Circus Tricks

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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 b

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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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