Saturday, December 8, 2012

George Smiley: A Spy Like Us

It’s a green time for the espionage genre (at least to me: I read more spy novels these days than I do the other genres.) Another James Bond film romps across screens to friendly applause on that venerable figure’s 50th cinematic anniversary. TV and cable networks are streaming spy sagas on all channels, most notably Homeland and the first season of The Hour.

Last year saw a remake of John le Carré’s great novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an outwardly unnecessary project that I first greeted with arched eyebrow and slitted eyes, my monocle swinging free in full-blown Colonel Blimp mode. (“Really? Must we? Was something wrong the first time?”)

In the end though, the new version was embraced by most everyone, including me, without dimming the dour glow of the original BBC miniseries. Both versions stand fast under repeated viewings, the new one re-visioning the original in surprisingly fluid fashion, but still knitted to the first by the fine sensibility of the novel’s author. (Maybe now there will be a film of Tinker’s sequel, The Honourable Schoolboy.)

And really, who wants to get snared in a grey, useless tangle over who was the better George Smiley: Sir Alec Guinness or not-yet-Sir Gary Oldman? Clearly, these gentlemen don’t. Pardon me while I clean my glasses and gaze out the window at a passing lorry.

The debate regarding Mr. Smiley vs. Mr. Bond is more charged, but the argument—genre fiction as literary endeavor vs. genre fiction as commercial endeavor—is one that I, in best English restraint, feel cautious about: Do I support mindful boredom or mindless pleasure? Do the two never meet?

Besides I haven’t read Fleming’s Bond since I was a bug-eyed, horny teenager under the bedcovers with a flashlight during summer nights in Central Texas. I have started reading Casino Royale and it’s an okay and likable entertainment so far. Ian Fleming clearly writes with a pleasing smile up one side of his face but there are startling lapses. For one, take this perilously dangly modifier:

“As a woman, he [Bond] wanted to sleep with her, but only when the job was done.”

(A-HA! So that was what Daniel Craig was insinuating in Skyfall’s torture scene with Javier Bardem?)

Really, though, I like much better the brown suits and gray shadows inhabited by John le Carré’s George Smiley. Smiley lives in a truly secret and much more treacherous realm, a world perilous to both body and soul, than does James Bond.

Bond’s bodywhether He is Woman or not—faces much greater dangers, obviously. As for his soul, well, it has a well-lacquered veneer—scratch it and you find more veneer. He doesn’t live in the world so much as react to it on behalf of our reactionary little-boy souls. He’s a spy in knee pants. (He’s also more of a commando type; Ian Fleming organized and ran commando operations from London during World War II.)

Bond is fun, even delightful, in portions and sequences, rarely as a whole, regular meal. I agree with The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane: You can walk out of Goldfinger, make a sandwich, and come back without missing much. (Some, like Die Another Day, can be walked out on for a leisurely four-course meal, Pierce Brosnan or not.)

Walk out on Tinker, Tailor, you miss that raised eyebrow, that shrug, that tells you everything.

From what I’ve read, John le Carré was, unlike Fleming, an actual field agent, in his case during the Cold War. We can thank to le Carré’s experiences for bringing us a George Smiley who acts like someone who knows what he’s doing, someone we would rely on.

Very few of us are James Bond. But most of us are Smiley.

Smiley is the spy you and I would be if we were spies. He responds as any one of us would when caught in life’s everyday intrigues—the lies and evasions we tell and are subject to, whether we like it or not; the small incongruous gestures that are meant to hide, but instead reveal, and vice-versa. As spies deal with the slippery world, so do the rest of us at times.

To see the world through Smiley’s eyes is to be drawn to look closer, for more than just whether a hair laid across a desk drawer has been sprung, or whether the label of the Dom Perignon faces out instead of where you left it, at three-quarters.

There are intricate subtleties of gesture and language, of intonation, of dress that need close watching. There are memories to be pored over and sifted, stories to be told, compared, broken down, then reassembled carefully, and told again. Smiley is the one to do it, though, as slippery fellow spy Toby Esterhase reminds us, he has “too many hats on his head.”

To James Bond, it’s almost always clear who’s good and who’s bad; who’s with him and who’s against him.

As real spies know, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes it’s a little complicated.

For George Smiley (and other loners in the le Carré’s universe) a spy’s life is not action-packed and simplistic, but a slow, porously grained, sometimes grimy, lonely, and painful, taut with suspicion. Most of them don’t even carry guns, much less invisible ink pens with chambers for bullets and the means to be rejiggered into a jet pack. Smiley would likely break a hip if he attempted a karate kick. I know I would.

This human vulnerability makes the dangers more real in le Carré’s books. In the seven novels of his I’ve read, death mostly leaps from ambush; a soft-nosed bullet to the face; a sniper’s bullet from the back, from torture.

I first read le Carré’s classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the late 1970s, shortly after Peter Straub’s Ghost Story revealed to me the literary possibilities of genre fiction. For me, Spy was a stunning, thrilling, and emotional experience. Many others agreed, among them two other masters of the genre.

“The best spy novel I have ever read,” Graham Greene blurbed on the back of my paperback copy.

 “The best spy novel anyone has ever read,” Eric Ambler replied underneath.

Spy wasn’t just a smart, well-told story; it was a beautiful, poetic book, poignant and tragic. Alec Leamas felt real to me, down to the seams on his raincoat and the sweat on his face, real to one who knew next to nothing of real espionage, in a way I never recall feeling with Mr. Bond. Le Carré could have been conjuring the whole thing out of a hatful of rabbits, but it didn’t feel that way to me for a minute.

I did not follow up on his subsequent or earlier novels immediately, but dropped them in from time to time over the years. Some of course, I responded to more than others, particularly his very first, Call for the Dead (which also featured Smiley’s first appearance), The Night Manager, and, of course, Tinker Tailor.

I found some of his books a little frustrating, his allusive, indirect style more obfuscating and coy than intriguing and enlightening. He seemed to be practicing a literature of avoidance and indirection, especially with action scenes (not for him Richard Stark’s brutal “he-shot-him” flair.) A Small Town in Germany, for example: I recall its supposedly explosive ending as being fogged in by winding, indirection.

Last year, I decided it was far past time to return to le Carré and read the epic The Honourable Schoolboy  and enjoyed it completely, especially the opening in Hong Kong with its hard-partying Cold War burnouts, and Jerry Westerby’s hair-raising journey through war-ravaged Southeast Asia.

A week ago, I finished Smiley’s People (the last of “The Karla Trilogy”), and found it a rich portrait of the ending of the Cold War and the passing of the generation of agents who fought in it, a modern, urban Ride the High Country  for aging Cold Warriors:  A story about people on both sides who fought in the trenches but then found themselves cast aside as history rolled on.

Though Smiley’s People  was published nearly a decade before the Berlin Wall fell, le Carré already saw the handwriting on that very wall, for both the Soviet Union and the agents on both sides—all Smiley’s people, including the elusive Karla--who met and did battle in its secret world.

I then excitedly turned to the 1982 BBC adaptation, starring the peerless Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley. It’s impossible to praise Guinness’s performance too much, even at the expense of Gary Oldman. With his calm, almost Santa-Clause-like demeanor, Guinness combines both great authority and great tenderness; a sense of ruthless, fortitude (at one point Smiley takes the alias “Standfast”) and sense of sad horror at the world he finds and what he has to do to work in it. Smiley is a prismatic character in the novels and Guinness work in the series calmly carefully captures each facet.

Genre fiction is often, and fairly, criticized for being nothing more than its plots. But le Carré is one of those writers who have shown that it can be more, that the Fiction of Action can reveal truth about the human experience and the world we live in, just like “real” literature. Those who do the dirty work of the world do have an inner life, sometimes remarkably like ours.

Le Carré is by no means the first writer to recognize this, but he’s damn near about the best there is.

[CUTTING BACK: I’ll be appearing here less frequently for the time being. My regular business has been showing an uptick and so time must be set aside to bring my upcoming novel Butchertown to its roaring close, hopefully for mid-2013.

But worry not . . . Burchfield will return.]

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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