Yes, I’m getting ready for the December release of the film, which stars Brit film giants like Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and (be still my heart) Ciaràn Hinds. But that was really just an excuse. I suspect John Le Carré is always going to be one of my staple authors, one of those writers I go back to again and again. Naturally I look for new rewards each time I read a book like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this time around they were richly evident.
The plot, though …. is it just me? I can never follow Le Carré’s plots. I know there is a Soviet mole at the very highest level of British intelligence. I know it’s one of five men. I know the code to identify them is the old nursery rhyme: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, chief….” I even dimly remembered, on this third or fourth reading, (!) which of George Smiley’s colleagues was ultimately guilty. But could I follow the logic? No.
Not that it mattered. Oh, goodness, no. One of the great pleasures of re-reading a book as complex as this one is the joy with which you meet old friends. Look! There’s the dashing Peter Guillam! There’s George Smiley, of course, wearing (perhaps for the last time since, Oldman plays him in the upcoming film) Alec Guinness’s features. And my favorite, the alcoholic research expert, Connie Sachs, a fountain of florid English dialogue. Here’s how Le Carré introduces her:
‘George Smiley,’ she cried, with a shy trailing laugh as she drew him into the house. ‘Why, you lovely darling man, I thought you were selling me a Hoover, bless you, and all the time it’s George!'”
“Trailing” reminds you of some beautiful flowering vine, doesn’t it? The book is full of this kind of allusiveness. It’s fundamentally an elegy for Britain’s lost Empire (more on that), and everywhere we see downgraded shards of Imperial confidence: in a tacky curry house where Smiley has a depressing meal, in the hotel Islay where he holes up to rummage through files, in nasty trains and a tenth-rate boarding school. Too, there’s the weather. Smiley’s groping his way through a murky case and Le Carré is constantly describing mist, fog, clouds, dampness, darkness. Reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is a forceful lesson in how every single detail can weave an emotional as well as visual atmosphere around your characters.
But what struck me most on this reading was the theme of diminishment. Tinker, Tailor… was published in 1974. The Cold War and its fever of spying was winding down. So, finally, was the Edwardian view of espionage as a reiteration of The Great Game. Even the allure of socialism to elements of the British upper class (the novel is at least loosely inspired by the Cambridge group of spies including Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, etc) was drying up by the 1970s. So there predominant mood here is a terrible melancholy. As George Smiley grapples with the motivation of the traitor, he thinks:
Connie’s lament rang in his ears: ‘Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves…’ He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities all were fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.”
That sounded to me like Le Carré himself peering out from behind the authorial scrim, letting us hear his personal lament. And I do believe it’s the heart-felt quality of that sadness — in addition to all the duplicity, the trade craft, the characters, the suspense — that makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy so much more than a spy novel.