While the rest of the book world is busy reading Le Carré’s latest book, A Legacy of Spies, I’ve found myself returning to an earlier Smiley novel, Tinker, Talior, Soldier, Spy. Each September my Wednesday Book Group forsakes its midweek evening meeting for a whole day gathering on a Sunday. Because most of us are involved one way or another in education, we don’t meet in August. So, in order to give us plenty of time to catch up with all our personal news, we have developed a format whereby we discuss a book in the morning, have a long lunch over which we swap our latest doings, see the film of the book in the afternoon and then discuss the adaptation over tea. This is the fifteenth year we’ve done this and you won’t be surprised when I say that we rarely find ourselves praising the film over the book, or even being particularly polite about the film version. Last year it was The Danish Girl, which we all thought was a disaster as a film, although not as much of a disaster as Oscar and Lucinda the end of which reduced some of us to tears of rage.
The choice of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was made this time last year, so the publishing of Le Carré new novel was purely coincidental. Some of us had missed the 2011 film when it came out and others had never read the book. I knew the novel but hadn’t seen the film. Also it was so long since that previous reading that I was looking forward to going back to the dubious world of British Espionage. When it isn’t glamorised in any way I am fascinated by the secret service and the way such people manage to integrate themselves into society. I know this is going to sound melodramatic but it is true: some years ago, a friend of mine discovered, along with the rest of us, that her uncle was a KGB spy. As you might imagine, it was a dreadful time for the family, but made so much worse by the fact that they had had no idea whatsoever. For them it was a very personal act of betrayal. So while it may seem simplistic to say that what Le Carré’s novel is about is betrayal, it is the fact that it is betrayal on so many different layers which I find fascinating. Smiley is betrayed not just by his fellow me ever of MI6 but also by his wife; the mole betrays not just his country but also his co-workers, his closest friend, and his cousin. He doesn’t simply use these people for his own ends but is also perfectly prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice their very lives. However, the argument he makes in his defence is an interesting one. He is driven to espionage, he says, because of his country’s betrayal of all that he holds dear. Betrayal is not just something that happens on an individual basis.
We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no We live in an age where only fundamental issues matter . . . ‘The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution . . . ‘The political posture of the United Kingdom is without relevance or moral viability in world affairs . . .’ With much of it, Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed: it was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him. ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen. ‘The cold war began in 1917 but the bitterest struggles lie ahead of us, as America’s deathbed paranoia drives her to greater excesses abroad . . .’ He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of its death by greed and constipation. He hated America very deeply, he said, and Smiley supposed he did.
Actually, an intense dislike of America is an underlying theme of the book. I would be interested to know how either the novel or the film is received there.
Well, I have to say that the film wasn’t particularly well received by us. I know that any novel is going to have to be filleted to fit it into a couple of hours screen time but this was ridiculous – so much cutting from one scenario to another with sometimes just one word of dialogue to enlighten thirty seconds of dark, dark visuals. I did at one point voice the hope that the scriptwriter wasn’t being paid by the word because in the first fifteen minutes or so he would only have earned around twenty pence. During our morning discussion two or three people had said that they were looking to the film to clarify the relationships between certain characters for them: that they thought having a visual image of each of the main players would make it easier to understand how they fitted into the overall scheme of things. By the end of the afternoon the overall judgement was that it was a good job we had read the book or we wouldn’t have understood the film at all.
So, another September failure I’m afraid. In fact, in my case to the extent that the first thing I did when I got in was to order a copy of the 1979 BBC mini series, which I remember as being excellent. It came this morning, so that’s the rest of my weekend taken care of. I did have one other thought, which was that it would make a good winter project to read all nine of the Smiley novels. Perhaps not one straight after another – say one a month. I know it’s only September, but it is so cold here already that I think I might as well start to bed down now.