Weekend Reading: Making an Effort

Woman Reading (Elinga)I can’t post about books I’ve finished this week because I haven’t finished any. I’ve been trying to read–keeping in mind my realization that my life as a whole is better if I do, and also if I then write about what I’ve read. One obstacle has been my eyesight, unfortunately! Happy as I still am with the multifocal contact lenses that make almost every other aspect of my life perfectly visible, apparently my eyes have been changing just enough that now, if I’m wearing them, I find it really hard to focus on books. I can read just fine without the lenses in, but I don’t like to take them in and out, so I’ve been fitting some reading in during the mornings before I put them in to start the rest of my day, and in the evenings when I will still need them a bit later for TV, I am experimenting with some cheap reading glasses–which do seem to help with that near focus, but make me pretty swimmy if I dare to look around and not just stare at the page. I need to see my eye doctor and reassess my options, but I don’t want to have an eye exam (which brings you inescapably up close and personal for quite a long time, if it’s thorough) until … well, until.

bowenSo, one challenge is aging, and there’s not much to be done about that (and it’s only going to get worse, I know!) The other, though, has been the books I’ve been trying to focus on. Both are ones I have wanted to read for a long time, but neither has proved the right book for this moment, although one of them I am still working on. The first one I started this week was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been on my reading wish list for years. It looks great! I am sure it is great! But a couple of chapters into it, I just couldn’t bear it: it was making me feel both bored and claustrophobic. I suspect some of that is a deliberate effect, as it seems to be about a stifling world that tries to stifle people’s feelings. Bowen’s sentences didn’t help. I love Olivia Manning’s description of Bowen’s prose as being like someone drinking milk with their legs crossed behind their head: often, it just seems to be making something that’s actually fairly simple much more complicated than it needs to be! I can and have enjoyed exactly that about Bowen–but not now. Maybe The Death of the Heart will be a good book to read in the summer, on the deck with the languorous pleasure of sunshine to soothe my nerves and no constant fretting about discussion posts ungraded and PowerPoint slides to laboriously create. Back on the shelf it goes, until then.

le-carre-perfectThe other is John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, which I am still working on. I loved the Smiley books so much, and was so engaged by The Little Drummer Girl–how could I not want to read the book Le Carré himself considered his masterpiece?  I acquired it in a flush of enthusiasm after reading the others, started it–and did not like it at all. Then I started it again, months later–and still could not get a grip on it. I took it off my shelves when I put Bowen back, because it seemed like the opposite kind of book and so I thought it might work where The Death of the Heart hadn’t. My hope is that if I can just get further in this time, I will figure it out, by which I don’t mean the plot (which I expect will be as twisty as always) but the voice and the style and the mood. It feels really different from the other Le Carrés I’ve read: it is more fragmented, more arch and nasty, and less (so far) morally serious. I know a lot of people argue that life is too short to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying, and this is a case in which I have obviously agreed so far, quitting it for other books that I liked better. I am not an absolutist about finishing every book you start–but I have, often enough, found that persistence can pay off, and I believe, too, that good books sometimes teach us how to read them, and it’s a lesson that can take more than a few chapters. I want to stick with it this time, just to give it a real chance. (Any admirers out there who would like to encourage me in this effort? Please chime in!)

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYSo that’s where I am this week! I have been thinking a lot about posting more in my once-usual “this week in my classes” series but I can’t seem to get past the twin obstacles of my classes no longer being distinguishable “events” and of all the work for them already being done by computer, which makes reflecting on them by writing about them on the computer a lot less appealing, for some reason. I have a rambling post partially drafted about the other topic that has been much on my mind: realizing that by the time we are back on campus, I will be among the most senior members of my department, not by age but by longevity. In fact, by July 1 2022, I will have only one colleague still around who has been in the department longer than I have. What does–what should–this mean to how I go about my work, or how I think about it? I don’t really know, and I thought that writing about it might help. Maybe it will! We’ll see. In the meantime, things go on exactly the same as they have for months and months. Vaccines are coming, but very slowly–as is spring. Reason for optimism on both counts, but what’s still required above all is patience, and after a year of this, I sometimes feel I have to dig pretty deep for that.

The Smell of Failure: Mick Herron, Slow Horses


She meant well, he supposed, but her predecessor here had quit the Service, ground into submission by routine tasks. As had his own; a man called Black, who had lasted only six months, and left before River arrived. That was the true purpose of Slough House. It was a way of losing people without having to get rid of them, sidestepping legal hassle and tribunal threats. And it occurred to him that maybe that was the point of Sid’s presence: that her youth and freshness were meant as a counterpoint to the slow horses’ failure, rendering it more pungent. He could smell it now. Looking at this hooded boy on his screen, River could smell failure on his own skin.

When I mentioned on Twitter how much I had enjoyed Mick Herron’s TLS essay on rereading John Le Carré, several people encouraged me to try Herron’s own fiction–both his espionage novels, the Slough House series, and his Oxford crime novels. I found some of the more recent Slough House ones at Bookmark a while ago but held off because I was advised to start at the beginning if I could, so I was excited to find the first one, Slow Horses, in stock the next time I went looking. I settled in to read it yesterday, a treat for a day off classes, and I finished it by the light of our Coleman lantern after the power went out around 9:30 p.m. Yes, it was that good: I didn’t want to just leave the last 25 pages or so until today! Plus I was a bit concerned that if I put it down, I would drop the threads of the plot before I picked it back up again–though compared to Le Carré’s plots, Slow Horses is relatively straightforward.

Because the twists and turns of the plot are central to the pleasure of reading Slow Horses, I won’t go into much detail. I’ll just say that the story unfolds in the shadow of the 7/7 bombings and deals in quite a pointed way with their consequences, both for the state apparatus charged with protecting the British public and with elements of that public who find in the terrorist threat justification for their own retrograde form of nationalism, with its own equally destructive extremism. Instead of the Circus–which is, at least in theory, a center of excellence for discovering and outwitting Britain’s enemies–Herron gives us Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents (the punningly named “slow horses” of the title), where deliberate discouragement is the strategy for getting them to quit, an administratively preferable option to simply firing them. And instead of Smiley–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and principled–he gives us Jackson Lamb–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and flatulent.slow-horses

As that detail suggests, Herron does not take his subject quite as seriously as Le Carré: at least in the ones of his I’ve read so far, at most there’s the occasional bit of wry humor, or wincing irony, while parts of Slow Horses are actually laugh-out-loud funny, and others, while still suspenseful, are structured a bit like a comedy of errors, with near misses and clever ploys that stay just on the shadowy side of farce. It’s hard after a while not to root for Slough House’s collection of misfits and fuck-ups, to hope that Lamb himself underestimates them when, for instance, he gives the hostage they undertake to rescue no better than 60-40 odds of surviving the attempt. As our motley assortment of underdogs discovers what it feels like to have a real purpose again, you can feel them also recovering their self-respect, and it’s oddly touching.

Slow Horses doesn’t have quite the moral gravitas I found so compelling in the Smiley novels, but Herron shares Le Carré’s focus on the conflict between integrity and self-interest, and the challenge of negotiating both in the service of one’s country. He is grimmer than Le Carré — more graphically violent — but the violence is played with a touch of mordant humor that, while occasionally unsettling, keeps things exciting rather than horrifying. Perhaps Herron is a bit too fond of the bait-and-switch as a technique to keep the suspense simmering … but it works! That’s why I stayed huddled by my lantern in our dark and rapidly chilling living room until I knew how everything turned out. I call that an endorsement! I’ll definitely read more Mick Herron, both in this series and (if I can find them) his Oxford mysteries.

“Educated to Tragedy”: John Le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

drummer-girl1She was entering by degrees exactly that condition which Joseph had predicted. She was being educated to tragedy, and the tragedy absolved her of the need to explain herself. She was a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass, into a land where merely to be present was to be part of a monstrous injustice. She had joined the victims and was finally reconciled to her deceit.

At first, reading The Little Drummer Girl, I really missed Smiley. It’s not just that he is a great character–original, distinctive, and perversely inviting. It’s also that for all his gloom (and perhaps in part because of it) he is the moral center of his novels, dogged in his determination to rest what he can of righteousness out of circumstances that make it not just inaccessible but nearly inconceivable. The books are melancholy because they occupy such disillusioned territory, and because in spite of that, there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for) as a government agent. Because he is what he is, we mourn his losses and failures and betrayals of principle.

In The Little Drummer Girl, though, we are surrounded not by operatives but by ideologues, and at the center of it is only Charlie–vain, impulsive, erratic, susceptible. It’s true that she is also smart, courageous, and determined, but to what (or whose) ends? For some time, as I read the novel, I was frustrated by her. Not only is she a kind of character I almost instinctively dislike, but she did nothing to anchor the novel morally. She never really does, but by the end I came to see her instability as essential to the role she plays, both in the novel’s elaborate scheme of deception and in its treatment of the political conflict it engages us with. She herself can’t belong to either side or neither side could use her–and that means Le Carré can use her to move our sympathies back and forth between them.

drummer-girl2Talking about our sympathies seems almost out of place, though, which is something else I found interesting about The Little Drummer Girl. It seems to me to be fairly careful about laying out the arguments for both sides, allowing neither Israel nor the Palestinians the moral high ground. Joseph is a crucial device in this respect, for us and for Charlie. As he lays out the case for Palestinian resistance, building the elaborate fiction that she will inhabit as a double-agent, she marvels “at the paradoxes of a man who could dance with so many of his own conflicting shadows, and still stand up.” Later, playing the part he has written for her, it is Joseph who begins to feel to her like the fiction, while the role he created becomes her reality:

Day and night, therefore, she strove–for Michel, for her own mad sanity, for Palestine, for Fatmeh and for Slam and the bombed children in the Sidon prison; driving herself outward in order to escape the chaos inside; gathering together the elements of her assumed character as never before, welding them into a single, combative entity. . . .

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

Horrors on one side, atrocities on the other, and between them we have Joseph, who knows it all but is clear about where his loyalties lie, and Charlie, whose allegiance is never truly political but always personal. For her, as her handlers expect and devise, the double-edged story they devise for her becomes its own justification and necessity:

So it went on, one argument predicating another, until the only logic was the fiction, and the fiction was a web that enmeshed everyone who tried to sweep it away.

Her relationship with Joseph becomes so closely overlaid with her role as Michel’s lover that sometimes I almost forgot, as she almost does, which man she has in fact longed for, talked with, slept beside, trusted.

A bit like Edward Waverley in Waverley, Charlie is useful because she needs to be educated into the conflict she finds herself in the midst of. By the end of Scott’s novel, however, Waverley’s enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause has been played out, and both the danger and the romantic allure of Fergus and Flora have been relegated to a picturesque past. I don’t think Le Carré takes sides so clearly in The Little Drummer Girl. I suppose we might assume that the side Charlie is “really” on is the right side; some evidence on that side would be that she does persist in her undercover mission, and also that no matter how roused her passions are on behalf of her Palestinian contacts, she still turns to Joseph (including, in what I thought was the novel’s weakest moment, at the very end). But you could also argue that her intense reaction after the job is done–her disgust with them all and with herself–is a criticism, a rejection, of their purposes, or at least of the means the Israelis have accepted to their ends, and also that everything she has seen for herself justifies the resistance they have provoked. In his introduction, Le Carré himself describes Charlie as “torn to pieces by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”

drummer-girl3Given the ruthless and destructive behavior the novel shows by both “peoples” in pursuit of the justice they claim, is the novel’s message about the Israel-Palestine conflict “a plague on both their houses”? That angry impatience doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the novel, which is relentlessly grim but also (and in this it definitely reminded me of the other Le Carré novels I’ve read so far) almost clinical. The characters frequently get heated but the novel remains coolly descriptive, not moralizing or judgmental. Everyone running Charlie, Israeli or Palestinian, is just doing what they think must be done: if there’s some other way forward, some better ought arising from the is of both recent history and current circumstances, nobody in the novel is talking about it. There’s certainly no thread of wistful “can’t we all just get along” idealism: this is not the kind of novel that “puts a human face” on a political problem in order to urge reconciliation. At most, it does this through negative example and by proxy, through Charlie–but I’m not sure we can take her case as a lesson about how innocents suffer: “And you are the same English,” Khalil says quietly, when the crisis has come, “who gave away my country.”

“Disconcerting Clarity”: John Le Carré, Smiley’s People


He was in late age, yet his tradecraft had never been better; for the first time in his career, he held the advantage over his old adversary.

On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man; and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was eminently familiar.

[Warning: This post contains spoilers!]

In his preface to my edition of Smiley’s People, John Le Carré says that he intended the novel to be a “requiem” to George Smiley, a fitting send-off to a character he loved but was ready to leave behind. It certainly has the feeling of a fond but mournful farewell–not just to Smiley but to the motivating conflicts and underlying values that both previous books in the trilogy have explored. They too are not simplistic celebrations of the ideological antagonism of which Smiley and his colleagues are agents, of course, but by the end of Smiley’s People there is no possibility of fanfare for even the most exhilarating victory: there’s only futility and an unhappy recognition of kinship across lines of enmity that once seemed definitive.

smiley-people-2The enemy here is once again the shadowy figure known as “Karla.” For Smiley, as Le Carré makes very clear, the pursuit is as much personal as political. “It’s to do with the people who ruined Bill Haydon,” he tells Ann in a scene full of devastatingly understated emotional pain–but he is thinking, “who ruined you.” Later, waiting to see if Karla will take “the last step,” Smiley rehearses the case against him:

He thought of Vladimir and Otto Leipzig and the dead Kirov; he thought of Haydon and his own life’s work ruined; he thought of Ann, permanently stained for him by Karla’s cunning and Haydon’s scheming embrace. He recited in his despair a whole list of crimes–the tortures, the killings, the endless ring of corruption–to lay upon the frail shoulders of this one pedestrian on the bridge …

To get to that point Smiley has in fact triumphed, but the story of his success is as sad as it is thrilling, as the complicated entanglement of agents and double-agents, watched and watchers, enforcers and dissidents, gradually simplifies into the story of a father and daughter.

smiley-guinessEvery element of the case is shot through with moral and emotional ambivalence. The high point of the novel–the turning of one of Karla’s agents–wins Smiley the admiration of his people, reported to us in elegiac retrospection:

Once again, Toby insists on bearing witness here to Smiley’s unique mastery of the occasion. It was the strongest proof yet of Smiley’s tradecraft, says Toby … that throughout Grigoriev’s protracted narrative, he never once, whether by an over-hasty follow-up question or the smallest false inflection of his voice, departed from the faceless role he had assumed for the interrogation. By his self-effacement, Toby insists, George held the whole scene “like a thrush’s egg in his hand.” The slightest careless movement on his part could have destroyed everything, but he never made it.

But this long and gripping scene, this relentless demonstration of Smiley’s self-control and skill, is at the expense of “a humane and decent man caught in the net of events beyond his understanding or control,” and in the service of a quest to ruin another man by using his “one great love” against him. Smiley has long been driven by Karla’s “absolutism,”

which at least gave point to the perpetual chaos that was life’s condition; point to violence, and to death; … Karla, for whom killing had never been more than the necessary adjunct of a grand design.

Against this, he had imagined himself hampered “by doubt and a sense of decency.” Now he sees another Karla, “the Karla flawed by humanity.” Who, now, is the absolutist, the fanatic?

smiley-people-3As Smiley awaits the resolution of his quest, which he has undertaken in defiance of changed policies and protocols, under the shadow of “complete deniability” from the higher-ups, because this, this, is what they had once staked everything on, because this is the man against whom he has defined himself–as he stands in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, that relentless symbol of everything that divides his side from the other side–Smiley knows that if he wins this game he has made the difference between them irrelevant. “I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred,” he reflects, “and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.” And so he finds himself, against all odds, perhaps against all reason, hoping that Karla will not cross, or will not make it: “Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not his own.”

But Karla does cross, only that too is not a triumphant moment. “One little man, hatless, with a satchel”: is that, in the end, what it has all been about? No, of course, as the grim checkpoint, with its “halo” of light on the Western side and its sharpshooters on the other, reminds us. Waiting, watching, however, Smiley finds it impossible to think of Karla only as the agent of a murderous state. “He did not want these spoils, won by these methods,” he thinks,  and Le Carré leaves us too feeling dissatisfied at the ongoing paradox that some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for. “What shall it profit a man,” as the Bible verse has it, “if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Yet Smiley too is both man and operative; his actions in Smiley’s People are not aberrations but the fulfillment of his life’s work, the perfection of its intrinsic contradictions and longstanding moral dilemmas. In this requiem there is no note of redemption: there’s only resignation and regret. “You won, George,” says his old friend Peter Guillam. “I suppose I did,” is Smiley’s perfectly equivocal reply.

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!

“This Blind Night Walk”: John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


He did not like to leave her there in the dark, swaying under the trees, so he walked her halfway back to the house, neither of them talking. As he went down the road, he heard her humming again, so loud it was like a scream. But it was nothing to the mayhem inside him just then, the currents of alarm and anger and disgust at this blind night walk, with God knew what bodies at the end.

Like The Spy Who Came In From the ColdTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy uses its spy-thriller plot as a vehicle for the exploration of character. It has a more intricate and layered plot, though, and it involves a larger cast of characters, so in both respects it makes greater demands on the reader–and the reader reaps correspondingly greater rewards. Because it takes so long to unpick the knot at the center of the novel, we have more time to recognize the stakes, and to appreciate the toll such protracted suspicion and interrogation–of the past, of other people, of one’s own motives–take on everyone involved, but especially on George Smiley, who is an unlikely and often unwilling protagonist in this quest for ugly revelations.

I was fascinated by the structure of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It begins not at the beginning, and not in medias res, but afterwards, when everything it is ostensibly about has already happened. It is a drama, then, not of action but of hard-won retrospective understanding–of memories, scattered, repressed, and painstakingly (often painfully) collated until the whole story is finally present and can be brought to its uneasy resolution. Collation is a strange form of heroism, but then Smiley–“small, podgy, and at best middle-aged”–is a strange kind of hero, with his unsettling blend of avuncular calm and predatory focus.

tinker-tailor-2As I did with Spy, I read Tinker, Tailor with mostly passive fascination, not trying to get ahead of Smiley to the truth about the mole known as “Gerald”–which is not to say I didn’t have my guesses, but the novel is not written to satisfy fair play conventions, and we only get information as it is doled out, by Le Carré as he chooses whose story to tell next and by Smiley, whose tactical reticence is its own form of genius. Smiley is of course the greatest of the characters here, but they are all–from gruff Jim Prideaux and his “watcher,” little Bill “Jumbo” Roach, to the four members of the Circus who give the novel its name–rendered with memorable specificity. Le Carré creates not just a world but multiple worlds, too, the best of them the damp, grubby, second-hand London in which Smiley conducts his backwards investigation. As he carries out his inquiries, we make excursions to other times and places, some louder and more lively, some even darker and more fraught with menace. But we always come back with Smiley to the Hotel Islay in Sussex Gardens, where he stays still while moving, in his mind, without cease:

As Smiley retraced path after path into his own past, there was no longer any difference between the two: forwards or backwards, it was the same journey and its destination lay ahead of him. There was nothing in that room, no object among that whole magpie collection of tattered hotel junk, that separated him from the rooms of his recollection. . . .This mental transposition was so complete in Smiley that when his phone rang . . .  he had to give himself time to remember where he was.

There’s intellectual satisfaction as the pieces come together, and I felt a touch of pride that by the end I could grasp the plot Smiley eventually unravels for us, though of course that’s Le Carré’s accomplishment, not mine–to make the facts elusive and yet also to make their revelation both clear and seemingly inevitable.

guiness-tinker-tailorWhat’s particularly brilliant, though, is the way that in its very final chapters–once the mole’s identity is confirmed and thus the puzzle that is supposedly central to the novel has been solved–Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy turns on itself. After all that time and work, there is no satisfaction, no triumph, for Smiley, in his own success. Instead, abruptly, what was almost an abstract research exercise becomes all too real, its consequences all too human:

The wave of angry doubt that had swept over him in Lacon’s garden, and that ever since had pulled against his progress like a worrying tide, drove him now on to the rocks of despair, and then to mutiny: I refuse. Nothing is worth the destruction of another human being. Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future; there was only a continued slide into still more terrifying versions of the present. This man was my friend and Ann’s lover, Jim’s friend and–for all I know–Jim’s lover, too; it was the treason, not the man, that belonged to the public domain.

What is it all for, after all, this ruthless pursuit? Is it not, in its own way, a betrayal as bad? What can or should command the kind of loyalty that exacts such a price?

Smiley felt not only disgust, but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting. . . . such men invalidated any contract–why should anyone be loyal to them?

It’s not that Smiley has ever been naive or idealistic–not in this novel anyway, though we get hints of an earlier, more openhearted version. He’s lived throughout Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with a more personal betrayal, after all, and there’s no sign at the end of any redemption there either: “tall and puckish, extraordinarily beautiful, essentially another man’s woman.” For all the shopworn disillusionment that haunts the novel, though, Smiley’s grief at the outcome he himself has brought about is its own kind of bittersweet grace, and there’s a bit of comfort in sensing that even after all of this, he holds on to the possibility of something better: “Illusion? Was that really Karla’s name for love?”

“A Squalid Procession”: John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold


“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes . . .  . They don’t proselytise; they don’t stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or for God or whatever it is. They’re the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high.”

Remember when I said that you’d hear about it if I got really excited about another book before the end of the year? Well, here I am: all fired up about John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold!

I’m very late to the Le Carré party, of course, though I’ve read a fair amount about Le Carré over the years; it was this excellent recent piece in the New York Review of Books that finally convinced me to try him for myself. As a result I knew, or thought I knew, more or less what the book’s atmosphere would be–cynical, murky, morally ambiguous–and, if very approximately, what its plot would be–lies, secrets, betrayals, morally compromising means to equivocal ends. I suspect that the (presumed) familiarity of the books was one reason I felt indifferent for so long to actually reading them.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold lived up to my preconceptions: it is every bit as grim, every bit as grey, every bit as intricate as I expected. In its atmosphere, and in the nature (though not the specifics) of its plot, it did not surprise me at all. What did surprise me–precisely because I thought I knew so well what I was getting into–is how good it was. It’s not that I hadn’t heard that about Le Carré too, but lots of people praise and admire books I don’t end up gripped by: what Henry James called the “ultimate test”  (“‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it”) can only be administered personally, and the results are always unpredictable.

So that, for me, was the surprise: that The Spy Who Came In From the Cold not only passed that test for me but passed it so swiftly and so convincingly–and I’m told it is not even Le Carré’s best novel! I liked Leamas, tired, angry, but unbroken; I liked the cold and the darkness and the small rooms and the terse conversations; I liked (meaning I was appropriately chilled by) the ruthlessness the work requires, and I liked even more the novel’s running commentary, mostly implicit but sometimes out loud, about its human costs. “We have to live without sympathy, don’t we?” Control asks Leamas as he makes the opening moves in the game Leamas will end up playing to its bittersweet ending:

“That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean . . . one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold . . . d’you see what I mean?”

I liked Le Carré’s prose, which is economical but at the same time rich with evocative details and a strange sort of yearning:

There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if he ever got home to England: it was the caring about little things–the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach, and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it; he would make Liz find it for him. A week, two weeks perhaps, and he would be home.

I wasn’t sure I would find spy plots interesting: this is another reason I haven’t read Le Carré until now. In some ways the plot of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was the least interesting aspect of the book for me: just as I read most mysteries without trying to figure out the murderer before I’m told, I didn’t exert myself much to anticipate the twists the story took. It was clear in practice what I already knew in theory: that Le Carré uses his plots as vehicles for character, and for their potential to explore moral problems, including (as he says in his introduction to my edition) “the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?” “London won–that’s the point,” Leamas says near the end, refusing the hard, perhaps impossible, work of deciding whether the end justified the means. But he knows there is another way to do the calculation, that there are other measures of winning and losing, and that is surely why he makes his final decision to come in, once and for all, out of the cold.