Friday, March 1, 2013

Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John le Carré

I have to admit that I didn't care for John le Carré's novels when I first tried reading them back in high school (in the main, earlier books of the '60s and early '70s, like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

After all, back then the spy tale was to me synonymous with James Bond (detached as I knew its image of spying to be from the reality). I knew from the start that le Carré was working toward quite different ends, and in fact reacting against the Bondian image, but felt that he failed to make this interesting.1 His world appeared to consist wholly of sad middle-aged toffs out of the pre-war era (and out of time in the post-war) eternally trudging through eternally gray, eternally shabby, eternally sodden North European cityscapes – epitomized, of course, by eternal cuckold George Smiley (whose wife Ann, not incidentally, came far closer to jet-setting glamour than George or any of his mostly indistinguishable colleagues).

Making the books even more off-putting was the way in which they were written, specifically the particular combination of show and tell le Carré employed.2 It seemed that he directly, profusely, even tediously "showed" things that seemed (to me) to be of marginal interest, and then when coming to things such as key plot points, "told" them much too briefly, or off-handedly, or even simply hinted at them, with the very slowness of the pace, the long stretches in which nothing seemed to be happening (and the slackening of my concentration as a result), making it all the easier to miss them. Or he "showed" those things in the most oblique manner possible, again obscuring through the very act of presentation. (Scenes involving violence or subterfuge were especially prone to such treatment, typically described through a succession of fragmentary images.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance, is very much of this pattern in such respects as its opening with a long chapter devoted to the post-service life of Jim Prideaux; simply dropping on us (or so it felt to me) George Smiley's conclusion that the key to the identity of the mole he is supposed to find lies in the details of Operation Testify rather than presenting the thought process that led to that conclusion; and at the end giving us just glimpses of Bill Haydon's explanation of his betrayal of the Circus to the Soviets (in part an "aesthetic" judgment, he tells us), before he is killed in circumstances that leave us wondering as to who and how. The flashback-laden nonlinearity of that particular book compounded matters, making one scene seem to lead to the next without transition or explanation just as much as if the author had excised crucial parts from the text (which, in a sense, he had).

Authorial games such as these seemed bad enough in even the most straightforward of stories, but quite intolerable in a complex tale of intrigue in which the characters are already trying quite hard to fool one another, and it all seemed to me yet more evidence that the Arbiters of Literary Taste who labeled le Carré the greatest of spy novelists were simply hostile to the things I enjoyed in my fiction. So after starting several of his books I ended up not finishing any of them and for a long time only really knew his work secondhand, from what others said about him, and from films like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) and The Tailor of Panama (2001) – which I rather admired, but which did not tempt me back to the books.

I only returned to them when I took a renewed interest in the spy genre many years later and decided to read my way through all of the classics I'd missed before, even those that struck me as difficult or dull or otherwise not worth my time – and where le Carré's books are concerned, found the experience rewarding rather than trying.3 This was not because my understanding of what le Carré actually did changed. In fact the assessment of Tinker, Tailor given above is based on my rereading of the book as much as my first impression, and after much reflection, still seems valid to me on a descriptive level. If anything, I remain as convinced as ever that le Carré is an author whose works not only ask for but require close reading and considerable patience, while being exceedingly unforgiving of small slips in attention, and that even the most experienced, able readers can find themselves confused or frustrated by them at times. And I still think there is room to argue that the books are more difficult and less accessible than they really need to be.

However, the second time around I did feel that the esteem of so many critics for this author was not just a display of literary snobbery, but rather that these books were genuinely worth the while, and the measure of effort they demanded. If one goes to fiction for a sense of "felt life," well, here it is in abundance. The substance and style of the typical le Carré novel may not wholly satisfy as a thrill ride of either the action-adventure or mystery-suspense varieties, but their author does succeed admirably in telling the kinds of tales that he clearly does mean to tell.4 The social and political blinkers of his privileged, cloistered, backward-looking protagonists; the practical and ethical ambiguities of their work; the relentless bureaucratic venality and stupidity that are such a large part of their collective existence; the frailty of human life, so often destroyed by the games they play – all these things came through artfully and powerfully, while my greater willingness to make the effort enabled me to appreciate the intricacy of his plotting, and his sense of humor (which actually took me by surprise when I first watched the film version of Panama).

Ultimately, where my estimation of many of the writers I earlier enjoyed had declined over the years in line with my growing awareness of their technical and imaginative limitations, and my broadening sense of what literature could do, my estimation of le Carré's work grew enormously, so that I came around to the view of him widely held by the critics. But the same experiences have also been another powerful reminder of the insufficiently acknowledged distance between highbrow critic and the general readership, some members of which uncritically go along with the commonplaces handed to them, while others, responding to the undeniable difference between the promises of the advertising and the actual thing, protest that The Emperor Has No Clothes.5 As anyone who has compared the commercial descriptions of these books in circulation with their actual content can appreciate, it has also been a reminder of the tendency of book jacket blurb and critic alike to raise unreasonable hopes by presenting books like these as if they were no more and no less than well-executed entertainments.

1. The James Bond image, as opposed to the James Bond novels, which bear a closer resemblance to le Carré's work than is usually appreciated.
2. It seems that professional commentators on this author's work rarely mention his style, in part, I suppose, because discussing the style of a work of fiction in a substantive way is much more challenging than discussing its content, and perhaps because those who do have the ability to do so seem reluctant to characterize le Carré as a difficult writer – as if to say this about any author less idiosyncratic than a Thomas Pynchon would be an admission of weakness on their part.
3. The only work on my list I almost failed to finish out of sheer frustration proved to be Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands, not because of stylistic issues, but rather more conventional literary failings – the book seeming to me overlong, much too slow and at points made nearly impenetrable by the thickness of the nautical detail.
4. I do, however, think that the more conventional and accessible Call for the Dead (1961), and the celebrated The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), are at the least partial exceptions in this regard.
5. In circumstances like these I commonly suspect that many readers applaud the books without actually understanding them, even on the level of plot, and think that the scarcity of encyclopedic fan sites or wikis devoted to the Smiley series (such as exist for many another such series) is telling; there may simply not be enough readers with a sufficiently firm grasp of the books to form the kind of base that would produce them.

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