The Untailored Spy

I adore George Smiley.  You probably do too, because you probably have already read all the John leCarre books that feature him.  Lucky me, I had not, which is why I chose two of them as my BlogLily Summer Reading Program (which I like to think of, acronymically, as B-SLURP) genre choices.  The first, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the second, the Honorable Schoolboy, are among the best books I’ve read in a very long time.

George Smiley, who is at the center of both books (and a third I haven’t yet read, called A Perfect Spy thank you Joe, for pointing out that the third book is actually called Smiley’s People), is basically all about righting the sinking ship that is the British secret service in the 1960s and 1970s. Smiley’s work is not triumphant or inevitable, as maybe an American’s might be — in Smiley’s world, there are no rocket launching cars or poison gas shooting pens.  Instead, budgets are tight, and notes are delivered later than they should be because people get busy, there’s little political support for Smiley, and plenty of Americans who look down on the British as the worst kind of amateurs.  These books are imbued with a kind of melancholy, not so much about a lost world or lost values, but more about aging and endings in general and the losses that come with them.  They are about the cold war, of course, but also about the compromises of age, about the fatigue of living, and about the way in which we still go on and try to protect, as best we can, the things we have built or have admired as they were built.

Which brings me to Smiley — a man in his sixties who wears beautifully made suits that are too big for him, marries a beautiful woman (Lady Ann) who, like his suits, doesn’t fit him, and so leaves him again and again to his sorrow, but never anger.  Smiley closes his eyes and thinks when someone tells him something you’d expect to make him shout, and pads around and patiently figures out the most complicated things, not with flashes of insight, but by looking closely at the budgets for old projects, while he never puts sugar in his tea or coffee — always saccharine — because he is, regrettably, watching his weight (how delicate is that?  he is never “on a diet.”) In most spy books, characters either have no limits or their limits are weaknesses they must fight against.  Not so with Smiley.  He has plenty of limits, but they seem to all be external.  He is a man who appears to some — the more foolish people in these stories, in fact — to be weak and ineffectual, but he is anything but.

If it is true that plot is simply character in action, then leCarre’s plots are also brilliant.  After a while you don’t care that the twists and turns of the story are difficult to follow because you realize, or you accept, that the plot isn’t really the point — the point is that the world is terribly imperfect, and dangerous and difficult to understand and men struggle with these things bravely and often fail but sometimes don’t.  And that occasionally, and at great price, a temporary equilibrium is achieved.  It is leCarre’s greatness that this balance is created not by strong confident men with sports cars but by almost finished men who nevertheless have a kind of wisdom that I, for one, am grateful to have come across this summer.

11 thoughts on “The Untailored Spy

  1. Actually, I don’t know George Smiley, but now I very much want to meet him. I’ve always shied away from LeCarre’s work because I’d heard somehow that the plots were terribly complicated and I am most definitely not a complicated plot kind of person. I like my books to be more about the people who inhabit them and what they have to say about life in general. So if you tell me that I can accept that “the plot isn’t really the point,” then I am all about it 🙂

  2. For someone who is writing detective fiction, I’ve read surprisingly little of the genre. You make a good case for these two. Onto my list they go for when I am done writing my draft.

  3. Good choices!

    Just to note: the third Smiley book is “Smiley’s People” (also a miniseries). “A Perfect Spy” is a good book, but not about Smiley.

  4. Joe — I’ve been buying up John leCarre novels left and right and own BOTH of these, which might be why I can’t keep them straight! It’s a great summer so far, at least reading-wise. Anyway, I read somewhere that leCarre stopped wanting to write the Smiley stories because Alec Guinness had so perfectly become Smiley that he didn’t think he could do him anymore. I’d like to watch these — they sound great. By the way, we love Slings and Arrows in our house. We’re at the point where we can’t wait for Jeffrey to deal with the horrible scheming Holly. Also, I really like the scenes where he tells the actors what’s happening in the plays.

    Hi Sonje — Congrats on your contract! I’m looking forward to reading your smutty lesbian detective books!!! As for reading detective fiction, it’s been surprisingly helpful for me as a writer. Actually, reading any good fiction is helpful — but with leCarre, I’ve learned a lot about the unexpected response to provocative events, which is so satisfying to come across because surprise is, after all, one thing that’s wonderful when reading. Of course, with genre fiction you get both surprise AND predictability which is just right for someone like me.

    You’re right, Becca, the plots are a little hard to follow. But what I discovered is that there’s an enormous amount of entertainment value in each chapter. They’re set up as almost mini-stories in themselves, and they’re so beautifully done that as long as I don’t try too hard to connect one chapter with the next it’s a terrific reading experience. Also, I think in the end most things come together, and they do so in a believable and satisfying way. My initial impression of Tinker, Tailor was that it seemed a little sexist, but then I realized that this is more a reflection of the world in which these people operate than anything else.

  5. I’ve not read any of his books either, but bought The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the beginning of the year in great anticipation of reading it and a pile of other spy novels. I tend to get distracted easily by books, so he is still waiting, but this makes me want to want to push my own book to the top of the pile!

  6. Oh, that makes me wish I hadn’t read all those Smiley novels years ago (I had a Smiley binge at the beginning of university and that made me a bit cynic I suppose), when I was probably too young to enjoy the subtleties and nostalgic tone. I loved them though and I feel nostalgic now. Enjoy them all!

  7. Oh, these sound good and I am generally not a spy fiction kind of gal! My husband likes spy fiction, well James Bond, and I don’t know if he knows about these. I’ll have to tell him. Btw, what is the title of the film you have the still from? I love Patrick Stewart 🙂

  8. BL,

    I too love Smiley! Looking forward to the new movie with a combination of unease and excitement!
    I’ve also recently become addicted to Len Deighton’s Bernie Sampson books, a whole different kettle of fish that character, but fascinating and engaging all the same! British spy books are the best! 🙂


  9. Dear Lily, you are the prefect reader for these stories. Your description of them is perfect too. The TV adaptions are very good. I have watched them and they are very faithful to the books. My wife developed a huge crush on Alec Guinness while we were watching them. She is very clever and could follow the plot effortlessly. (I struggled a bit.)

  10. What a wonderful review (how come I missed this first time around??). I haven’t read any John le Carre and lucky me, too. I can see I have a treat in store. I love it when things go wrong and aren’t perfect – of course the James Bond narratives are delightfully reassuring in a regressive sort of way, but people dealing with the ordinary rubbish of stuff being done too late? Ah, that’s proper reality.

  11. litlove, Yes, I agree, it’s proper reality in a world that seems quite unreal. I moved on to Jannson, but I’m so pleased to have a lot more leCarre left to read.

    Joseph — that’s such a lovely thing to say. Thank you. I have never seen the TV adaptations, and I look forward to them, along with the huge crush. A woman needs to have one such crush going at all times, in my view.

    Hi Eoin — There is going to be a new movie?? Oh, I’m off to look for that. Wait! Before I did that, I googled Bernie Sampson and my goodness those sound good. A trilogy of trilogies? With names like Faith, Hope and Charity. Sign me up for those.

    Is that really Patrick Stewart talking to Alec Guinness, Stefanie? Yes — it is. It’s from Smiley’s People. What’s amazing is that he plays Smiley’s archenemy, Karla. I had no idea. I have to get the adaptations. Now!! (But first I have to finish watching Slings and Arrows and then the Good Wife, and then Breaking Bad, and then all of West Wing, because I have never seen any of it!!!)

    Dani — I read the Spy Who Came in From the Cold a few months ago and I loved it — all of it. xo

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