Ian Hamilton

  • 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.

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