinably foolish expression which overcomes certain Englishmen in the presence of beautiful women, it was Katya’s suspicion that her first instinct on the telephone had been right and he was haughty.  
Meanwhile they were standing close enough to feel the warmth of each other’s bodies and for Barley to smell her make-up. The Babel of foreign languages continued round them.  
‘You are Mr. Barley, I think,’ she told him breathlessly and laid a hand along his forearm, for she had a way of touching people as if seeking to assure herself that they were real.  
‘Yes indeed, the same, hullo, well done, and you’re Katya Orlova, Niki’s friend. Wonderful you could make it. Masterpiece of timing. How are you?’    
Photographs don’t lie but they don’t tell the truth either, Barley was thinking, watching her breast rise and fall with her breathing. They don’t catch the glow of a girl who looks as though she’s just witnessed a miracle and you’re the person she’s chosen to tell first.
 It’s essential that we get both characters’ interiorities here, so that we can understand, and even to some degree FEEL, their mutual attraction. And Le Carré is such a skilled writer that we DO feel it: the cautious first reactions, followed by the increasing sense of intimacy—the way they stand close enough together they can feel the warmth of their bodies and Barley can smell her makeup—and finally, on Barley’s part at least, the dazed stirrings of infatuation: “the glow of a girl who looks as though she’s just witnessed a miracle and you’re the person she’s chosen to tell first.”

In the rest of the scene and subsequent scenes, we get more conversation and interaction between our prospective lovers, and a sense of increasing familiarity between them, though explicitly at least they’re just doing business. Katya’s trying to get Barley to publish her friend’s explosive treatise; Barley’s trying to get urgent information from her about the author for his British and American spymasters. And then we get this:

He loved her grave silences while she stared at him. He loved her listening with her eyes and the sense of recovered companionship each time she spoke.

See how much Le Carré is capturing here in these two simple sentences? The description of one half of the love affair, filtered through the perception of the other half, is so accurate, so true to life, so alluring on a basic human level that the reader simply cannot resist it.

And so Le Carré’s espionage-based love story is off and running. Not only do we no longer question it; we actively believe in it. Because we’ve experienced the attraction for ourselves, we can’t help rooting for this star-crossed coupling to succeed.