The Humanist Spy
To coincide with the U.S. roll-out of Tomas Alfredson’s fantastic new feature film adaptation
of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
, I’ll be examining Le Carré and his Smiley novels—and the movies and TV shows based on them—in depth throughout December and January in a feature I call “The Smiley Files.” As with my exploration of Jean Bruce’s spy hero Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath
, aka OSS 117, it seems prudent to begin this series with an introduction to the character. There’s no doubt that George Smiley, who appeared in eight novels and has been played on screen by five different actors, is far better known than OSS 117 (and deservedly so), but in a genre where different readers’ tastes run in radically different directions (some to Bond, some to Smiley; some to Bourne, some to Samson), it’s safe to assume that not everyone may be familiar with Le Carré’s masterful creation. Hopefully the new film will get a whole new generation of readers interested in this Cold War character, and they’ll no doubt be wondering where to start.
It all starts with David Cornwell, who began publishing spy novels while still himself in the employ of MI6, having transferred there from MI5. Because he was an active officer, he couldn’t publish under his own name, and adopted the name John Le Carré under which to pen his novels. By 1964, he’d left the cloak and dagger world behind to pursue a full-time writing career. He’s intimated that his spy career effectively ended, anyway, when he was “blown” to the Russians by the notorious traitor Kim Philby.
Le Carré has written many books over the course of five decades, and George Smiley appears in eight of them. He is the principal character in some of those, the unseen puppet master in others, and even occasionally a minor character. He is the undisputed protagonist of Le Carré’s debut novel, Call for the Dead
, which also sees him retiring for the first time. This will become a theme. Smiley is nearly always called out of retirement at the beginning of each novel, and very often forced back into it by the end.
Le Carré begins his first novel with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” and sure enough, it fills in the crucial backstory. Smiley is a quiet man of academic pursuits. When he’s overcome by the stress of his job or his marriage, he likes to retreat into the works of obscure German poets. Clearly establishing from the start that this fictional spy is quite the opposite of James Bond—and a reaction to Fleming’s creation, which Le Carré hated—the author offers a fairly unflattering description of his hero: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”
Later, in the second novel, A Murder of Quality
, this description is reiterated and expanded upon:
Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him.
While Le Carré is quick to point out his character’s faults, he never condescends to him. Instead, these faults endear the character to us, and imbue him with a rich humanity in a genre not widely regarded for the humanity of its characters.
Returning, though, to that introductory chapter in Call for the Dead
, we also learn that Smiley attended an “unimpressive Oxford College” before WWII, where his tutor, Jebedee, recruited him into the Secret Service. In A Murder of Quality
, one character asserts that Smiley “had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.” Le Carré never gives us too much information about that nasty war, but we do learn up front that Smiley worked alongside academics-turned-spies Jebedee, Fielding, and Steed-Asprey, and that he worked behind enemy lines, living as an in Germany where he used his cover as a professor to run networks and recruit agents. It terrified him, and in the field he honed the skills which would also make him an excellent—and rare—desk man later in his career.
We’re also introduced, in this chapter, to Smiley’s errant wife, Ann—a character seldom glimpsed throughout the novels, but always on Smiley’s mind. Through the often absent Ann, Le Carré defines Smiley’s humanity. She strays—again and again throughout the series—but he remains hopelessly in love with her. It’s this crucial contradiction that makes Smiley such a compelling character. As has been pointed out time and again by critics, he is a brilliant spymaster who can move men like pawns across a great board matching wits with the best of Soviet intelligence, capable of unexpected ruthlessness when necessary—and yet he can’t keep his wife or his diet. He’s staggeringly human, and that humanity proves his undoing on more than one occasion. During his greatest operational successes, he has to shut out that humanity—and doing so drains him. He can shut it out, but he can’t ignore
it, and his conscience won’t let him ever be at peace when he’s doing what he’s so good at, just as his heart won’t ever let him break free of the perpetually philandering Ann.
After Ann leaves him for the first time (for a Cuban race driver) in Call for the Dead
, Le Carré reveals for the first time that “that part of Smiley which survived was as incongruous to his appearance as love, or a taste for unrecognized poets: it was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer. It was a profession he enjoyed, and which mercifully provided him with colleagues equally obscure in character and origin. It also provided him with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behavior, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.”
Unlike Bond, Bourne or de la Bath, Smiley is first and foremost a cerebral spy. (“Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” notes one character with undisguised jealousy in A Murder of Quality
.) Yet it’s a common mistake among pundits and casual dabblers in the spy genre to assume that Smiley’s intellect and his less than remarkable physique render him incapable of action. Smiley gets into physical confrontations with enemy agents twice in his debut novel—one of them a fight to the death that obliquely recalls another great literary brain’s confrontation with his nemesis atop the Reichenbach Falls. Even in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
, which is as cerebral a spy thriller as you’ll ever come by (yet at the same time as a spy thriller as you’ll ever come by, too), Smiley eventually arms himself with a pistol for his final confrontation with a traitor in the Service. Smiley’s People
even finds the pension-aged Smiley back in the field, traipsing across Europe on false passports mere steps ahead of KGB assassins. Smiley’s world may be more realistic than James Bond’s, but it is still filled with danger.
Le Carré has acknowledged largely basing Smiley on two men who shaped his own life: the Reverend Vivian Green, chaplain at one of the many schools the author attended and his tutor in Modern Languages (from whom Smiley inherited “strength of intellect and spirit” and thick spectacles) and author, spy and bona fide Baron John Bingham. In his introduction to a 2000 reprint of Bingham’s novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven
(which, incidentally, was adapted into the film Married Life
in 2008, starring Pierce Brosnan and reviewed here
), Le Carré wrote:
“When I came to write Smiley, I tried to give him the same faint air of loss that John carried around with him. Smiley, like John, I felt, was fighting to preserve a country that survived only in his head, and was clinging to standards long abandoned by the world around him. There was something quixotic as well as shrewd about John. Like Smiley, he was the perfect parish priest of the Old Faith. He was a superb listener. He was profoundly orthodox, but with a nice dash of heresy. He exuded stability and common sense and inspired his agents with his own gentle, old-fashioned zeal. His humanity was never put on.”
Le Carré admired Bingham’s quixotic loyalty to a dead empire, but he didn’t share his point of view. (A fact that sadly led to a falling out between the former colleagues.) Nor does he always share Smiley’s. Le Carré recalls that Bingham used to tell the agents he ran that they would be hated and distrusted by neighbors as “fire-breathing Reds,” and that they’d have to put up with all sorts of hardships…
‘But the Service will be with you. We’ll be walking at your side even when you can’t see us. We’ll be worrying about you day and night.’ And they believed him—for as long as upstarts like le Carré didn’t tell them otherwise. But le Carré had seen more of the new verities than John had, and far fewer of the old ones. He had not fought John’s war, he had never enjoyed the conviction that he was opposing pure evil, a rare privilege conferred by the 1939-45 war, but much harder to sustain in the war between capitalism and socialism, both gone off the rails…. And Le Carré turned Bingham the preacher of certainties into Smiley the disciple of doubt.
For as much as he believes in those old ideals, and as much as he feels—truly feels
—for every single one of his agents in the field, Smiley is also a pragmatist, dragged down by the ever increasing weight of a world caught up in an unending confrontation between two ideologies gone, as Le Carré puts it, “off the rails.” While both may be at fault, though, for Smiley communism is clearly the greater threat, and he fights it because he believes that it must be beaten. I suspect that there was a part of Le Carré that wanted to hate communism as much as Smiley did. The author certain had no sympathy for Communists (clearly evidenced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
), but the hypocrisy he saw in the Capitalist West preventing him from subscribing to any ideological absolutes. Smiley, however, found his own reasons.
As David Monaghan writes in his book Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John Le Carré
, “for [Smiley] the essential flaw in communism is its rootedness in the notion that the whole is more important than the individual. Closer to home he despises bureaucrats such as Maston [the Advisor, his superior in Call For the Dead
], because they put their faith in policy rather than experience, and the Press, advertising and television because they focus on the mass rather than the individual.” Monaghan argues that Smiley’s target “is now communism which, in the post-war world, poses the single largest threat to his intense commitment to the individual. The problem for Smiley is that, in pursuit of his goal, he has to do things that are antithetical to it.... Smiley’s only reward for living so completely is that he remains intensely human.”
Smiley’s humanity is challenged again and again throughout the canon, but he refuses to part with it, which is what sets him apart from so many others in his profession—and what ultimately assures that he will never come out on top of political squabbles within his own Service. And when he does part with that humanity, even for a moment, he pays dearly. Even when he ostensibly wins, things rarely end happily for poor George Smiley.
1961’s Call for the Dead
) is an excellent spy novel—and a quick read at a mere 150 pages. It’s definitely not the best of the Smiley novels, but it’s a good place to start. A Murder of Quality
), from the following year, isn’t a spy novel at all. It’s a murder mystery, and Smiley is a private citizen throughout that novel, never called out of his retirement by his Service, for once. Extra-textually, and with the benefit of hindsight, the exercise of inserting Smiley into a plot that could have worked just as well for Poirot or Campion serves to expose that that is Le Carré’s standard formula, and not a divergence. Each of the Smiley books are structured as classical mysteries—and in the cases of Call for the Dead
and Smiley’s People
, they are literal murder mysteries whose solutions just happen to lie in the murky world of international espionage. But the mystery formula served the author well in his spy novels, and proved the perfect vehicle for an intellectual hero like Smiley. So similar is the structure to the other books that A Murder of Quality
doesn’t really stand apart from them, but very tellingly among
them. It exposes Smiley as a detective at heart, and perhaps more at home in that school of fiction. He’s a detective who uses his deductive skills to unravel mysteries affecting the balance of power between nations—but here he proves equally adept here working on a much smaller scale. A Murder of Quality
Le Carré, but it's instructive
Le Carré... and the more Smiley novels you read the more you’ll want to spend time with the character, and he remains on center stage for the duration of the novel.
The same cannot be said of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
(1963, review here
), Le Carré’s third novel, in which Smiley’s role proves crucial
to the story, yet his actual presence
is limited to just a few pages. There is no doubt that Spy
is one of the great works of the genre, and essential reading for its fans, but I would recommend reading Call for the Dead
first. In many ways, Spy
is actually a direct sequel to that novel, even if the protagonist is different. If you haven’t read Call for the Dead
, in fact, you might easily miss out altogether on just how big a role George Smiley plays in the story. Smiley plays another pivotal but limited role in The Looking Glass War
(1965, review here
), though while he might get a few more pages than he did in Spy
, he isn’t a major motivating force in the plot the way he is in that book.
Smiley’s next starring role came in 1974 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
). Many contend that The Spy Who came in from the Cold
is Le Carré’s masterpiece, and while there’s no denying that is a great novel and an essential cornerstone of the genre, I would strongly posit that the author’s true masterpiece
is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
. This is the greatest spy novel ever written. And it hinges on George Smiley. If you only read one Smiley novel or one Le Carré novel, this is the one.
Le Carré tweaked his character slightly for the Seventies, retconning his past to make him just a bit younger than he was in the earlier books. (Just a bit—really as a way of keeping him the same age in the early Seventies that he was in the early Sixties.) Other supporting characters, like Peter Guillam, get a makeover as well. In the earlier novels Guillam is a colleague of Smiley’s, and presumably of a similar vintage. Now he’s younger—a protégé rather than a peer; a Watson to Smiley’s Holmes. The tweaks are minor, however, and Smiley remains, as ever, short, plump, adorned in bad clothes, and always cleaning his thick glasses with the fat end of his tie. The new status quo is incredibly rich, though, and Le Carré’s “Circus” (as MI6 is known in these books) is a fascinating milieu for the so-called “Karla Trilogy” (named after Smiley’s opposite number at Moscow Center), which begins with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Smiley takes a backseat again in the trilogy’s second novel, 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy
, (though being in the backseat doesn't mean that Smiley's not in control; after all, Le Carré himself in a DVD interview described Smiley as “somebody
who, from the back seat, was driving the car
”), but the book is thick enough that taking a backseat still gives him more pages than he got as the star of Call for the Dead
and A Murder of Quality
put together! (Should the producers of the new Tinker
wish to film Schoolboy
, it could easily be adapted so as to make Smiley the main character.) It isn’t so much Smiley’s face time (or lack thereof) that makes him a secondary character in this one; it’s the fact that we as readers are never privy to his thoughts. While we enjoyed full access to Smiley’s inner monologues in Tinker
, in Schoolboy
he remains inscrutable and the readers are left with Peter Guillam as a frustrated surrogate—very much fulfilling that Holmes and Watson relationship. Smiley never clues Guillam into his overall plan, but Guillam’s afraid that his mentor might not be seeing the whole picture. The primary protagonist of The Honourable Schoolboy
, however, isn’t either of them; it’s Jerry Westerby, who played a small part in the previous novel. Just because Smiley isn’t in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean that readers should skip this book the way the BBC did when adapting them. The middle chapter in the Karla Trilogy is essential to Smiley’s overall arc throughout the series—and it’s a fantastic novel in its own right, one of the author’s best.
Of course, all three books in the Karla Trilogy are among his best. Smiley's People
(1979) wraps it up with the fastest moving, most crowd-pleasing entry, one which takes Smiley himself back into the field chasing spies across Europe. Its end is conceived with such finality that it came as somewhat of a surprise (albeit a most welcome one!) when Le Carré trotted out old George one last time in The Secret Pilgrim
in 1990. Somewhat frustratingly, Smiley wasn't the central figure in this epitaph for the Cold War and its secret warriors, but he certainly figures prominently and, perhaps more than ever, serves as the author's mouthpiece. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, their opinions are perhaps more aligned. It's a pity John Bingham wasn't around to bear witness. To date, The Secret Pilgrim
remains the final literary appearance of George Smiley. But that could always change. Le Carré has gone on record saying that Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy
inspired him in the writing of Smiley's People
. Perhaps he'll find inspiration anew in Gary Oldman's performance and decided to offer us another glimpse back into Smiley's Cold War career!
Smiley first appeared on screen in the person of Rupert Davies (an actor at one time touted to play Doctor Who) in Martin Ritt's 1965 film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
. Although the Smiley role is beefed up a little bit from the book, the character is in no way explored, and Davies fails to make much of an impression. (The film itself, though, is an undeniable classic of the genre.) At least he's got the glasses, and more or less fits Le Carré's description—except for the presence of a mustache.
Both of the screen's first two Smiley's were inexplicably mustachioed, in fact. James Mason also wears a mustache in the 1966 film The Deadly Affair
), adapted by Paul Dehn (who also co-wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
!) from Call for the Dead
and directed by Sidney Lumet. Besides both having mustaches, both of these two early Smileys also fit the bill physically. Later Smileys will all be a little too svelte. Besides having a mustache, Mason's Smiley forgoes the character's trademark glasses. That's kind of acceptable, though... because the character isn't actually called
"Smiley." The name Smiley was owned by Paramount, thanks to their brief use of the character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
, which meant that in Columbia's film of a book in which Smiley is actually the main character
, they were forced to change his name to Charles Dobbs. No matter what he's called, Mason makes an excellent, if unconventional, Smiley in a surprisingly strong film
relegated unfairly to the shadow of its more illustrious predecessor. Interestingly, Mason later starred in a TV adaptation of Le Carré's short story "Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn"
When Smiley next appeared, it was on television, in his most famous incarnation to date. But despite being on television, he was played by one of the world's most distinguished film
actors: Sir Alec Guinness. Guinness starred in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
, which devoted seven hours to the novel's complex plot. He completely disappeared into the character, instantly making it his own. So much did Guinness become Smiley, in fact, that Le Carré pictured him while writing the final draft of Smiley's People
, and tailored the story to the actor. The Beeb sadly bypassed The Honourable Schoolboy
because of the production costs associated with filming in the Far East, but Guinness reprised the role in an excellent six-part 1982 miniseries of Smiley's People
In 1991 Thames Television produced an adaptation of A Murder of Quality
) starring Denholm Elliott as Smiley. Despite being a bit too thin, he very much looked the part and did a good job in a story whose slightness is particularly conspicuous when compared to the dense Guinness miniseries.
Twenty years passed before George Smiley returned to the screen, when Gary Oldman took on the role and, like Alec Guinness before him, completely disappeared into it, in Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
). Working Title are keen to produce a follow-up. I would personally love to see Oldman star in The Honourable Schoolboy
, since that novel's sadly never been filmed, but screenwriter Peter Straughan indicates that the most likely scenario will be a single film that combines elements from Schoolboy
and Smiley's People
The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)
Part 6: Movie Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)
Part 7: Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Part 8: Book Review: The Looking Glass War (1965)
Part 9: Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)