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

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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

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“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.