Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Better late than never: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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It’s taken me a long time to get around to le Carré. As I noted in my review of the recent movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, my interest in his great subject—the psychology and culture of spycraft—has always been limited at best, so his books can seem forbiddingly hermetic to a reader like me. A writer like Frederick Forsyth, whom I admire enormously, does a nice job of balancing esoteric detail with narrative thrills, while le Carré, although he’s an ingenious plotter, deliberately holds back from the release of action for its own sake. The difference, perhaps, is that Forsyth was a journalist, while le Carré worked in intelligence himself, which accounts for much of the contrast in their work—one is a great explainer and popularizer, so that his books read like a men’s adventure novel and intelligence briefing rolled into one, while the other is all implication. As a result, while I’ve devoured most of Forsyth’s novels, I’ve tried and failed to get into le Carré more than once, and it’s only recently that I decided to remedy this situation once and for all.

Because there’s an important point to be made about le Carré’s reticence, which is that it ultimately feels more convincing, and lives more intriguingly in the imagination, than the paragraph-level thrills of other books. In interviews, le Carré has noted that many of the terms of spycraft that fill his novels were invented by himself, and weren’t actually used within MI6. This hardly matters, because a reader encountering this language for the first time—the lamplighters, the scalphunters, the janitors—has no doubt that this world is authentic. Forsyth, by contrast, stuffs his books with detail, nearly all of it compelling, but always with the sense that much of this information comes secondhand: we applaud the research, but don’t quite believe in the world. With le Carré, we feel as though we’re being ushered into a real place, sometimes tedious, often opaque, with major players glimpsed only in passing. And even if he’s inventing most of it, it’s still utterly persuasive.

This is the great strength of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I finished reading this week. Le Carré is the strongest stylist in suspense fiction, and this book is a master class in the slow accumulation of detail and atmosphere. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what is taking place, either because of the language of spycraft or the density of Britishisms—”a lonely queer in a trilby exercising his Sealyham”—but there’s never any break in the fictional dream. It’s a book that demands sustained engagement, that resolutely refuses to spell out its conclusions, and that always leaves us scrambling to catch up with the unassuming but formidable Smiley. In this respect, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is an inspired adaptation: it visualizes a few moments that the novel leaves offstage, but for the most part, it leave us to swim for ourselves in le Carré’s ocean of names, dates, and faces. (I haven’t seen the classic Alec Guinness version, which I’m saving for when the details of the plot have faded.)

And yet the overall impact is somewhat unsatisfying. Tinker, Tailor is a brilliantly written and constructed novel, but it’s an intellectual experience, not a visceral one. By the end of the book, we’ve come to know Smiley and a handful of others, but the rest are left enigmatic by design, so that the book’s key moment—the revelation of the mole’s identity—feels almost like an afterthought, with no real sense of pain or of betrayal. (The film has many of the same issues, and as I’ve noted before, it gives the game away with some injudicious casting.) This isn’t a flaw, precisely: it’s totally consistent with the book’s tone, which distrusts outbursts of emotion and buries feeling as deep as possible. That air of reserve can be fascinating, but it also leads to what James Wood, for somewhat different reasons, calls le Carré’s “clever coffin”—a narrowness of tone that limits the range of feeling that the work can express, which is often true of even the best suspense fiction. Le Carré’s talent is so great that it inadvertently exposes the limitations of the entire genre, and it’s a problem that we’re all still trying to solve.

Written by nevalalee

September 7, 2012 at 9:21 am

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