Two Le Carré novels.

by waxbanks

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

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?

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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.

Summary note

I share both of these responses — written just after finishing each book — to make two points:

  1. I still think of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as a perfect novel. But I find, as I get a bit older, that ‘perfect’ art affects me intensely in its moment but doesn’t tend to stay with me in the same way as art whose imperfections come from imaginative excess. Philip K Dick’s books, for instance — as ‘science fiction’ many of them are incoherent messes, yet when granted autonomy from SF’s dead boring genre norms they’re among the most potent imaginative works of the 20th century. The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect little book, but Gravity’s Rainbow is a city, a universe. Litcrit types fetishize writerly ‘control’ (an MFA-program euphemism for tribal conformity to the prevailing style at MFA programs), but no one else cares about it; human beings want transport and transformation. We want rapture. Which is why stoners and musicologists get breathless about In C but everyone else who wants minimalism cranks up Remain in Light.
  2. My initial impressions quickly become unrecognizable to me, but they remain valuable, and it’s good to preserve them. It’s a small measure of accountability.
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