Briefly: John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

schoolboyThe Honourable Schoolboy itself is anything but brief, and that turned out–more or less–to be my problem with it. Of course, I am no stranger to long books, and I would never use scale on its own as a measure of literary merit. I’m also very aware that one person’s “too long” is another person’s “wonderfully immersive” or “lavish” or whatever. The question has to be whether, for you as a reader, the pay-off is proportional, or whether the book’s scope (whether broad or narrow) is the appropriate means to its ends. George Eliot said of Middlemarch, “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly”: I have decades of experience now at explaining why I think she’s right about that, not to mention how we can approach Middlemarch so as to appreciate how she uses all the space she claims for it. The conspicuously shorter Silas Marner, in contrast, is pretty much perfect as it is. Being long, or being short, is not in itself either a necessary or a sufficient condition for admiration or pleasure.

So why did I conclude that The Honourable Schoolboy is too long? Because by about half way through it, everything about it felt just slightly off balance to me: the pacing, the descriptions of setting and context, the twists and turns of the plot. Scenes sometimes seemed to be in real time, with no detail or comment apparently too incidental to be omitted or left to our imagination. Scenery and contexts were described in wonderfully specific, tactile detail, especially on some of the trips Le Carré takes us on through chaotic cities and countrysides fraught with menace–but after a while I felt that both we and the plot were bogging down in reportage. In his 1989 introduction, Le Carré says that this is the first of his novels written “on location” and on the basis of his own personal experience as “a field reporter”:

Thus when Jerry Westerby, my hero, takes his taxi-ride to the battle front a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, and involuntarily finds himself behind Khmer Rouge lines, I was sitting much where he sat, drumming my fingers on the same dashboard and offering the same prayers to my Maker. When Jerry visits an opium den or entrusts himself to the flying skills of an intoxicated Opium pilot in an aeroplane that would not have passed muster in a scrap auction, he is the beneficiary of my own timid adventurings.

schoolboy3I can imagine that having taken these risks to get so much material, a writer would want to make use of it all! But maybe that personal investment also worked against him, making him reluctant to leave anything out, or unable to choose between what he knew and what his story actually needed.

There were definitely things I liked about The Honourable Schoolboy. Jerry Westerby himself is at the top of that list: he’s a very likable character, and as the potential conflict between his mission and his feelings came into focus, I shared his mingled anxiety and urgency. The novel didn’t seem fraught with the same degree of moral seriousness I liked in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though, and it didn’t turn on itself with the same painful astuteness, the poignant undermining awareness that all this jockeying for position and maneuvering for knowledge and power may in some intangible but inevitable way be self-defeating for those who want to think of themselves as the good guys. Westerby is certainly one of the good guys (he is honourable, as the title suggests). That he can’t succeed or survive in the game is certainly an indictment of it, but I had a harder time here fixing on just what the lesson of his failure is, for us or for Smiley.

schoolboy2The other thing I really liked about The Honourable Schoolboy is Le Carré’s prose–which might seem contradictory, given my complaints about the novel’s length, but that just goes to show that good writing isn’t everything! Here’s just one example of the kind of sharply evocative description that is over-abundant in the novel:

The grass at Happy Valley Racecourse must be the most valuable crop on earth. There was very little of it. A narrow ring ran round the edge of what looked like a London borough recreation ground which sun and feet have beaten into dirt. Eight scuffed football pitches, one rugger pitch, one hockey gave an air of municipal neglect. But the thin green ribbon which surrounded this dingy package in that year alone was likely to attract a cool hundred million sterling through legal betting, and the same amount again in the shade. The place was less a valley than a fire-bowl–glistening white stadium one side, brown hills the other–while ahead of Jerry and to his left lurked the other Hong Kong: a card-house Manhattan of grey skyscraper slums crammed so tight they seemed to lean on one another in the heat. From each tiny balcony, a bamboo pole stuck out like a pin put in to brace the structure; from each pole hung innumerable flags of black laundry, as if something huge had brushed against the building leaving these tatters in its wake. It was from places like these, for all but the tiniest few that day, that Happy Valley offered the gambler’s dream of instantaneous salvation.

Le Carré is a genius at finding the apt metaphor, the telling detail, the reported smell or sound that somehow conveys the feeling of a place or a moment. I’m learning (belatedly, obviously) that in his best books he combines that luxurious gift with an equally brilliant knack of maintaining suspense and pace across a very complex plot. In The Honourable Schoolboy he doesn’t quite manage to do that–which makes it, not a bad book, but not as good a book as it could have been. I know I’m not alone in thinking that: other Le Carré fans have chimed in to say they agree about Schoolboy and to promise better things from Smiley’s People. And so, I’ll read on!

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