John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.