- Smiley’s People by John le Carré
Hodder, 327 pp, £5.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 340 24704 5
The thing about John le Carré used to be that he was a brilliantly ingenious spyhack but couldn’t really write; and one way of getting back at him for being rich and famous was to mock at his almost lovably transparent wish to have this judgment changed. He had said one or two testy things about the arrogance of highbrow critics, their unwillingness to see quality in the so-called lower genres, and he would regularly pepper his spy books with quotations, literary references, browfurrowing Germanic aphorisms and the like. And after a bit, he even went so far as to serve up a whole novel (The Naive and Sentimental Lover) which had scope, depth, acres of fine, angsty writing and not a whiff of the old commercial tradecraft. This, needless to say, was a bad miscalculation. The critics – with no need this time even to concede his readability – cheerfully weighed in: it was bad enough, they seemed to say, that the upstart kept applying for membership, but to go around pretending he’d already joined! The blackballing was thorough and, some may have hoped, conclusive. Certainly, next time round Le Carré was back in the Circus with his moles and lamplighters.
Looking back on all that disdain, Le Carré must now be enjoying an ironic chuckle. Eight or so years on, his latest novel has already been greeted with an almost crushing respectfulness by the ‘serious’ reviewing journals, and the signs are that he has now achieved Greene-like exemption from strictures that would be levelled against less entertaining authors. It is an interesting phenomenon: once the seriousness-barrier has been broken through by popular writers like Le Carré, the criteria become subject to a fluent shift. At first, what matters about such authors is that they ‘write badly’, employ stock characters, are cripplingly incident-prone, have no range or depth of human understanding, and so on. In the post-acceptance period, however, what matters most is precisely what used to matter least: that they have the power to entertain, that they create special, enclosed worlds of their own, that they employ strong, intricately worked-out plots, and even – on a good day – that they’re vastly popular.
For him to get to this position, some non-literary factors usually have to intervene, so that – no thanks to the critics – the writer has already been accorded an unassailable, almost totem-like status in the general culture. The ways of the real world can sweep aside whole fictional outputs, but in the case of Le Carré they might have been molishly orchestrated by his literary agent. In almost every sense, Smiley’s People is a book that couldn’t fail. First of all, of course, it is a near-miracle of good timing, with Blunt the talk of the town, and the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor fresh in everybody’s mind (an adaptation which had the merit, from Le Carré’s point of view, of being pretty well impossible to follow unless you read the book). Smiley’s People is a sequel to Tinker Tailor, and it stars Alec Guinness as Smiley, supported by a number of other characters you will now be able to put a television face to.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 2 No. 11 · 5 June 1980
SIR: The first two paragraphs of Ian Hamilton’s review of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People (LRB, 20 March) are devoted largely to a presentation of subtle but peevish ad hominem arguments. We are told that Le Carré can’t ‘really write’, and then Mr Hamilton attempts to justify this conclusion by chiding Le Carré for having said testing things about so-called ‘highbrow’ critics. How are the two related? The only thing apparent to the careful reader at this point in the review is that the author is clearly adopting a convenient double standard. It is somehow unacceptable to Mr Hamilton that Le Carré could ever be justifiably testy, but, of course, the reader is being asked to overlook the fact that the review is characterised by something considerably more malicious than mere testiness. Obviously, one can safely discard the possibility that Mr Hamilton’s tactics will ever be misconstrued as highbrow.
A half page later Mr Hamilton finally tells us just what it is that bad writers do. Apparently, bad writers produce books that are highly incident-prone and these books don’t often reveal a great deal of human understanding. This is generally quite true. However, it isn’t always true. Certain professions in life are highly incident-prone. We need only ask a policeman, an attorney, or even a spy, if we knew one. It would seem only reasonable to conclude that the topic chosen by a novelist will determine, to a large extent, how incident-prone his novel will become. A man who consciously chooses to write a spy novel cannot avoid devoting considerable attention to plot. Mr Hamilton appears to be angry with Le Carré for having bothered to do precisely what he had to do.
Three themes or concerns recur in Le Carré’s books. These are betrayal, alienation and loss. His competence in dealing with them is sufficient to convince a reasonably open-minded reader that he loves his characters a great deal and is sincerely attempting to give them dimension. We are usually entertained. We are sometimes moved. Le Carré knows in the bone just how easy it is for people to destroy those who rely upon them the most. If this does not constitute human understanding, perhaps Mr Hamilton would care to submit a dissertation on the subject to your periodical.
Near the end of his article Mr Hamilton expresses dismay at having discovered that Karla did not ask Moscow Centre to set up a ‘legend’ for his daughter. Instead he chose to delegate this task to outsiders. Mr Hamilton would have the reader believe that this constitutes a serious flaw in the novel’s plot and he assumes that Le Carré sloppily permitted it to get past him. This, however, is not the case. If Mr Hamilton had indulged in a little more deduction he would have noticed that Karla had absolutely no other choice. If Moscow Centre had even suspected the daughter’s condition and her father’s fear for her, they would not have sanctioned the implementation of a legend without also acknowledging Karla’s permanent vulnerability. No matter how greatly they might trust their own procedures, they would be forced to live with the real possibility that Karla could still be manipulated if the legend was ever unearthed. Consequently, if Karla had attempted to use his own people to protect his daughter it would only have been a matter of time until his superiors either eliminated the daughter to protect Karla from future blackmail or forced Karla to resign. Assuming that he wanted to keep his daughter and his job, his only other recourse was to deal with outside help.
Vol. 2 No. 12 · 19 June 1980
SIR: Re Raymond Daoust’s letter on Le Carré (Letters, 5 June), my point about the plot of Smiley’s People was (simply) that if Karla is as clever as Smiley makes him out to be, it seems unlikely that he would engage such obvious, almost caricatured bunglers for an assignment of this order. If the hired hands hadn’t been such slobs, Karla would no doubt still be safe today in Moscow Centre. Also, if he was unable to use Moscow Centre resources to help arrange the ‘legend for a girl’, why was it so easy for him to arrange for what seem to be official bumpings-off of those who tried to thwart his unofficial wheeze? Or did I get that wrong?