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.
So all that couldn’t be better and probably was set up (not Blunt, though, I suppose) by wily publicists. And then there is the revived, or revived appearance, of the Cold War. Le Carré needs the Cold War rather badly, and indeed much of the point of this new book is to take a swipe at détente merchants who would dismantle Smiley’s networks and are contemptuous of the old Circus assumption that Moscow would never abandon its original designs: funds have been cut, dirty tricks departments closed down, and it is for this reason that Smiley is once again summoned from retirement to tidy up a small but potentially embarrassing bit of business left over from the old days.
In addition to the book’s immediate opportuneness, there are of course a dozen ways in which Le Carré’s appeal is supported by actual recent history: freedom of information has simply made us less, not more, sure that we are being told the truth. In Le Carré’s world there are always closed doors behind closed doors, and we are all now far better trained in the devious, the clandestine, the farfetched than we were when he first started out; indeed, it is to Le Carré’s credit that, in a climate where almost anything spooky or corrupt is likely to be swallowed, he has usually kept his yarns within the limits of the fairly probable.
All in all, then, it isn’t easy to read Smiley’s People as if it were just another book: coincidence has already transmuted it into a symptom, or phenomenon. In fact, though, it is – well, if not just another book, certainly just another book by John le Carré, and not by any means one of his best. In spite of the subtlety and authority donated by Alec Guinness’s extraordinary face. Smiley is by now irretrievably lost in the realm of self-parody, and Le Carré’s efforts to invest him with heroic substance seem ever more wan and automatic. As before, we know just a handful of things about him: that he has an unfaithful wife, that he is obsessed with his opposite number in Moscow, the fiendish Karla, that he collects old books and studies medieval German verse, that he wipes his glasses with his handkerchief, that he is tireless and systematic in his detective work, that he is troubled by the morality of much of what he has to do, but on balance believes the espionage business to be worth the price of its own dirt. His great strengths, his integrity and his professional skill, are balanced against his two weak points, his marriage and the 25-year-old preoccupation with Karla. (These two are of course connected, because it was Karla who induced the bisexual mole Bill Haydon to cuckold Smiley, as well as to betray the Circus.) In between, there is the noman’s-land or Smiley’s supremely controlled inner turmoil, and it is this which is supposed to elevate him to the rank of tragic hero. The trouble is that Le Carré has only a few stock ways of signalling the turmoil (people are for ever asking Smiley ‘How’s Ann?’ or they will unnecessarily and with out-of-character tactlessness make some crack about Bill Haydon), and these are introduced every thirty or so pages – usually after some stretch of faceless procedural sleuthing, as if Le Carré had jotted ‘Humanise here’ on his first draft. In Smiley’s People, he even goes so far as to have Lacon, the Circus’s Whitehall connection, invite Smiley to dinner for a ‘seminar on marriage’ – Lacon’s own marriage having recently collapsed.
Another stock Le Carré device, again played well beyond the limit in this book, is to treat Smiley’s current case as already legendary, a subject of awed reminiscence. Thus, every so often the action will be interrupted with a ‘Later, they would recall Smiley’s air of supremely controlled inner turmoil,’ or ‘Again, there is mystery about Smiley’s decision not to reply to this question; perhaps only his wilful inaccessibility can explain it,’ or: ‘And it was strange – as Collins and Enderby privily agreed – how everything that Smiley said seemed to pass through the room like a chill; how in some way that they failed to understand, they had removed themselves to a higher order of human conduct for which they were unfit.’
Such baffled musings over the mystery that is Smiley are meant to contribute to the impression of tormented saintliness, but, as Smiley himself is sometimes heard to muse, what room for saintliness or even ordinary virtue can there be in a profession such as his? Much of Smiley’s glamour depends on our knowing that he has touched pitch on many an occasion, but Le Carré has always been careful not to let us see him do it. The Smiley we know and love would be insupportable if he killed anyone (though we know him to have been party to killings in the past) or tortured anyone (though we know him etc); indeed, if he actually did any of the things which, we are constantly being told, are the day-to-day necessities of his work. In this book we do see him organise a bit of blackmail, but the victim – after a few minutes of Smiley’s brilliantly impersonal pressure – is all too delighted to cave in: certainly he suffers not at all. Again, it is a measure of Smiley’s uniqueness (it would later be recalled) that he could pull such a dirty trick so cleanly.
In order to keep Smiley clean, though, Le Carré also has to keep him inactive: in fact, he is usually equipped with a trusted field man who sets up the unsaintly ploys (Guillam before, now Toby Esterhase, called out from his retirement as a shady but also – can this be? – unsuccessful art dealer). Much of Smiley’s time must be spent thinking or ploughing through old files. How to animate such moments? A phone-call from Ann, perhaps, or yet another visit to old Connie in Oxford.
Both methods are employed in Smiley’s People, and the scene with Connie is even more irritating and implausible than the one in Tinker Tailor: although eaten up with drink, she still possesses total recall, and between bouts of coughing and surges of despair manages to give Smiley the vital data, word for word, as if it were an office memo. Indeed, as she reminds him at the end, it is an office memo. But Smiley has to be got out of the office now and then, and his compassionate dealings with Connie are further evidence of his decency, his bruised and suppressed human warmth.
If there is something shameless and a bit shoddy in the way Le Carré recycles his old stunts, we might think it is because what really matters to him is the main thrust of the plot: in earlier books, the plot has been clever and absorbing enough to carry a lot of the dross along with it. In Smiley’s People, though this simply isn’t so. The essential idea is of a final showdown between Smiley and Karla, but the means by which Karla is finally ensnared don’t really bear much examination – if we accept, as we are certainly meant to, that Karla is almost as devilishly cunning as our man. Like Smiley, Karla has his weak point – a mad daughter who has to be supported in the West because she is given to deviationist rantings: she is an embarrassment to Karla, but he loves her. In order to maintain secrecy, he wants to equip her with a new identity: he needs, in Moscow Centre jargon, a ‘legend for a girl’. To set this up, he has to operate unofficially, and to misappropriate Centre funds; this makes him a target for blackmail, and thus exposes him to Smiley’s master-coup. For the first two-thirds of the book, we don’t know much of this: we are moving, as it were, backwards, clue by clue, and we tend to swallow each clue as it is offered. It is only when the truth is known, and we survey the routes by which we arrived at it, that the whole thing seems thoroughly implausible. Karla, after all, is the number one man at Moscow Centre: if he needed a legend for a girl, he would surely be able to get one without hiring, as he does, a series of non-official amateurs and bunglers. He does have the power – and the plot depends on this, as it depends on his powerlessness in other areas – to kill off, by official channels, those who get in the way of his supposedly clandestine ruse. In fact, it is the first of these assassinations that puts Smiley on the scent: thereafter, all his key leads are handed to him on a plate by the incompetence of Karla’s hired help. Thus, by the time we get to the much-vaunted face-out, Karla is so diminished that we can’t really welcome his defeat with the requested gasps of admiration.
Nor, as it happens, can the victorious Smiley. While all around him are rejoicing, he is quietly attending to his rounded characterisation:
Peter Guillam touched his arm.
‘Come on, old friend,’ he said. ‘It’s bedtime.’
From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it among the folds of his tweed coat.
‘George, you won,’ said Guillam as they walked slowly towards the car.
‘Did I?’ said Smiley. ‘Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.’