To my considerable outrage, I just realized that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will NOT be opening tonight at a theater near me.
I’ve been waiting for this thing for a year — it’s the only movie I’ve been eager to see in much longer than that — and the release date has been put off again and again, and I was all ready for it to finally come out on Dec. 9… and it can’t be found.
I read that it was released in the UK three months ago. This is insane. I mean, I’d love to go back to England and see it, but that’s not really an option for me at the moment. I don’t hop the pond that often. It’s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So far. (I saw “The King’s Speech” at a theater in Oxford the night it opened in England — which, weirdly, was a week or so after it opened back in the States.)
Oh, well… in lieu of that, I’ll share with you this note I wrote today to my friend Hal Stevenson, before I realized the movie wasn’t being released here. Hal recently told me that he had read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold recently, and wanted to know more about le Carre and his work. Since I’m a huge fan (of his early work, anyway), I promised to share some thoughts on what else he might want to read. It’s not brilliant, original literary criticism (I call le Carre’s most acclaimed novel “awesome,” dude), but it gives you an idea to what extent I have been thinking about and eagerly anticipating this non-event.
So I share this now with you as well, as I contemplate going home and watching the original BBC series of “Tinker, Tailor,” which I own on DVD. So there, Hollywood…
I haven’t forgotten to write to you about John le Carre..
It’s fitting that I do so today, since the new movie, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” comes out tonight.
I believe you said you had read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Well, that was an awesome book. As literature, it’s pure and clean and complete. If you’ve read that, you’ve read THE quintessential Cold War novel. You could stop there, if you wanted to. But who would want to?
I don’t think le Carre has written anything technically better than that novel. But he’s written stuff I enjoyed more.
The Alec Leamas novel is cold, and hard. It’s like a diamond. I can find no fault with it. But while I think it speaks profoundly to the human condition, some of his other novels are… warmer. They let you care about the characters more, get into them more.
For instance, George Smiley appears in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but as a peripheral character. And he comes across as a sort of reluctant agent of the cold pragmatism of Control, who duplicitously sent Leamas on this suicidal errand.
After that, le Carre decided to be more generous to Smiley. He had already been the protagonist of le Carre’s two books before The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. Those were short murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie mold. That Smiley worked in intelligence was almost incidental.
But Smiley comes to full-blown life in the trilogy that begins with Tinker, Tailor. That’s the start of what has come to be known as “The Quest for Karla.” Here are some brief thoughts on the three books:
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – At the outset of this novel, George is already in retirement, against his will. He and the head of “the Circus” (le Carre’s euphemism for MI6, based in its supposed location near Cambridge Circus in London), known only as Control, were both canned after an operation blew up disastrously. But a Foreign Office official comes to George with evidence that Control was done in by a mole (this novel is responsible for that term entering the language) who had insinuated himself to the very top of the Circus, and was actually running the whole show now on behalf of Moscow. Smiley begins a process of backtracking through his own life and career and former colleagues as he sets a trap for the mole, unofficially, from the outside. The mole, it is known, is the agent of Karla, a mysterious figure who sort of runs his own show deep within the KGB. Karla is Smiley’s lifelong nemesis, sort of his Moby Dick. Smiley doesn’t know who the traitor is until the end – beyond the fact that it will be one of his closest associates, someone he’s known and trusted his whole adult life. The novel is about these relationships, and what they mean to Smiley, as much as it is about spies. That’s a hallmark of le Carre’s work.
- The Honourable Schoolboy – This second novel in the trilogy is very different from the other two. It’s sweeping, and adventurous and cinematic. The ironic thing about it is that it’s the only one that hasn’t been made into a movie (or, more accurately, TV series), even though it reads most like a movie script. It takes place after Smiley has exposed the mole, and turned the Circus inside out. George has been brought back officially into service to head the new, demoralized Circus. Trying to build the agency back up and get some decent intelligence coming in, Smiley pursues a trail of money that should lead to a top Soviet agent – another of Karla’s hand-picked people – in Hong Kong. Lacking professionals on staff he can trust, he sends an old freelance hand – a journalist named Jerry Westerby, who is sort of a half-amateur gentleman spy – to track down this second Karla agent. Westerby does so against the background of exotic locales. You get the sense that le Carre was trying to be a sort of Hollywood version of Joseph Conrad here. There is action, to an extent that is unlike le Carre, who tends to be more cerebral. On the whole, the novel isn’t as satisfying, since it’s more about Westerby and his conflicts than it is about Smiley and the characters you’ve come to care about in Tinker, Tailor.
- Smiley’s People – This one is everything The Honourable Schoolboy wasn’t. It’s like a reunion from the first book, and is the climactic act in Smiley’s lifelong contest with Karla. At the outset, George is in exile again from the service after the fiasco in Hong Kong. But an old Russian general, who had spied for Britain in Moscow, has been murdered in London. The Circus doesn’t want to be caught within miles of the general or his old émigré friends, and asks George to come in quietly, unofficially, and lay the general’s affairs to rest – tie up loose ends, pour oil on the waters. George discovers that the general was killed because he had possessed a secret that could be Karla’s undoing. And he spends the rest of the novel making the rounds of old friends, pulling together the strands of a noose around Karla’s neck. But as he gets closer, he comes to doubt whether that’s even what he wants to do.
Moral ambiguity is Smiley’s constant companion. He’s a good and decent man who finds himself doing abhorrent things in the service of his ideals. That is a theme in everything le Carre writes, even when Smiley doesn’t appear.
And he does NOT appear in subsequent novels, except in retrospect in The Secret Pilgrim. That was OK (as were A Perfect Spy and The Constant Gardener), but here are what I think are the best of le Carre’s post-Smiley novels:
- The Russia House – The protagonist is so much like Jerry Westerby that it’s like le Carre saw this novel as a do-over, an attempt to get that character right this time. An amateur is recruited to act on behalf of British intelligence to make contact with a source at the heart of the Soviet nuclear weapons program – a source that insists upon dealing with no one else. But can the agent himself be trusted? And is the source for real?
- The Night Manager – This is one you can read and enjoy without having read any other le Carre novel. It stands alone, like “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” but its tone is the opposite. There’s nothing cold about it. It’s very human. The protagonist is an ex-commando who, for very personal reasons, offers his services to the government to get close to, and bring down, “the worst man in the world” – a billionaire British arms dealer who sells to anyone with the right price. Not to be a plot spoiler, but it’s more of a feel-good book than almost anything else le Carre has written – sort of the opposite of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold in that regard.
I probably like those because I have pedestrian tastes. They’re not as dark as some of le Carre’s critically acclaimed work — certainly not as dark as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. By comparison, these are sentimental, but I like them.
Well, that’s an overview. I hope you’ll read some of these; I’d enjoy discussing them with you…