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Circus Tricks

I first read John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy soon after it was published in 1974, and have reread it several times since. It is one of those books that never fails to give me pleasure, even now I know it so well. There is so much about it to admire and enjoy: the precision of the dialogue, the deftly drawn characters, the accuracy of the settings, the steadily rising tension – above all, the sheer quality of the writing. Here is a writer in complete command of his subject: able to do whatever he wants, confident it will succeed.

For me, and I expect for most readers old enough to remember it, the book has become enmeshed with the BBC adaptation, first broadcast in 1979, in which Alec Guinness played the lead role of George Smiley. Just as I have read and reread the book, I have watched this adaptation several times over, with the effect that many of the lines have become imprinted on my mind. The script echoes the novel – almost literally, in the sense that much of the dialogue is lifted unchanged from the book, though the story is told in chronological sequence, rather than as a succession of flashbacks. In fact it is a surprise not to find certain familiar lines in the book on rereading, and to realize that they derive from the television series. ‘Poor George,’ Smiley’s wife says to him at the end. ‘Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?’ – a line which is absolutely true to the characters, and to the spirit of the book, but which derives from Arthur Hopcraft’s script, not from le Carré’s novel.

I must confess that I hadn’t noticed this until I came to write le Carré’s biography. And indeed researching le Carré’s life has enhanced my appreciation of his work, and of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in particular. The more I discovered about the circumstances in which the novel was written, the more I came to admire his achievement. When he began it, his career was in crisis. His previous book, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, an attempt to break out of spy fiction, had received a critical pounding: one critic pronounced the book ‘a disastrous failure’, another, ‘the product of self-indulgence and intellectual laziness’. This was his third novel in succession to receive the thumbs-down from the critics. The fact that The Naïve and Sentimental Lover had drawn directly on his own experience made the criticism feel more personal. He had opened up his private feelings to public scrutiny, and been mocked for it. Small wonder that he was ‘extremely hurt’ by the book’s reception. ‘My hardest duty to myself was to keep the bitterness at bay,’ he would later recall.

Those who have not had a book published may not appreciate how destructive reviews can be. Years of effort can be dismissed in a few glib sentences. Much of the criticism of The Naïve and Sentimental Lover had been ad hominem; it was even suggested that le Carré’s career had run its course. To be denigrated in print is painful, of course; but more damaging was the threat to his self-belief. Without confidence that what one produces is worthwhile, it is difficult, if not impossible, to write. Le Carré’s recovery from the drubbing he had taken would be a test of character as much as of talent.

But he remained resilient: bruised, but still standing. And he refused to succumb to resentment. His return to the espionage genre would prove to be one of his most accomplished performances to date. The new book was planned as the first in a sequence of interlinked novels. He talked of seven, or even more: perhaps as many as ten or fifteen. The overall theme would be the struggle between ‘the Circus’ and the KGB, in particular the contest between George Smiley and ‘Karla’, the mysterious and apparently all-powerful head Tricks of the ‘Thirteenth Directorate of Moscow Centre’. Like the Circus, an intelligence organization roughly corresponding with MI6, the Thirteenth Directorate was an imaginary body, though Moscow Centre was real slang used by KGB agents themselves.

For le Carré, the actions of the intelligence services revealed the true, hidden nature of the state they represented. The Circus was England in miniature, looking back with nostalgia, and contemplating the future with foreboding. Smiley’s generation of senior officers, now approaching retirement, had been among England’s most gallant knights in the crusade against Nazism; their reward had been to see their country reduced to the status of a second-class power. ‘Poor loves,’ laments a drunken Connie Sachs, the Circus’s discarded head of research: ‘Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world.’ She is nostalgic for a golden past, and the exploits of courageous young men; she does not want to hear that any of them might have betrayed his country. ‘I want to remember you all as you were. Lovely, lovely boys.’

Taken as a whole, therefore, the sequence of novels provided an opportunity to train a light not just on the secret state but on the state itself, in its painful attempt to come to terms with its post-imperial role. This was a scheme that went far beyond the limits of the genre, on the scale of similarly ambitious projects in post-war fiction by such ‘literary’ writers as Paul Scott, Anthony Powell and C. P. Snow. Le Carré’s inspiration was Balzac. ‘I had originally intended to do an espionage Comédie Humaine of the Smiley-Karla stand-off, and take it all over the world,’ he would tell an interviewer in 2002: ‘a kind of fool’s guide to the Cold War’. This of course was a throwaway comment: his real aim was to examine the state of the nation, by exposing its secret underside.

The evolution of the book through successive drafts demonstrates two of le Carré’s qualities as a writer: his ability to develop and manage an exceptionally complex plot without a pre-planned scheme, and his commitment to re-work what he has written over and over again until he achieves the result he wants. ‘Tinker, Tailor was the most difficult book I ever wrote,’ he would recall five years after it was published. In it he explored ‘the inside-out logic’ of a double-agent operation, demonstrating the mayhem that could be caused by such an agent in a position of influence within the intelligence services, as Kim Philby had been. For all the startling revelations about Philby, George Blake and other spies, few people fully understood what le Carré called ‘the push-me-pull-you nature of the double agent’s trade’:

For while on one side the secret traitor will be doing his damnedest to frustrate the efforts of his own service, on the other he will be building a successful career within it . . . The art of the game . . . is therefore a balancing act between what is good for the double agent in his role as loyal member of his service, and what is good for your own side in its unrelenting efforts to pervert that service, to the point where it is doing more harm to the country that employs it than good; or, as Smiley has it, where it has been pulled inside out.

It is revealed in the opening pages of the novel that there is a Soviet ‘mole’ at the heart of British intelligence, controlled by Karla. ‘A mole is a deep penetration agent, so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism,’ explains Irina, an unhappy Russian agent wanting to defect. The unidentified mole, code-named ‘Gerald’, is said to be ‘a high functionary in the Circus’. This discovery presents the authorities with a dilemma. ‘We can’t move,’ laments the Minister’s advisor, Lacon:

We can’t investigate because all the instruments of enquiry are in the Circus’s hands, perhaps in Gerald’s. We can’t watch, or listen, or open mail . . . We can’t interrogate, we can’t take steps to limit a particular person’s access to delicate secrets. To do any of these things would be to run the risk of alarming the mole.

‘It’s the oldest question of all, George,’ Lacon says to Smiley: ‘Who can spy on the spies?’ The answer is of course Smiley himself, who has been sacked in a purge following the downfall of his boss, known only as Control. Smiley is called out of retirement to lead the mole-hunt. Working in secret, with only a couple of trusted assistants, Smiley studies old files and interviews former colleagues, reconstructing the past in his mind, using his imagination to fill the gaps in the evidence. It is a scholarly sort of thriller, yet one in which menace is ever present.

One of the strengths of the book is a vivid sense of place – of the dingy hotel which becomes Smiley’s centre of operations, of the third-rate prep school where the betrayed agent Jim Prideaux now teaches, above all of the Circus itself. Some of the most compelling scenes are set there. In le Carré’s previous novels the Circus had been comparatively nebulous, but here it springs sharply into focus. The anonymous entrance, the garrulous janitors, the dingy interior, the warren of corridors and the clanking lifts ‒ all create the illusion of a real place: as well they might, because the interior of the Circus is based on Broadway Buildings, the headquarters of the Secret Service in le Carré’s time with MI6. He carefully reconnoitred his locations, and recorded them in photographs taken from different angles. He modelled the Circus’s exterior on an unassuming building (since demolished) which, he told an American journalist, ‘had some of the same qualities of dilapidation and anonymity’. His concern for detail extended to identifying individual rooms within the imaginary set-up.

As in le Carré’s previous books, the sense of authenticity is made keener by the use of jargon, some of it real, but much of it invented: ‘the Cousins’ (Americans), ‘the Competition’ (MI5), ‘scalphunters’ (specialists in dangerous operations), ‘babysitters’ (bodyguards), ‘pavement artists’ (agents conducting surveillance), and so on. Some of these coinages have proved so useful that they have subsequently been adopted by intelligence professionals. I like the fact that le Carré does not bother to explain such terms, but leaves the reader to work out what they mean.

Ultimately Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a whodunit. There is a moment, about two-thirds of the way through, when Smiley realizes what has been going on: ‘at the heart of this plot lay a device so simple that it left him genuinely elated by its symmetry’. The Circus has been ‘turned inside out’ by a traitor, so that its energies and its resources are working not against Karla, but for him. When at last the ‘mole’ is unmasked, Smiley realizes that he has always known who it was ‒ as has everyone: ‘all of them had tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never owned to, never diagnosed’.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of my favourite books. I urge anyone who hasn’t read it to do so immediately. You are in for a treat.

Extract from Slightly Foxed © Adam Sisman 2017

About the contributor

Adam Sisman is the author of John le Carré: The Biography, published by Bloomsbury. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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