Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“She did not think that she had been seen…”

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"The binder she had selected..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 10. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.

And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.

"She did not think that she had been seen..."

Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.

That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

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

Quote of the Day

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“I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,” Smiley went on, more lightly. “Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things. What do you think of it?”

John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

Tinker, Tailor, and how to spot a murderer

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Any review I write of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will inevitably be brought up against the fact that I don’t know much about John le Carré. For various reasons, I’ve never been able to get into his work, despite trying and failing several times. This may seem like a strange admission from someone who, rather to his own surprise, has found himself making a living as a suspense novelist, but my own interests are considerably removed from le Carré’s: I’m not necessarily fascinated by spycraft or the Cold War for its own sake, so whenever I open one of his meticulously crafted novels, I feel a greater cultural shock upon entering this world than I do with, say, Fredrick Forsyth, who is probably the lesser artist, but who has a greater journalistic interest in keeping the lay reader engaged. All the same, I do intend to take the plunge into le Carré one of these days—there’s just no avoiding him if you have any interest at all in the history of the thriller—but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps fortunately, then, I was able to approach the chilly new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with something close to an open mind. (I also haven’t seen the famous television adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.) And while I’m obviously unable to judge its faithfulness to the source material, it certainly captures my idea of le Carré: tense, reserved, hermetic. As other reviewers have noted, it plunges you at once into a world of names, tradecraft, and technical language, to an extent that, refreshingly, gives the audience almost too much credit. It’s a testament to the quality of the cast, especially Gary Oldman’s restrained but powerful turn as Smiley, and director Tomas Alfredson, who creates a nice, faintly rotting atmosphere, that we’re interested and engaged the entire time, assuming that we can make the leap into the world that the movie has created. The film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to pull us in: it’s a mole hunt, revolving around the search for a traitor at the highest levels of British intelligence, but the stakes are less about the loss of real secrets than a sense of clubby betrayal, which we can only regard from a distance.

This refusal to hold the audience’s hand can be intriguing, but there are also times when it works against the story that the movie is trying to tell. For example, while I love its avoidance of the chronological chryons (“Four years earlier,” “Present day”) that clutter up so many of our suspense films, there’s also a crucial moment when we’re confused about whether or not a certain scene is a flashback, which diffuses the impact of an important surprise. More damagingly, for the mole hunt to have any weight at all, we need to know something about the men under suspicion, but for the most part, we know them only at sight, with their relationships expressed by a veiled exchange of glances, or not at all. As someone who has come down more than once against backstory, I applaud the decision to leave much of this material to implication, but I can’t help feeling that the movie takes it slightly too far, with at least one major character so thinly developed that it’s impossible, and rightly so, to take him as a suspect.

This reluctance to spell things out can be addressed, to a point, by thoughtful casting, and indeed, the actors—Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and a very winning Benedict Cumberbatch—tell us far more about their characters than is conveyed by the script itself. In at least one respect, however, the casting is a bit too clever, leading to the movie’s one real flaw, also shared by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Spoilers for both movies follow, at least by implication.) I’ve long since learned that the easiest way to spot a murderer, or a mole, is to look for a famous actor cast in what seems, at first, to be an insignificant supporting part, or at least a part with nothing obvious to attract a well-known name. Because actors of a certain caliber generally won’t take such small roles, at least not without good reason, the observant viewer suspects that there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s always possible, of course, that a really clever movie will employ a famous face as a deliberate distraction…but in the end, the casting in both Tinker, Tailor and Dragon Tattoo gives away the game. I doubt that Smiley would approve.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

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