Nov 13, 2012

Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably the most famous book in the Smiley series, and deservedly so. Once again, Smiley is retired (as in Call For the Dead and, apparently, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and once again he is summoned out of that retirement, this time by the Cabinet Office’s Oliver Lacon, the bureaucrat charged with oversight of British Intelligence. Lacon charges Smiley with the task of ferreting out a mole in the organization. Everyone who works there now, including the four-man cabal running things, is a suspect. Smiley himself is in the clear only by virtue of his having been drummed out of the Circus (as le Carré refers to the Secret Service) a year prior following the ouster of the department’s longtime ringmaster Control. Control (since deceased) went somewhat bonkers in his final year, paranoid and obsessed with discovering the leak in his organization. With the aid of trustworthy confidante Peter Guillam (still officially employed by the Circus, but exiled to an outstation by the new regime), Smiley picks up where his late mentor left off and quickly determines that the mole has to be one of four men, all former colleagues of his: Bill Haydon, Roy Blunt, Toby Esterhase or Percy Alleline—the latter now occupying Control’s old position.

I’ll be honest: I love this book so much that I find it daunting to write about. John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not only my favorite spy novel, but my favorite novel—period. I’m in awe of it. Every time I re-read it, it’s rewarding anew, revealing new secrets hidden within the labyrinthine folds of the author’s elegant, perfectly crafted prose. It’s at once comfortingly familiar and joltingly fresh every time. Even though I know the outcome, I always get caught up in spymaster George Smiley’s quest to root out a mole among his friends and former colleagues in the stuffy, lived-in halls of the British Secret Service.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the ideal combination of perfectly constructed prose and plot. Le Carré’s language is always amazing, but in particularly fine form in this book. He’s famous for his spy jargon—more invented than recalled from his own days in the secret world, but with such a ring of authenticity that many of his terms, like “mole,” have not only turned up in the fiction of other writers, but entered into the actual lexicon of the trade—but it’s his peerless sentence construction and turns of phrase that hook me more than that. Smiley’s right-hand man, Peter Guillam, for example, identifies his mentor’s particular talents for unraveling intrigue and subterfuge as Smiley’s “devious arithmetic.” Smiley himself reflects, with typical self deprecation, that “it is sheer vanity to believe that one fat middle-aged spy is the only person capable of holding the world together.” (This sentence is so unforgettable that Olen Steinhauer effectively resurrects it by way of homage in his own espionage masterwork An American Spy.)

Even more impressive than his sentence construction, however, is le Carré’s astoundingly intricate plot construction—his own devious arithmetic. Just as le Carré perfectly assembles words into mellifluous, multi-layered sentences, so he assembles those sentences into an equally multi-layered plot of staggering nuance and complexity. The book is put together like a puzzle. Rather than a traditional, straightforward narrative, readers are doled out individual pieces (or sometimes partially assembled sections), but the story still flows like a traditional narrative, always driven forward by Smiley’s dogged present-day investigation. That investigation consists largely of him in a hotel room, meticulously scouring old files through all hours of the night… but scouring old files has never been so exciting! (I gasp aloud every time I come to the ingenious final “knot” in Moscow spymaster Karla's master plan.)

The files he reads, summarized for us in prose far preferable to that of actual government reports, are augmented by copious portions of Smiley’s own memories. The memories and the official record intermingle to tell a story driven in equal parts by recorded facts and emotional connections—neither of which we, or Smiley, are ever certain we can trust. Le Carré is often cited for his frequent use of in medias res (beginning in the middle of things), but the actual cumulative effect of this sort of multi-tiered storytelling goes well beyond that. In the case of Tinker, Tailor, the entire novel seems to occur at once. Although the thick book is by no means a quick read, the effect of reading it seems to me like instantly downloading an entire drive’s worth of information into my brain. There is so much information—not merely expository, but also emotional—that every chapter, every sequence, every sentence appears to be packed with more than one piece. What impressed me most about Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 movie adaptation wasn’t its fidelity to the plot of the novel (many scenes were necessarily excised or altered completely), but its incredible fidelity to this highly effective narrative technique. To paraphrase my film review, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan managed the impressive feat of “unpacking” all of le Carré’s loaded chapters and sentences and then repacking them in even smaller units for the film’s roughly 2-hour runtime.

This storytelling style isn’t limited to scenes told from Smiley’s perspective. There’s no better demonstrative microcosm of le Carré’s complex whole than the breathtaking sequence in which Peter Guillam (sent by Smiley) must covertly retrieve the top secret “Operation Testify” file from the Circus archives—right out from under the noses of Smiley’s suspects. Through subterfuge and sleight of hand, Guillam manages to remove the file and smuggle it out of the archive while being watched, but then finds himself summoned by Toby Esterhase into a meeting of Circus honchos who know that Guillam is hiding something from them—but aren’t sure what. We get Guillam’s point of view the whole time, and his mind is wandering. It’s all happening in the now, but at the same time he’s thinking of how Smiley will react in the future (Smiley would want to know who was in the meeting), what Smiley told him in the near past about the scheme, his own current lover Camilla, and his own further distant past, with regards to his predecessor Jim Prideaux (chief protagonist of Operation Testify, since wounded and disavowed) and his defunct Moroccan networks (blown by the mole), which must always weigh heavily on his mind. But these thoughts all, realistically, seem like parts of the now, and not extraneous flashbacks that take us away from the scene we’re in. Instead they all add to it; they’re all part of it, and the perfect concoction thereof makes the scene that much more suspenseful. It’s spy fiction at its very best.

Of course, the whole novel is spy fiction at its very best. Within it, le Carré manages to cover almost every aspect of the espionage trade, from uncovering moles to penetration to turning defectors to intelligence gathering and distribution to running networks to blowing networks to crossing borders to forged passports to surveillance (“lamplighter” work in le Carré’s world) to counter-surveillance to secret filing and bureaucracy to, yes, even “scalphunter” work: black bag missions and gunfire. There are even gadgets, if you count the wired walls in the “Witchcraft” safe house! Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy truly has it all. Sure, it’s a long, long way from Doctor No, but fans of the Fleming side of the spy genre may find themselves in more familiar territory here than they suspect, and every spy fan, whether they prefer serious or silly, desk men or field men, should read this book. It's simply without equal.

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)


Dylan said...

I reread this book ever few years, and I’ve listened to the audiobook (read by Michael Jayston—Peter Guillam from the miniseries) more time than I can count. Of all the things to love about this book—and there are many—the thing I have come to appreciate most is Le Carré’s sense of humor. Le Carré delivers what is a fairly grim story with a remarkably light touch. From Connie Sachs’ alcohol-soaked narrative of Polyakov to Guillam’s caustic observations of his colleagues, Le Carré’s prose is an absolute joy to read.

Unlike most, I didn’t enjoy the film very much, and one item on my the long list of problems with it was its total humorlessness. It felt as if, in their desperate efforts to achieve poignancy, the filmmakers were afraid that any of Le Carré’s dialogue that might have made the audience smile would make them forget the seriousness of the whole thing.

Bob said...

I've reread the novel several times and I'm always impressed with Le Carre's prose and his very subtle characterizations. I am also very proud to tell you I was able to persuade my son (age 24) to read the novel before he saw the film last year. I believe the last book he read was one of the Harry Potter books. (Quite an achievement!)

Finally, I'm also very impressed with the Gary Oldman film and the Alec Guinness tv series. These films are classics in the espionage film library. There will always be the argument of which is better. I'm happy with both.

As we have seen with Skyfall, there is a place for Bond and Le Carre in both contemporary film and literature.

Quiller said...

I first read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the spring of 1996. I was a sophomore in high school and my Honors English teacher gave us the option of choosing a novel to write a book report on. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything by Ludlum or Forsyth by her, so I chose a le Carre -- Tinker, Tailor.

I remember reading with a mounting sense of disgust. Nothing was happening. The novel was written in such a dense prose style as to be impenetrable. Because the language was so quintessentially, indubitably British I had no idea where I was in the story, and felt like it had taken the characters 350 pages (in the paperback copy I read) to figure out that yes, there was indeed a mole in the British Secret Service. I wrote, in the form of a spy’s report from the field to headquarters, the most scathing book report of my academic career, put it in a manila envelope, used a red marker to draw a “TOP SECRET”-style stamp across the front of the envelope, and handed it in. Got an A, by the way.

I remember feeling cheated and disappointed. I had by then read and re-read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, also probably at too young an age, but I felt from the beginning that I understood that novel and why it was so important. I remember being so taken with it on my first reading that I actually read the trial sequence aloud, so distinctive the dialogue was. So how could le Carre write a masterpiece like Spy, and then follow it (eleven years later) with a disaster like Tinker?

I tried to read it again in the summer of 2000, after reading The Secret Pilgrim and The Night Manager back-to-back, but got distracted by other things and never finished it. Then in 2004, during my first semester at Temple University, I found a book in the campus library that I’m sure you’re familiar with – David Monaghan’s Smiley’s Circus, an exhaustive guide to the world of le Carre’s Circus, including definitions of le Carre’s homemade spy jargon. It was an almost Promethean discovery – I had found the key to le Carre’s code! I got out my copy of Tinker, Tailor, and dove in – and now, for the first time, felt like I was in possession of the novel’s story, characters and themes. The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People followed in rapid succession. Later that year I discovered that the BBC miniseries had been released on DVD and rented it from TLA Video in Philadelphia, followed not long after by Smiley’s People.

Quiller said...

I’ve re-read the whole trilogy pretty much annually ever since (and usually I follow the reading by re-watching both miniseries, both of which I now own). Spy is the one for the history books (if a le Carre novel ever makes it onto “100 Best Novels”-type lists, it’s usually Spy), but I think Tinker is an even greater achievement. Besides presenting the ultimate spy-fiction scenario (what could be more challenging for a spy than to spy on his own organization?), it is also a masterful appropriation of that other quintessentially British form, the country-house mystery, with Smiley playing the role of Poirot or Miss Marple, trying to find the rotter among a group of equally worthy suspects in a confined space (namely, the Circus).

But in its dissection of the British class system and its ingenious use of the decaying Circus as a metaphor for all of post-war Britain, I think it may have more in common with American novels like Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All three are about closed-off subsets of the larger society that run on their own rules and an absolute fidelity to tradtion, and all are about how those systems – 1870s New York high society in Wharton, Jazz Age Long Island aristocrats in Fitzgerald, Cold War-era British intelligence in le Carre – require corruption and hypocrisy in order to function. The difference is that in Wharton and Fitzgerald, the respective societies survive a crisis; in le Carre, the crisis brings the whole thing crashing down.

So yes, Tinker is le Carre’s masterpiece, and one that I hope is admitted to the 20th century Western canon very soon, and I’m glad that it only took me eight years to figure that out.

Tanner said...

Dylan, I listen to that audiobook as well. I love Jayston's readings of the Smiley novels! (And how he does a great Guinness impression when he reads Smiley himself.) I'm a big fan of le Carré’s humor as well. Some of Connie's lines make me laugh out loud. Unlike you, though, I AM a fan of the movie, and I didn't find it humorless. I think it lost a lot in reducing the Guillam role to its essence and thus robbing the audience of his wry observations, but there was still humor to be found, particularly in John Hurt's performance as Control. He cracked me up in some scenes!

I agree with you, Bob, that both the film and the miniseries are masterpieces (though, obviously, neither quite lives up to the book). And that is indeed quite an achievement getting your son to go from Harry Potter to TTSS! Did he like it? Honestly, I don't think it's too much of a stretch from one to the other. Sometimes I wonder if I'm jumping at shadows, but I see a LOT of le Carré in Jo Rowling. Hogwarts actually reminds me quite a bit of the Circus. And while all tales of British public school have some clear elements in common, I find glaring parallels between Bill Roach and the boy wizard. I think the movie drove those parallels even further in the scene where the owl flies out of the fireplace on fire in the classroom!

Your first experience with Tinker sounds a lot like my own with Spy, Quiller (discussed in my review of that book). And your book report cover sounds remarkably like some that I did, too! In fact, we seem to think alike in a lot of ways. I'm afraid I haven't read The Age of Innocence (though I always loved Ethan Frome), but I was recently making the case to a Gatsby fan that he should read TTSS for some of the very reasons you mention! And I don't think it's a coincidence that that was the book that TTSS ultimately unseated as my own favorite novel.

Tanner said...

Oh, and as for Spy vs. Tinker... Yes, it's more often Spy that gets included on such lists, but to me Tinker is a way more accomplished novel. However, that's not quite the same as saying it's a more accomplished SPY novel, even though they both are, undoubtedly, spy novels. Does that make sense? I think "best of genre" lists really tend to mean the most INFLUENTIAL works in a genre. Spy is more obviously clever in its twistiness, and presented readers with a new kind of spy novel, I think. Tinker is equally clever, but the complexity of Karla's brilliant strategy is easy to lose among so many other layers in the book. It's not the only thing on display. So for economy of purpose, it makes sense to put Spy on the lists of the greatest spy novels. Publishers Weekly did one of those lists a few years ago that ranked Spy and The Bourne Identity as the top two, though I don't remember in what order. I wouldn't argue with that. (Check back here late tomorrow for a lot more about The Bourne Identity.) From a plot perspective, looking at the mechanics of telling a spy story, those two are as brilliant and influential as they come. For me, Casino Royale would round out the Top 3 in terms of influence. (Not sure what order I'd rank those three in though.) Of course "best spy novels" isn't the same thing as "favorite novels" or even "favorite spy novels," and TTSS shoots to the top of that list, personally.

Meanwhile, Deighton's Berlin Game manages to combine the achievements of Spy, Bourne and Casino into a single masterpiece that arguably works better than any of them. But I don't think I could rank it HIGHER than them on such a list, because it succeeds by processing what they've done. It's influenced BY them, but as wonderful as it is, I don't think it's as influential in and of itself. For Deighton, more often we see IPCRESS mentioned on such lists, and that's probably a more influential book, though it pales greatly in comparison to the best Samson novels!