Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Let’s face it; I read this because I wanted to see the movie, which is one of those British films with an all-star cast. (It is a bit easier when your island is so small.) As someone with bad taste, I’m acutely aware of the fact that whatever I come to first, I like better—the book or the movie, the original or the cover. (I think the only time this has failed is with “Helter Skelter”, which I thought Pat Benatar had written for a few weeks. Yep.) So I knew I would need to read the novel first. But I waffled a bit; it’s part of a series, after all, and I’m a completionist. The first novel in the George Smiley series was on my list until I decided to streamline things and just pick up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and get it over with. After several weeks of bashing my head against the wall the novel turned out to be, I realized it was really the best choice.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in London in the early seventies, during the Cold War. George Smiley, a retired Secret Service agent, is called back into action in order to investigate the presence of a mole in the Circus, as they call the Intelligence Headquarters. His efforts to do so force him to retrace the steps that led he and the Circus here, including the botched operation that was the last straw for the recently deceased Control and the Circus’ trade of intelligence and agents across the globe.

Some books made you feel stupid.

I’m used to feeling stupid—cracks about dumb blondes aside (I’m not even a real blonde, so ha!), I was raised in a pop cultural wasteland for much of my youth and wasn’t socialized properly, so I’m basically fifteen years behind anyone my age and trying to desperately catch up without visibly panicking. I usually try to embrace it instead of letting it get me down; in fact, it’s occasionally a boon, as I was never (or never realized; I was a pretty stupid kid) shamed for reading speculative fiction and didn’t absorb absurd amounts of heteronormativity. After all, it means I get to experience things fresh, and the dumbest questions are the ones that are never asked. But, despite my best efforts to educate myself and generally be a woman of letters, I can occasionally hit a wall, and that’s what happened here. I’m putting the blame more on myself than Le Carré, because his impact on fiction, if nothing else, proves that it is me—I’m not connecting with the material in a way a majority of people have. But I’m not saying this to invalidate my reaction; I’m just saying it to qualify it.

For me, this felt much more like hitting my head against a brick wall than reading a novel, although le Carré’s gift for economy of detail gave rise to so many tremblingly revealing moments. It’s almost worse, not connecting with a novel that I can tell is technically quite good and thoughtful. I can usually find something to entertain myself with in honestly bad novels; even offensive novels give me some kind of anger to work with. Perhaps I’m too young; I can’t relate to the youth of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, those sharp, careless artists who haunt the edges of the novel, and, while it’s easier with the middle-aged spymasters who make up the bulk of the cast, it’s hard to relate to them as well. Now, it’s not necessary to relate to characters in novels—I am, after all, inordinately fond of prickly heroines despite being a huge softy myself—but a lot of my frustration stems from the fact that I could never quite find an in; to put it another way, I couldn’t find any purchase. There is a flicker of it, in the character of Roach, a young schoolboy at the school where Prideaux comes home to roost, and he’s utilized beautifully (he gets the last chapter of the book), but whatever access it offered vanished before I could grab hold.

So this isn’t really a review of the novel, I know. I loved the chapters written at Prideaux’s school; I loved the quiet, stiff tragedy of Smiley; and I loved le Carré’s eye for detail, no matter how brief. But what I come away with is an overwhelming sense that this novel is impregnable for me, as I am now. Perhaps, when my nephew’s grown and I’m an established woman, it’ll be different, but I just can’t seem to crack the shell.

Bottom line: Utterly impregnable for me, no matter le Carré’s eye for detail. if you’d like.

I rented this book from my school library.

16 thoughts on “Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

  1. I adore this review for so many reasons. 🙂

    As for the book, I keep telling myself to pick it up somewhere because I, too, want to see the movie. Maybe I will *gasp* just see the movie….

  2. I watched the mini-series with Alec Guiness as Smiley several years ago and felt much the same way, like there was some key to unlock the whole thing that I just didn’t have. I could tell it was good, but I couldn’t properly appreciate it.

    I never did read the book, but I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I found easier to wrap my head around than the TTSS mini-series, but I still felt like there was something essential I was missing. There were a couple of jarring shocks in the story that stuck with me, so I got something out of it.

    What surprised me most about Le Carre is how slow the pace is. I’ve been conditioned to think of spy stories as action stories, and Le Carre just isn’t that way. It’s the same with Alan Furst, whose spy novels I’ve had better luck with. A lot happens, but it’s understated and doesn’t ever get up to action-story pace.

  3. Great review, Clare. Gives me an idea of what to expect from the book. I’ve seen the movie with Gary Oldman, and I’d love to see the Alec Guiness version, since I’m a fan of him too. I appreciate what Le Carre does because he’s probably the most famous of the writers who write “accurate intelligence agencies and tactics.”

    [Side note: I had no idea you weren’t a natural blonde.]

  4. A few months ago I struggled terribly with Tinker Tailor and eventually abandoned it halfway through wondering what was wrong with me when so many other people seemed to enjoy it. I couldn’t find any purchase either, that’s a great way to put it, as is ‘utterly impregnable’. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I couldn’t seem to get any flow in the story and was constantly turning back pages because my attention had wandered, which is most unlike me.

  5. I read the trilogy a few months ago and I enjoyed it quite a bit. If you had trouble with TTSS I would suggest you persevere and read The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. It makes more sense when you take them all in as a whole.

    • I don’t think I’ll be giving le Carré a shot for the next decade or so (not as avoidance, but because by then I’ll be in my thirties and more prepared), but context might be part of the reason I couldn’t find purchase here.

  6. Sorry for the late comment. I struggled a bit with this a while ago (before I watched the Gary Oldman version), and I think Le Carré does actually write quite opaquely. It’s a while before one can really get a handle on what’s going on and why, since the flashbacks aren’t obvious, and Smiley himself doesn’t seem that keen to delve into the past, at first. Once I got into it, I enjoyed it more. I decided who the mole was before Smiley got there – I thought it interesting that he couldn’t be truly objective because of his relationship with Ann.

    The novel’s slow pacing is better conveyed in the TV version, rather than the recent film version, though I haven’t watched all of the TV series yet.

    • Late comment? No, this is what’s wonderful about the Internet—everything exists in a nebulous now. I adore comments on older posts.

      I have been meaning to see the film version, because I think Gary Oldman is a genius.

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  9. Please, please don’t blame yourself if this was a difficult read for you. I’m a huge LeCarre fan, but it must be said that he is not light reading, not meant to be light entertainment. You are entering the mind of a staggeringly intelligent writer who is describing a complex web of situations, struggles, pained relationships. And sometimes he prefers to leave some things unsaid…perhaps so the reader will be made to ponder, to wonder, to fill in a blank? All in all, these books can be dense and do not reveal their full significance on first reading. I’ve been re-reading LeC’s early works for a good 30 years and everytime I revisit TTSS, I discover some new onion layer of meaning. It’s like listening to a symphony by Mozart or Bach — you can hear something new and think “was that there all along? I just noticed it now!” The joy of LeC is that you can come back to his books many times, becoming more comfortable, deepening your understanding, growing into his narratives. So give yourself some time and these waters will get warmer.
    Also, please remember that all good books are not necessarily for all good people. There’s no reason why something should speak to everybody. That’s why there are so many fantastic books on the library shelves. Something for everyone. Maybe, too, the time just wasn’t right for you. We relate to some authors in our youth, some when we’re a bit more mature, have done some living, and see life with greater insight. So maybe LeC will “open up” to you later, when the time is right.

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