I adore George Smiley. You probably do too, because you probably have already read all the John leCarre books that feature him. Lucky me, I had not, which is why I chose two of them as my BlogLily Summer Reading Program (which I like to think of, acronymically, as B-SLURP) genre choices. The first, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the second, the Honorable Schoolboy, are among the best books I’ve read in a very long time.
George Smiley, who is at the center of both books (and a third I haven’t yet read, called A Perfect Spy thank you Joe, for pointing out that the third book is actually called Smiley’s People), is basically all about righting the sinking ship that is the British secret service in the 1960s and 1970s. Smiley’s work is not triumphant or inevitable, as maybe an American’s might be — in Smiley’s world, there are no rocket launching cars or poison gas shooting pens. Instead, budgets are tight, and notes are delivered later than they should be because people get busy, there’s little political support for Smiley, and plenty of Americans who look down on the British as the worst kind of amateurs. These books are imbued with a kind of melancholy, not so much about a lost world or lost values, but more about aging and endings in general and the losses that come with them. They are about the cold war, of course, but also about the compromises of age, about the fatigue of living, and about the way in which we still go on and try to protect, as best we can, the things we have built or have admired as they were built.
Which brings me to Smiley — a man in his sixties who wears beautifully made suits that are too big for him, marries a beautiful woman (Lady Ann) who, like his suits, doesn’t fit him, and so leaves him again and again to his sorrow, but never anger. Smiley closes his eyes and thinks when someone tells him something you’d expect to make him shout, and pads around and patiently figures out the most complicated things, not with flashes of insight, but by looking closely at the budgets for old projects, while he never puts sugar in his tea or coffee — always saccharine — because he is, regrettably, watching his weight (how delicate is that? he is never “on a diet.”) In most spy books, characters either have no limits or their limits are weaknesses they must fight against. Not so with Smiley. He has plenty of limits, but they seem to all be external. He is a man who appears to some — the more foolish people in these stories, in fact — to be weak and ineffectual, but he is anything but.
If it is true that plot is simply character in action, then leCarre’s plots are also brilliant. After a while you don’t care that the twists and turns of the story are difficult to follow because you realize, or you accept, that the plot isn’t really the point — the point is that the world is terribly imperfect, and dangerous and difficult to understand and men struggle with these things bravely and often fail but sometimes don’t. And that occasionally, and at great price, a temporary equilibrium is achieved. It is leCarre’s greatness that this balance is created not by strong confident men with sports cars but by almost finished men who nevertheless have a kind of wisdom that I, for one, am grateful to have come across this summer.