Undercover: Le Carre Trips on His Own Tricks (02/17/80)

In order to discuss John Le Carre’s sixth spy novel, Smiley’s People (Knopf, 374 pp., $10.95), I am going to have to give away the ending. Read the book first. When le Carre published The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963, he meant to subvert a reading public madly in love with James Bond, and he succeeded. Le Carre took the glamour out of the secret world: in flat, direct prose, he wrote with bitterness, as a novelist of bureaucracy and betrayal. There was an almost Russian fatalism in Spy—not only did le Carre deny his readers a hero, he denied his characters any chance of heroism. In le Carre’s version of the British intelligence service—“the Circus”—upper-class diffidence never hid the squalor of manipulation, petty but deadly rivalries, stranded agents and innocents. That diffidence was le Carre’s awful joke.

Smiley’s People ends just where le Carre’s first spy story began: in Berlin, as a defector crosses the bridge from East to West. As in Spy, Circus’ George Smiley has been called out of retirement to handle an operation, but whereas in Spy the costs of success were pathetic and chilling, here the costs hardly exist.

George Smiley first appeared two years before Spy, as the reluctant but dogged investigator of Call for the Dead. Le Carre had already worked out Smiley’s background—the novel begins with a bio—but the book reads like an exercise, with Smiley no more than a Circus Hercule Poirot. For all the genius attributed to Smiley, le Carre could not give him real authority. The book had no impact; few have read it, even today (though Bantam has just reissued it, along with the other le Carre novels). In Spy, Smiley played a small but crucial role, and somehow, le Carre made you hang on his few lines—made you respect the man, and made you a little afraid of him. From that book on, Smiley’s role has expanded: he took over entirely in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), when he unmasked Bill Haydon, a Soviet mole who had reached the top of the Circus hierarchy. One came to know him as short, fat, self-effacing, a master of deceit, sensitive, solitary, full of doubts. Forced out of action time and again, Smiley is made to watch as hacks take over the Circus. Smiley’s wife is helplessly promiscuous: to put Smiley off Bill Haydon’s scent, Karla, the vicious head of Soviet intelligence, has Haydon “join the queue.” It is le Carre’s most brutal line, thrown away with the touch of a master.

Though le Carre writes in the anonymous third person, the point of view in his books since Spy has usually been Smiley’s. In Smiley’s People le Carre takes a disastrous step forward, adopting the shadowy persona of a Circus historian—and Smiley becomes very much like that figure who, more than fifteen years ago, le Carre set out to destroy. Smiley becomes a superman: a dumpy superman, but a superman nevertheless. Throughout the book, le Carre’s tone is awestruck. “Again,” he writes, “there is the mystery about Smiley’s decision not to reply to this question…” Or: “Once again, Toby insists on bearing witness here to Smiley’s unique mastery of the occasion…” And, ultimately: “In his mind already, Smiley was accountable to nobody but himself.” Le Carre’s voice is almost a whisper: Dare speak his name! Having fallen in love with the character he has created, le Carre drools over him, finally offering us no mere hero, but something like a god—a secret Jesus who has taken the sins of the cruel, dirty world of espionage upon himself.

Such a man can do no wrong, carry no suspense, and touch no realities. Le Carre’s prose reflects the pumped-up qualities of his idol: it is ornamented, meretricious, full of spurious ambiguities and wooden profundities. The plot, too, is inflated far beyond anything in le Carre’s past work, for this time Smiley is not simply running a mission, but orchestrating the coup of coups: an extremely complicated and not very believable plan to blackmail Karla—nemesis of the West, and Smiley’s oldest, truest enemy—into betraying his country and surrendering himself into Smiley’s arms.

As Smiley watches Karla make his walk from one Berlin to the other, le Carre pulls out all the stops, and tries to double back. He wants to darken the story, but he can’t; by now, Smiley’s glow is too great for anyone to dim. The result is tortured, an unintentional parody of the end of Spy—and a textbook example of the pretentiousness of the genre novel reaching for glory, for meaning, while everything that makes a genre novel sing collapses all around it.

[Smiley] looked across the river into the darkness again, and an unholy vertigo seized him as the very evil he had fought against seemed to reach out and possess him and claim him despite his striving, calling him a traitor also… On Karla had descended the curse of Smiley’s compassion, on Smiley the curse of Karla’s fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.

One has to imagine that the old George Smiley, reading this, would be very uncomfortable.

Rolling Stone, February 17, 1980

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