Confessions of Another Common Reader

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


I have spent most of my reading life firmly believing that John Le Carré was pulp fiction. He was on my parents’ bookshelves nestling up against Robert Ludlum, the tyopgraphy screamed ‘airport’, ergo he couldn’t be any good. For the corrective to this worldview, once again I have LibraryThing to thank: rebeccanyc read a couple earlier this year, and posted some very thoughtful comments.

In a seemingly unrelated incident, we spent the August bank holiday weekend staying with my college room-mate (technically, anyway, though she spent most of the year at her boyfriend’s place) in her grandmother’s house in Somerset. Said house just happened to be endowed with the most glorious library, from which I ended up borrowing an embarrassing number of books (yes, yes, in spite of (a) all the ones I’d taken with me (b) all the unread ones I have at home) – including an omnibus edition of the Smiley novels (sentimentally, I am deeply moved by the fact that it is a St Michael, aka long-lost own-brand of Marks & Spencer, edition).

GENDER STEREOTYPE ALERT: Rebecca notwithstanding, I have a feeling that this is a book generally more readily enjoyed by boys than girls. The essential plot device is the ‘one last job’ retired, respected spy George Smiley is called in one final time to investigate the allegation that there is a Russian mole embedded in the British secret service. But it’s tied up in so many knots it can sometimes be impossible to work out where the ends were. I have to admit that I found it very hard going after the first few pages – I was lulled into a false sense of security by the public-school setting of the opening pages, which introduced a whisper of mystery around Jim Prideaux, but kept the tone nice and middlebrow.

George Smiley – the ‘one last job’ fall guy – is a wonderful character: hopelessly tied to his similarly hopelessly adulterous wife, patiently and quietly unpicking the knots to see justice done. However, I found it extremely difficult to remember who everyone else was and where their loyalties were supposed to lie.This is obviously deliberate: Le Carré is depicting a service so murky and characterised with bluffs, double-bluffs and personal politics that to lay everything out in a neat flowchart would totally defeat the point of the novel. The technical side-effect, however, is that it the reader (well, me, anyway) can sometimes struggle to stay engaged. This is particularly true because the muddled cast of characters is overlaid with a near-impenetrable framework of secret-service jargon. I reached the end of the book none the wiser as to what, exactly, a ‘lamplighter’ was (amongst many others, though at least ‘the Circus’ I had just about figured out by the end: slang for the Secret Service, not-coincidentally based in Cambridge Circus in London, which is just up the road from my office. Always helps being able to call up pictures of a real location when you’re floundering.)

Halfway through, I put Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy down for a couple of weeks and read several other novels. This was clearly exactly what I needed, because a couple of weeks later, I found it much easier to stop caring about whether I was understanding everything and just accept that I was tagging along on Smiley’s coat-tails, and therefore had to trust him. It helped that the plot had picked up a bit of pace at that point.

Cautiously recommended (especially for jargon-lovers). Still slightly undecided as to whether I’m going to attempt the other two books in the trilogy.

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