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.