I've recently begun reading A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré's most recent novel, a return to the storylines of his breakout third novel he Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). As Tinker, Tailor and its two direct sequels are among my favorite novels, I knew I had to rejoin le Carré on his return to the ground of what I have always thought his genuine classics. (Not that his later works aren't noteworthy; its just that the Smiley trilogy and Spy are of astounding quality.)
So I ordered a copy of Legacy right away, and I read the first two chapters. And--here's a first for me--curled up in my favorite rocking chair, I was so relishing le Carré's prose that I found myself reading those first two chapters aloud. Not acting them, you understand--savoring them.
This is not my usual way with books, even books that grab me. Maybe that savoring thing will grow on me--Robertson Davies's prose, P.G. Wodehouse, A.S. Byatt's--I can think of other writers whose style I appreciate, independent of the character drawing that normally hooks me.
But I've never read aloud for my own benefit before.
After reading those two chapters, I realized that before I could had to go back, and re-read Spy, which I had not read in at least 20 years. (My copy is an early American hardcover. Nice, but a book club edition. Still, a handsome reading copy.)
One often hears this book praised as le Carré's masterpiece. And, in a technical sense, I think it is, if I may use Davies’s construction of the word in What's Bred in the Bone--the piece by which one moves from apprentice to master in one's own right. Le Carre's first two novels were good genre fiction, with an interestingly unlikely hero, the tubby, middle-aged, cuckolded George Smiley. As Smiley will be with us for a bit, here's how he is introduced in Call:
When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn't left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.A long quote; but over the years, George and Ann come back together, drift apart, re-engage, and--well, in The Secret Pilgrim (1990) we are left wondering whether Smiley and (as George's friend Connie Sachs used to call her) "the demon Ann" remain together, apart, or in their old, odd quadrille.
This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that 'Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou'wester'. And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
Was he rich or poor, peasant or priest? Where had she got him from? The incongruity of the match was emphasized by Lady Ann's undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation. And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard's van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday's news.
When Lady Ann followed her star to Cuba, she gave some thought to Smiley. With grudging admiration she admitted to herself that if there were an only man in her life, Smiley would be he. She was gratified in retrospect that she had demonstrated this by holy matrimony.
The effect of Lady Ann's departure upon her former husband did not interest society – which indeed is unconcerned with the aftermath of sensation. Yet it would be interesting to know what Sawley and his flock might have made of Smiley's reaction; of that fleshy, bespectacled face puckered in energetic concentration as he read so deeply among the lesser German poets, the chubby wet hands clenched beneath the tumbling sleeves. But Sawley profited by the occasion with the merest of shrugs by remarking partir c'est courir un peu, and he appeared to be unaware that though Lady Ann just ran away, a little of George Smiley had indeed died.
In Spy, le Carre moves from genre fiction practitioner to a top-flight novelist writing within a genre. But, interestingly, Spy is tethered to its two predecessors much more thoroughly than I had remembered. Especially Call for the Dead (1961). In Call, as I’ve pointed out, we first meet George Smiley, who, in investigating the unexpected seeming suicide death of a Samuel Fennan, a civil servant Smiley has just cleared as a not posing a security risk. Things get more complicated from there, and the novel ends with a physical confrontation between Smiley and Dieter Frey, his one-time student, who has arranged for not one but two deaths. The confrontation ends with Dieter surprisingly dead at Smiley's hands, and Smiley mourning:
Dieter was dead, and he had killed him. The broken fingers of his right hand, the stiffness of his body and the sickening headache, the nausea of guilt, all testified to this. And Dieter had let him do it, had not fired the gun, had remembered their friendship when Smiley had not. They had fought in a cloud, in the rising steam of the river, in a clearing in timeless forest: they had met, two friends rejoined, and fought like beasts. Dieter had remembered and Smiley had not.The surviving villain of that novel, Hans-Dieter Mundt, is in Spy the target of the operation mounted by the new head of the Circus (le Carré's name for the British Secret Service), who is known only as Control. Alec Leamas, the eponymous hero, is whipsawed between his humanity and the darker side of his mission, between love and duty, between conscience and expedience.
Smiley is a peripheral figure in Spy, present in the flesh only at the very end, but haunting the novel like a ghost. Leamas and Control meet at his house, Smiley and Peter Guillam (who is the narrator of Legacy, and George's acolyte through the trilogy that is, I believe, the acme of le Carré's art, visit Liz Gold, the British Communist Party member who briefly becomes his lover, and arrange her financial independence.
Leamas is pulled from the field by the Circus, then fired, then drawn to East Germany, soon after the Wall was erected, where an East German subordinate of Mundt, Fiedler, uses Leamas's knowledge to undermine the anti-Semitic, brutal Mundt.
Where it goes from there, I won't spoil for you, other than to say that the moral bankruptcy of both sides, the callous betrayal of allies and friends--the cruelties of the intelligence world are searingly depicted. No James Bond adventure, no heroics. Just a moral fog eroding the morality of men and women who once had ideals.
In Call for the Dead, Smiley grieves for the relative clarity of the War years, and reflects that "The NATO alliance, and the desperate measures contemplated by the Americans, altered the whole nature of Smiley's Service. Gone for ever were the days of Steed-Asprey, when as like as not you took your orders over a glass of port in his rooms at Magdalen; the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department."
Leamas, like Smiley, like his creator, is trapped in a world that Kim Philby made: Le Carré worked for MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, using the cover of a British diplomat in Germany to run agents and lure defectors.
"In was in those days most definitely a calling and for all that I've written about it, it was a pretty decent calling, in the sense that we were very patriotic people in ways I don't think we are anymore.
"The ethic, which I believe has been greatly undermined in recent times, was that we spoke truth to power," he said.
However his cover was betrayed by the double-agent Kim Philby, the highest-ranking British intelligence officer who worked as a spy for the Soviet Union.
"I had been betrayed by Philby, I actually refused to meet Philby in Moscow in 1988. For me, Philby was a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man.
"You have to remember that Philby was in line to become head of SIS. I wouldn't have trusted him with my cat for the weekend," he said.
Here's a fascinating interview with le Carre, around the 39 minute mark; note how, despite his three dimensional portrayal of a character based on Philby, he still can't abide him: