Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The postwar establishment

Self-confessed "le Carré bore" Christopher Tayler offers a perceptive critique of the le Carre style at the London Review of Books:

Prep and public schools are always suspect places in le Carré, but his early thrillers wouldn’t be so good if their intelligence agencies didn’t also have a romantic, vaguely upper-crust ideal to fall short of. The Circus, as Smiley’s service is known, might be shabbily unscrupulous, vulnerable to moles, short of funds, and riddled with time-servers and self-promoters. But it still has living memories of such glamorous figures as Steed-Asprey and ‘Fielding, the French medievalist from Cambridge’ – representatives of an incorruptible officer class whose prewar exploits are only ever hinted at. Tinker Tailor says a sentimental farewell to that class while frostily exposing its last-ditch pretensions in the person of a disappointed romantic imperialist who’s revealed to be the hollowest man of all. The fading of the early 1960s establishment, with its obsessive class gradations and competitively worn college ties, probably had a more deleterious effect on le Carré’s writing than the end of the Cold War. The novels after Tinker Tailor often seem more interested in the social comedy of the emerging post-gentlemanly dispensation than the construction of neatly engineered plots. We start hearing more – more than we need to – about dislikeable characters’ ‘violence with auxiliary verbs’. And le Carré shows that he can write brilliant dialogue for the likes of Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian-born surveillance man with an ingratiating manner and a shaky grasp of English idiom, which is fun for a while, but only for a while.

A lot of his writing since the mid-1970s is overripe. Phrases he’s especially pleased with – ‘the permanent night-time of his elected trade’, for example – have a way of getting repeated and recast (‘the remaining disparate articles of her uncertain faith’). There are too many adverbs, too many jaunty nicknames, too many characters given to aphoristic witticisms. And when he wants to conceal what someone’s up to or inject ambiguity he adopts a style that soon grates:

There remains the mystery of the telephone transcripts. Did Jerry ring Lizzie from the Constellation, or not? And if he did ring her, did he mean to talk to her, or only to listen to her voice? And if he intended to talk to her, then what did he propose to say? Or was the very act of making the phone call – like the act of booking airline passages in Saigon – in itself sufficient catharsis to hold him back from the reality?

What is certain is that nobody – neither Smiley nor Connie nor anyone else who read the crucial transcripts – can be seriously accused of failing in their duty, for the entry was at best ambivalent.

This passage from The Honourable Schoolboy isn’t much more comprehensible in context, though the effect being aimed at is indicated when Jerry is shown reading Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The Little Drummer Girl (1983) features an Israeli operative called Kurtz whose actions are similarly shrouded in uncertainty: ‘At what stage in the chase he had hit upon his plan,’ we’re told, ‘probably not even Kurtz himself could have said.’ In these cases, the grace notes being struck or plot points being fudged don’t mitigate the ostentatious skirting of unspeakable mysteries. And even when there are sound plot-mechanical reasons for limiting the narrator’s knowledge, le Carré often overdoes the inventing of different points of view. Leamas’s stage-managed ejection from the Circus in The Spy who Came in from the Cold is dealt with in ten deft paragraphs – most of them told from his colleagues’ generalised viewpoint, with a few comments from Elsie in Accounts. The Honourable Schoolboy, on the other hand, summons a cast of office cranks just to decide where the story should begin: ‘One crowd, led by a blimpish fellow in charge of microphone transcription, went so far as to claim that . . . To less flowery minds, the true genesis was . . .’ And so on.


  1. I wish I had more to say about spy novels than I do about procrastination...

    But I'm just popping in to say,yes, it WAS such fun to meet & yes, I do hope to repeat it.

    Fondly, Anne

  2. A wonderful review; thanks for the pointer. For my part I think The Honorable Schoolboy does maintain a great deal of the magic of Tinker, Tailor, and I would date le Carre's downhill slide after The Little Drummer Girl as well. As an aside, I think the mini-series Tinker, Tailor suffered from only one drawback: Alec Guiness was too charismatic an actor, incapable of being the outwardly shy George Smiley.