John Le Carré Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
‘It is sheer vanity to believe that one, fat, middle-aged spy is the only person capable of holding the world together,’ he would tell himself.
I recently watched the 2011 film of this classic spy novel, and it made me want to read the novel again. I thought that the film was beautiful to watch, but was for the most part a triumph of aesthetic vision over source faithfulness. Gary Oldman (dreadful make-up) wasn't a patch on Alec Guinness' grim Smiley in the TV miniseries. But, oh it was so pretty to watch in all its so-coordinated browns and greys. It really glorified a very ugly era in interior design. And Colin Firth was extraordinarily good...
Gratuitous Colin Firth picture (source)
The book has stuck in my mind for a long time. I think I read it sometime in the mid-1980s (and, thus, in my mid-teens). It is for me the spy novel to which I compare all subsequent spy novels: beautifully written, intricately fashioned, and deeply melancholic. Spying as a dirty game has never been so sordidly exposed.
Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet.
George Smiley, unwillingly retired from the spy game, is brought back to investigate what he and his former chief had long suspected - that there is a mole in the service of the Russians in the secret service 'Circus'. What follows is a slow and almost unsuspenseful unravelling of the past as Smiley - "a shy man, for all his vanities, and one who expected very little communication" - digs into botched operations, personal failures and treacheries, both small and large, in his personal mission to find which one of his colleagues is the mole established by the legendary Russian spymaster Karla. The action is very quiet, almost dull. It is as far from James Bond action spy thriller as one might get.
His mood was subdued, even a little glum. Like an actor he had a sense of approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible.
If you liked this: I want to read Len Deighton's trilogy (Berlin Game; Mexico Set; London Match) again. They come closest to Le Carré for extraordinarily good writing about the bleak, internalized life of desk-bound spy on a hopeless mole-hunt.