Perhaps the bleakest book I’ve ever read — suave, cool, fiercely moral, furiously angry. Extraordinary. The present-time narration includes surprisingly few events; most of the plot unfolds as backstory, in shadow, or just offscreen. I’ve never had a reading experience quite like this: for the entire middle stretch of the book, every few pages, I had to reorient my reading, as Leamas’s goal (and Control’s scheme) seemed to shift completely. Le Carré’s command of his material is, to put it simply, complete. I feel as if I’ve hardly drawn a breath for the three or four hours I spent reading the book. Now it’s done and I need to read Tinker Tailor. Why did I wait so long to explore these books?
Relates to The Spy Who Came In… the way, say, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit relates to Code of the Woosters: warm and celebratory where the earlier, younger books are coolly calculated; driven by less obvious or less obviously aggressive purpose; at times sentimental; the voice thoroughly lived in, at times seemingly ‘accidental’ where the earlier novel had been a kind of showpiece. Less likely to be called a ‘masterpiece,’ but much more likely to give joy to actual human beings.
Like Feudal Spirit, this book glows where the reputation-making early work glitters.
George Smiley, who appears briefly in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, is the hero and the heart of Tinker, Tailor — an older man, unjustly forced out of his job at the Circus, cuckolded, rumpled, humiliated, put upon…and piercingly intelligent and serious. A very good spy and, despite talk of his ‘vanities,’ a good man. Smiley is one of several portraits which Le Carré draws with an affection and warmth totally absent from The Spy Who Came In… And where the breakthrough early work is a perfectly formed standalone piece of something like political theater (its settings somewhat abstract, especially in its final act), Tinker, Tailor is very much a serial novel: one chapter of an ongoing story set in a living world. Moreover, Smiley is a sympathetic serial protagonist where Alec Leamas is a bit of an unlucky bastard.
Smiley is a great character. So are the members of the inner ring of the Circus. And Control — fully alive as a force within the novel though he’s dead from page one! — and of course Jim Prideaux, the wounded spy-turned-schoolteacher whose full story is one of the book’s deep secrets. All of them are invested with what we might call excess imaginative energy. They’re all living beings. Even the traitor.
But the greatest thing about the book, I think, is the story of little Jim Roach, richest boy at Thursgood’s school. The first and last chapters belong to Roach and Prideaux, and the opening in particular is a perfectly observed short story about a kid catching glimpses of a dark grownup world. Le Carré’s telling of Roach’s story is heartbreaking; I knew from the earlier book that he was a gifted novelist, but I had no idea he was this good in this way. If he hadn’t written spy stories, would his talents have been recognized earlier? Or not at all?
The story of Alec Leamas is ‘greater,’ by what we call ‘literary’ standards. It’s pure and cruel and ends in darkness, characteristics literary critics appreciate because they make critics’ lives easy. But I think Tinker, Tailor is the better novel, the richer world. I think it’s sad and absolutely beautiful.
I share both of these responses — written just after finishing each book — to make two points:
Hedonistic funk-soul jams receding, without making any profound impact, into the sonic murk of early 70s Rhodes/sex/cosmos mind-expansion. Because that’s lately been my favourite kind of music, I dig this — especially the two(!) Stones covers, extra-especially ‘What You Want,’ which points up how black the Stones were and definitely weren’t. Illustrative song title: ‘Doing Nothing, Nothing Doing.’ Groovy.
An interesting dance-pop album. The genderiffic piss-take ‘Kill v Maim’ includes the line ‘Italiano mob-star looking so precious,’ which is funny — it was funny when The Sopranos made the same joke — but I’m not sure it’d be as funny, or funny the same way, or at any rate if the same people’d let themselves be seen laughing about it, if the lyric went ‘Africano gang-star…’ Which is one reason I’m more interested in the ‘pop’ than the ‘interesting,’ never mind the (at my age?!) ‘dance.’ Musically…well, it’s an ‘interesting’ ‘dance-pop’ album made by one Canadian weirdo, what do you expect? Jazz? There are kick-drums and handclaps; I prefer jazz. I dig it, though, particularly ‘California’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Belly of the Beat’ and honestly half the songs on the album…but if the thinkpieces write themselves then you can delete yours and move on to the next thing, which (this being dance-pop) everyone will, sooner than weird smart uncertain little Claire Boucher deserves. Oh, but one more thing first: the Janelle Monae track’s a dud.
More, um, ‘psych-tronica’-ish? Also more like Devo — and therefore more my style, but I don’t remember a note. Art Angels is, I think, correctly labeled her ‘breakthrough’ album.
Read this. OK now:
As a kid I loved the movie High Society, which brought together three of the great 20th century singers, Satchmo and Bing and Frank, though I didn’t understand its significance when I first saw it. Here’s a Crosby/Sinatra duet from that film: float on those voices, savour Sinatra’s drunk bit and his obvious affection for his childhood idol, and experience the profound parallax that comes of hearing two ‘crooners’ (the guy who first popularized the style, and the guy who took it further than anyone else) singing so dramatically differently and yet meeting in the middle for the sake of the piece.
This scene’s still a wakeup call for me: to most people my age, Sinatra and Crosby may as well be the same guy. To me, growing up on Broadway soundtracks and wearing out the grooves on a double LP compilation called The Fabulous Fifties and having no adolescent connection to rock counterculture, Sinatra ‘must be one of the newer fellas.’
I’ve been reading Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology and a recent translation of the Poetic Edda, thinking about cultural legacies and what we’ll leave behind when we inevitably pass — thinking too about what to teach my son about ‘America’ in all its forms. And I’ve been listening to Sinatra’s Capitol albums. The ‘American Songbook,’ as it’s quite properly known.
The ‘Sinatra sound’ for modern ears is probably that of his comparatively ‘schmaltzy’ Reprise incarnation — ‘New York, New York,’ ‘My Kind of Town,’ ‘My Way.’ But I’ve come to prefer the comparatively understated swing of his Capitol recordings, working with older material which had and has, crucially, an independent life beyond Sinatra’s own interpretations. Sinatra’s relationship to the standards is that of poet to myth: the moment of the song is always about the moment, communion between singer and listener, but away from status questions the poet/singer’s real work is clearer: honouring the song itself, and the private stories which over time have interwoven with it. Young Sinatra’s famous textual study, his unusual attention not only to prosody but to the stories ‘his’ songs told, helped him avoid the self-aggrandizement which ‘solo’ pop performance often tends to — he knew instinctively what novelists and poets must learn, that specificity is key to universality. Of course he got famous: he looked good and did his homework, even the extra-credit questions.
The book of American standards is our body of myth, capturing a mix of voices (white, black, gay, straight, upper- and lower-class) at a moment of rapid tumultuous integration, reworked and reimagined so many times over the last century that — even fallen from favour as those songs now are — they’re still central to our many ideas of America. The figures evoked in midcentury popular song are as fantastically real to us as Zeus and Odin were to our forerunners in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, incarnated in performance to confirm their secret presence in the everyday. And our great artists do seem to see themselves, with surprising consistency, in isomorphic terms — even if each artist’s language is very different. Service to something beyond the self, an idea which envelops creator and audience, forerunners and descendants, and which reminds us of both our smallness and our role in holding together the Weave: this idea can be metaphysical (the source, the cosmic vibration, God) or psychological (the Muse, the inner voice, ‘genius’) or historical (the tradition, the songbook, ‘ideas’ as such)…for artists at their peak, it’s always there in one form or another. The metaphor changes, its referent never does.
Beyond the music — he really was one of his century’s great artists — these albums preserve some of America’s ideas of itself. Beneath the voice, a chorus of voices. Here’s one thing I love: he sounds like a guy from a poor neighbourhood in the northeast who’s worked as hard as any well heeled opera singer to master his instrument. He spins a fantasy, knows it, and means it all the same, which is one of my ideas of America — one which I don’t mind teaching my son, which isn’t what I came to this music for but thanks, Mr Sinatra, all the same.
As for the music: you should hear every one of these songs. The worst of them are maybe our greatest singer at his peak. The best of them are national Scripture.
I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy. I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible. If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these. They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula LeGuin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway. So let him do what he’s doing and be patient. But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is. (via)