15
Sep 11

chaos rudis indigestaque MOLES

FT19 comments • 1,676 views

Being a more or less unedited ilx liveblog of the BOOK in anticipation of the new screen version of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: published in 1974, on the BBC in seven parts in 1979. Includes a couple of ilxor thread-responses, for clarity — but go read the whole thread when you have a moment, it’s full of ilx-y goodness (and badness hurrah). In the thread, I was being careful about revealing stuff: the only real change I’ve made here is to remove the veil of anti-spoilerdom. THIS THREAD NOW CONTAINS TOTAL END-AWAY-GIVING SPOILERS, SO STOP RIGHT NOW IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN OUT OF THE KNOW!!! Also do not read if you hate raw text-splurge, I have not re-edited for grammar, punctuation, coherence, grown-upness…

7 Sept 9:13am: yes i am rereading the book (again): i don’t much like the thursgood stuff, it’s too cutesy, and the encountering martindale scene is an incredibly clunky exposition move, smiley spends the whole chapter being “i am annoyed at you telling me all this stuff i already know (but too polite and sad and lonely to say so)”

7 Sept 10:28am: a few pages further in, i’m prepared to forgive him the martindale exposition stuff, it’s a kind of a graceful sacrifice of the novelistic high ground to ensure that the guillam/tarr sections that straight away follow aren’t tainted by too much necessary backstory that isn’t directly tarr-related

7 Sept 10:37am: inc. a nicely blunt bit of lampshade hanging: “an extraordinary feeling passed over him: that he was living the day twice, first with martindale in the club, now again with guillam in a dream”

i am happy (just starting chapter three) to defend the position that the TV version is a lot better than the book

7 Sept 12:56pm: halfway thru the tarr inquisition which is terrific — except maybe the stuff that irina’s is sposed to have written on toilet paper, which is a bit [insert plot-point here] [using lady] [consults manual of lady-fashioning]

7 Sept 3:16pm: went on a hunt to discover when exactly the story is set — irina says the “ultra-reactionaries” are back in power in westminster (= ted heath presumably!) and smiley notes that the war is 30 years ago: TTSS was publiushed in 74, so that makes it 1970-73 i guess anyway what i found instead was suggestions who characters were likely based on, which i’d never pursued before (caveat: i think jlc was always stayed coy, which is fair enough)

connie = milicent bagot <-- oddly sad about this, it diminishes connie not to be made up, somehow smiley = maurice oldfield <-- unconvinced by this claim, think smiley is organically a fictional evolution haydon = kim philby <-- this is interesting, and maybe more plausible, but it does strange things to the time line, basically extending/ shunting a mid-50s story into the early 70s but actually one of the strengths of the novel is the sense of stuff spilling from an earlier era into a later time: of half the characters as weird left-overs in an era they totally don't understand (jlc is always a bit hopeless actually depicting the modern world, less so at depicting the flailing melancholy of the middle-age not knowing how to negotiate it 7 Sept 11:43pm: after the school opening and the martindale exposition, the three successive actual-real thriller sections are pretty flawless: the tarr debrief, guillam cases the circus, and smiley visits connie — there’s a lot of storytelling going on in the first and the last, the only time this falters, as noted, is when tarr’s reading irina’s journal, he tells his own story well but jlc can’t find a plausible written voice for her; and the connie section is probably one of the best things her ever wrote (maybe why he tried to top it in smiley’s people); guillam in the circus is actually really a way to introduce the opposition as real people, the mcguffin to get him there is negligeable, and meant to be i’m halfway through smiley’s research-and-memory binge now, less successful i’d say, though it pulled one stunt of “reading so deep you forget where you are and being reminded of your surroundings with a start”, where smiley does this and jlc causes you to as well, that was neat — the setting, the crappy little hotel near paddington, is two notches too cartoonish and mimsy

haha i am actually sick of the ann counter-plot already

7 Sept 11:48pm: “there’s a lot of storytelling going on” — haha yes very insightful, i mean a lot of characters recounting stories (mainly tarr and connie obv)

8 Sept 10:44pm: TTSS puts prideaux early and central and adores him, and we’re meant to also (in real-life company, prideaux would be an intolerable chauvinist bore, mind you) (albeit largely as cover): we know that something happened to him, not exactly what yet [as of p. 162] except he was shot in the shoulder in czecho <-- smiley doesn't really know much of it at this point [p.162] either one thing i'm finding it VERY hard to do is read as if i don't know who the mole is: obviously i've known for something like 30 years -- jlc treats him with kids gloves AND lampshade hangs wildly all about him; that's to say smiley is overly bothered in effect by how the story is treating gerald (this is largely what bothers me about the ann stuff i think: the extent to which it's ONLY distractional sleight- of-hand -- one thing guinness manages no better than jlc is making the smiley-ann marriage remotely believable, actually, even tho siân phillips makes ann believable; in a sense we keep reading i suspect because we want to crack this mystery, but are left basically clueless) (as clueless as smiley, yes, DO YOU SEE, but that's a bullshit move, really ) the entire novel is smiley's atonement for the death of nan [= liz in the book], yes: a long and elaborate proof that nothing nasty he ever formerly had responsibility for was actually really his fault, it is all totally at karla’s door

8 Sept 12:51pm: haha one of the suspects (…) refers to the relevant americans as “puritan fascists” = a pretty good description of the deeply lunatic angleton

8 Sept 1:10pm: just finished the second guillam-in-the-circus section, where he gets called to account for self before the FOE ARRAYED IN PLAIN VIEW — this is even better than the first one, because it’s all about guillam keeping a bead on what he isn’t meant to know i’m not a huge fan of guillam-the-character, obsessing abt his flute- playing hippie gf — perhaps bcz the gap between michael jayston’s version and jlc’s renders his inner life somewhat wonky (this is much less true in smiley’s people, where jlc had once again adapted the character to its on-screen portrayal, and guillam is married with a kid in paris) — but these scenes are tremendous for nerves, tension, not knowing what will happen next etc, someone interloping in a very familiar space, having to seem who he ordinarily is when he no longer is, being himself (very aware that he’s out-of-the-loop and appropriately testy about it, yet at the same time not so capable they spot he knows something he oughtn’t) (a modelled microcosm of Gerald’s inner life, in fact; nice work)

the section before, smiley plunging deeper and deeper into the files, woke up towards the end when he moves off reminiscence into parsing actual secret files he’d never before viewed: finally being a desk- bound research agent, intelligence office as historian-critic, if you like, picking up clues via finance, location and his target suddenly becoming human and throwing a long-ago-and-far-off tantrum

8 Sept 1:22pm: during his reminiscences, smiley actually develops a THEORY about hayden, who will turn out to be the mole, not that smiley realises this yet (OR DOES HE?) and how he relates to all those around him — that they’re all botched copies of him, and that he can only be himself jigsawed out of all those round him… and actually guillam, in thought and behaviour under foe’s gaze in the circus, seems to attest to the accuracy of the theory, at least re situational judgment and self-handling and stance (he’s being very junior squishy smiley inside, re his gf)

again: nice work, there’s a lot of “hall of mirrors” stuff art work here, which is the intelligence world philby and angleton created

8 Sept 1:59pm: one of the oddities of jlc’s approach is that you never actually learn about ANYTHING concrete a network achieved in the real political world: i realise there’s a fiction-reality problem here, re claims he can make and maintain plausibility, but the effect is to keep the entire back-and-forth hermetic, as if actual real-world politics is left entirely untouched by anything anyone here, karla, control, gerald, smiley, has ever done…

which to be honest i believe it was: it’s like advertising, you have to do because everyone else does it, but its net effect is zero

[comment from noodle vague: “well in that intro above he says that the service shd’ve been dismantled after Philby, a view he sort of expresses in the Smiley books too iirc, so maybe le Carre agrees with that”]

8 Sept 2:06pm: i was surprised by that actually: i seem to recall him saying something along the lines of “you can take the moral temperature of a country by reference to its intelligence services”, and this does seem to be more or less what smiley believes — but connie certainly says something more along those lines, that this is all an absurd post-imperial indulgence, the little boys with their little toys (she loves her boys and she loves the game but she has no deeper moral view of it)

his view may well have evolved a little though, over the ensuing 35 years!

8 Sept 3:04pm: the idea of a secret service as a nation’s — or that nation’s ruling class’s — dreams of itself is great, i think: and jlc intermittently gets this on the nose — but (like hare) he’s totally bamboozled by thatcherism and murdoch and america and “the 60s” (all connected without going the full carmody), and his dream is set (in his ifction) like ten years after its (irl) sell-by-date

smiley’s people — which is in most ways way more of a fantasia — actually grips this better, because its central characters are actual- real baltic exiles, so “isolates trapped in the amber of loss” is always going to be the Real they’re battling

9 Sept 10:30am: ok, quite a chunk to roll out here: runnng order of larger sections is tarr, karla, sam collins, max, jerry westerby, haydon recruits prideaux

the reinterrogation of rikki tarr and smiley’s tale to guillam about his one meet with karla are the book’s plateau of moral-highgrounding for smiley: there’s a small element of plot advancement and backstory infill but they’re mainly given over to smiley’s technique as an interrogator, at his best now in the approaching evening of his life, and not at his best trying unsuccessfully long ago to persuade karla to save his skin and defect — key to both, his success with tarr and his failure with karla, is smiley’s kindness and humanity (implication: our foes are ideologues and fanatics and this is the flaw that will end them) (a prayer more than a fact, you might say: certainly not immediately relevant to what actually ended the USSR, though this hadn’t yet happened in 1974 and jlc was hardly alone in not seeing it coming)

(and yes, it’s true that tarr gets thumped some more — morality is messy! — and also true that wily smiley is more approving of tarr’s canny self-interest and truth-witholding than callow guillam)

then there’s a bit with little bill roach having nightmares and being ill ftb the divorce-bogey is a-comin for jim and a section where smiley and lacon meets the minister (which is irredeemably borng necessary tale-business and i have to clap my jaw not to skip: it’s extremely short so jlc feels the same, obv)

collins/max/westerby: again, minor elements of plot advancement and backstory infill in all three — basically smiley seeks them out and quizzes them, the first two as per info discovered in his research — but the real point of the three encounters is moral colour, i’d say… to give a live sense, as supplied by outsiders to the story, of the chaotic feel inside the circus during control’s last project (collins); of the feel of prideaux’s operation, max (a czech DP) being with him for the early, less troubled reaches; and, most likeably (jlc likes alkies and writes them pretty well), the feel in the world immediately beyond and outside the circus at the crucial time (westerby is a jobbing sports journo who supplies the service with information he happens on, less an agent than a sympathetic conduit)

you very much feel with all three that they’re present in this story for the one scene, to tell their tale and supply their colour- perspective and depart our necessary attention. collins and westerby are arguably the better characters, certainy more memorable, if not especially deep — max is a bit exile-by-numbers (there’s an incredibly similar character in smiley’s people whose name i forget: the max in smiley’s people being smiley himself!), tho his role is largely to impress on the reader how a non-communist czech might feel about all this stupidity (=very pissed off); westerby of course also goes on to be somewhat rebooted in (and as) the “honourable schoolboy”, which if i recall accurately wears the character beyond thin in a context jlc isn’t well-suited to portray (post-colonial hongkong and south east asia in the late stages of the vietnam war) — collins is also brought back, for smiley’s people, in a faintly demeaning role

and then there’s the trip back to old documents, and a reread of the young hayden introducing the young prideaux to the service: interesting little bit of spite and uncharacterstic semi-virtuoso tradecraft on jlc’s part — the young hayden writes (i) like a posturing fey student, and more ambitiously (ii) like a clever young man very infected by kipling’s sense of rhythm and irony and pseudo- cynical masked self-certainty. The kiplingism is good — pertinent bcz philby was named for kipling’s kim, and culturally smart, bcz only a rightwing student or someone flirting with or pretending to be same would still be being kipling-esque as a pose in 1937-38. The primary plot takeaway is the hayden-prideaux relationship: which remains essentially masked.

Seems to me by the end of the collins section, one of the main suspects has begun to scream out at the reader. But it’s very hard indeed at this late stage to reconstruct virgin-reader status.

9 Sept 10:44am: ^^^spite bcz this is the first time we see hayden clear — ie not through a haze of hero worship and/or hurt fury — and there’s no way he pulls either trick on the reader, with the prose we get to read; except you can’t help also thinking “no fair, d00d was still a student! hope no one ever judges ME on stuff i wrote as a student ect ect”

also there’s a nice little sketch of the boho-bolshevik student party hayden and prideaux, lifted wholesale as far as i can tell from a similar one in dorothy sayers’ strong poison (i’ll look this up)

9 Sept 11:430am: (ok it’s less like the sayers than i remember — the actual phrase i thought he’d lifted was :”a wildly proletarian coffee was served, to the accompaniment of a dreadfully democratic bun” <-- i'm certain this is from sayers somewhere, it's very wimsey-ish, but it's not in this particular scene) (and again, the idea that it's hayden doing the lifting is astute: sayers a very popular novelist in the 30s) 9 Sept 4:02pm: i’ll say more on the prideaux debrief in a bit — think i want to reread it, as it’s point where backstory and current narrative finally get in step with one another — but here’s a note on jlc’s tradecraft as regards location (mise en scene theory/pathetic fallacy alert)

the various tale-relating conflabs smiley has had have been in very different places — some directly emanating from the person being quizzed, like connie’s jericho flat or the casino sam collins now works at — but in almost all he’s been in effect the authority figure: the actual interrogator for tarr, callow guillam’s guru when it’s the karla backstory, the returned agent with ministerial backing… and the places do their work amplifying the way this inflects, from tarr’s cramped hotel room (where he’s more or less a prisoner for the time being) through to the curryhouse where he gently pumps jerry w (where in a sense they’re equals — smiley gives very little away — and it’s really only westerby’s puppyish semi- lachrymose need for approval that undergirds the power relationship

but with prideaux, the setting is not a built room, public or private, furnished or functional-anonymous, but the wild hilly outdoors of the south west: as — in effect — demanded by prideaux; and smiley has no power he can really seriously bring to bear… prideaux could basically snap his neck with a single blow and hide smiley’s body and who’d really be any the wiser?

jlc is good at compact and evocative descriptions of places: his london streets are very often real streets he’s accurately portraying, and i imagine his countrysides are too (it’s not a part of the UK i know); but he’s also good at letting the sense of the space be a felt manifestation of the encounter — the strength of the main part of the smiley-prideaux scene is that it’s the first (and last) point in the book where things feel almost open-ended, so that you judge that prideaux chooses to spill

9 Sept 4:08pm: adding: it’s not just that everyone’s equal outdoors — whereas indoors is always indoors somewhere, a building structure unavoidably embedded in an extant power structure — but that prideaux the sporty man of action is more than smiley’s equal here, and both know it, and placing himself here is the gesture of total vulnerability by which smiley elicits prideaux’s trust

10 Sept 10:42am: anyway, the prideaux hilltop debrief:

it comes in three sections, first the circus where control laid out the operation, last the various cells where, operation blown up in everyone’s face, hajek aka ellis aka prideaux tried to screen as much/ many as possible for as long as possible, before he was (inevitably) broken; and in the middle, one of the climactic passages in a book full of wary spies moving through dangerous places: a seemingly utterly english agent rendering himself effectively invisible in czech streets stiff with watchers who know he’s there

once again the sense of place is ever-present: jlc’s tradecraft is, in effect, to heighten a character’s watchfulness by a kind of transferred descriptionalism — as if his own gift for conjuring up locale swiftly and effectively is a manifestation of the character’s heightened observational level… to be told you’re a “watcher” is a compliment of the highest order, so naturally jlc allows the reader to get to share this quality, or to feel they’re sharing it

prideaux is described, physically, as “crooked” and even “fanged” — as a jaggedly palpable, noisy presence in the world — yet (like smiley) his deep gift is to become invisible in plain sight; invisible, moreover, to his professional peers/foes when they’re most expecting it… this middle passage of his tale is a guide to this, a guide to the superb level of detailed observation and anticipation it requires… and, also i think, to underscore that the core being of this seemingly brusque military sporty type is an uttertly gentle quietness: watchfulness is the centre of his being (ditto smiley; ditto smiley’s little child phantom bill roach)

there’s a weird passage early on, put in the mouth of lacon and thus easily overlooked as point-missing blather: lacon raises the notion that “method is morality” and then projects onto smiley the assumption that smiley can’t and won’t accept this idea.

well, for starters it’s an ambiguous formation: and it’s easy to just assume — this is lacon speaking, for one thing — that’s merely the situational ethos of the high-end civil service (“i do my job to the best of my ability, to aid my political masters, through every change of government: hence even if they’re utterly in the wrong, i can be in the right”)

but it might also mean “your morality emerges from the method you choose” (as contrast smiley’s interrogation technique from the evil soviet one: smiley deploys far less thumping, if not none, and no electronic probes, hence is “better”, as far as moralists are concerned)

and there’s a third meaning, much subtler and in a sense subversive, i think, of the book’s stated sense of good and evil (which does function as an argument between these first two readings): this is the notion that to be true to your method (your technique, your skill, your craft, the still zen of your art blah blah) is to be true to the world

and in this central passage — when prideaux is being the best street agent in the book so far — he is truer to the world than any of the botched or confused reasons why his operation has been set in place (by control, or though the deceived control by the mole, or by the clashing forces of world history, or what have you: every other level is botch, compared to prideaux in the middle passage of Operation Testify, its failure notwithstanding)

the point is, i don’t think jlc dares put his trust in this reading: whether this is cause or consequence, he’s just not that strong a writer — he’s a writer with strengths, and with flaws, and the flaws always muscle back in (one of his strengths, though, is that he can often deploy his flaws as masks; just as a good spy — or more to the point a good thriller writer — must be able to)

[i’ve actually finished — the sections following this one are “unputdownable”, his sense of pace and momentum at its best — but i’ll try and pace my blogging in haha homage]

10 Sept 4:46pm: as noted, the prideaux sections sees the backstory and the current story slide into consonant lock-step, which means that everything that follows derives its momentum from (i) waiting for that actual whodunnit reveal, and (ii) events and activity caused by the consonance of backstory and current story, and what it impels people to scurry about doing

so far so ho-hum, this is a spy thriller with a whodunnit theme — the value if you like of what remains of the story is how (ii) can screw around with (i), to make it more than routine poiroteesque grandstanding, the brilliant detective explaining how everything fits and pointing the quiveringly melodramatic finger at hans redacted moleman

jlc does this very neatly, by moving the “explanation of how everything fits” early, to scare a suspect he appears already to have cleared into switching sides: i have to say despite close rereading i don’t quite get why this particular suspect has been cleared, mind you — which i think is a mark of jlc’s own very cunning knot, whereby EVEN THOUGH SMILEY EXPLAINS HOW EVERYTHING FITS TOGETHER it doesn’t make it much easier to go back and intricately re-examine any given plot point from the new perspective… because of course it’s always a double-perspective, a hall-of-mirrors everything-pulled-inside-out- perspective, where such-and-such a cover-story as supplied by yr bosses in london (or moscow) is actually the REAL story

anyway, this particular scene features toby, who as i say is easily my favourite character: and one of the things i love is how smoothly he adjusts to this catastrophic new understanding, and switches sides: smiley’s mastery of the story in more detail than most readers quite grasp — meaning that we cede smiley and jlc an element of trust as to the precision, which we feel more than we apprehend — is enough to turn toby; and — even tho he’s kind of victim of the scene, toby is actually granted a lot of professional respect, and not just for sleight-of-hand… it goes without saying that he’s a mastercraftsman of lamplighting, babysitting, pavement artistry etc etc, whichever side he’s being run by, or duped by. (Except not in fact “without saying”: bcz it’s relentlessly acknowledged and stressed.)

There’s a term used in Smiley’s People — by toby descriptively of smiley’s tactics after a certain point — which it claims is untranslateable, and then translates faintly dodgily. It’s from German military phraseology: flucht nach vorn — and literally means “flight to the front”, but in military context means something more like “escape via the Front”, ie a defence against attack that consists itself of unexpected attack. But it also has more than a smidge of “leap into the unknown”, again as a tactic.

Anyway, that’s relevant to this scene — smiley is getting things going by making his completed theory an engine of events — but with the proviso (not yet filled in with clarity) that someone/something else is also active in this unknown. We’ve had as many hints — just as we have with the actual identity of the mole — but they’re still masked, at least to careless and semi-careful reading. The giveaway is a single word.

11 Sept 1:00pm: So now — at quite a lick — we pass towards turning the molerunning system against itself to unmasking denouement to aftermath, as the events set running by the coming into consonance of the backstory and the present-times narrative intrude on smiley’s intended conclusion

waiting in the safehouse for it all to kick off is good strong anticipatory mood-music — including a nice turnabout scene where mendel watches the actual circus itself from across the road at cambridge circus (i once spent 20 minutes wandering around there trying to decide which building he can have been watching from, as he needs simultaneously to be able to see the circus itself, including the roofs above and behind the pepperpot tower over new compton street AND the theatre)

the unmasking that follows is a pretty effective portrayal of anti- climax; serious as the implications are, the action itself is borderline farce, powerful men reduced to flapping nobodies, petulant or stunned or totally withdrawn or (in percy’s case) apparently just clueless. except for toby, the secondary suspects — who turn out just to be dupes — were never fleshed out beyond cartoon level; roy bland especially remains a cipher. And gerald/haydon retreats into stoic bored passivity: this above all i suspect shapes the sense of anti-climax; he doesn’t act like a villain, or protest innocence; he doesn’t act like “himself” as we’ve watched him throughout the tale, so we’re robbed of something, even if it’s hardly clear what (perhaps routine poirotism)

smiley debriefs haydon and discovers — more or less nothing: turns out, denuded of the various stages haydon has fashioned for himself, there’s nothing at the heart… the final russian doll turns out to be hollow: haydon gives a cliched political speech one day (jlc doesn’t even bother giving it all, on the excuse that smiley isn’t really listening — treated as craft and deliberate style decision, you’d have to note that any mid-level brit stalinist on the stump in 1970, when there were still a LOT of them, could have given a less crappy account of the ideals haydon claims to be upholding; we also get to find out that his lovelife is mean and lame; that his paintings are no good any more; that’s there’s nothing there

(talking about moscow, smiley says that they won’t humiliate great britain over this, because it’s in their interests to allow their foes to seem worth taking on: so what does this observation say about smiley himself, and the lifefacts beneath the molereveal?) (i’m reasonably sure jlc is aware of this irony of course: indeed that it fits into his whole OH THE HUMANITY litany, which smiley tends to ventriloquise for him)

and then, in the last few pages, the basically horrid and squalid surprise conclusion: when jim p kills bill h: as i saw the TV version before i read the book, this was no kind of shock — i’m interested in how it comes across to virgin readers (even though we are somewhat in CHRIST ON THE CROSS SPOILERS territory here surely)

Another very deliberate irony: a key consequence of this conclusion ensures that prideaux loses moral high ground firmly established (over Smiley et al) as Smiley heard his tale earlier in the book. (The post-it note sentence here having been: “Why did he choose the same order for their names? Smiley wondered.”) <-- ans = because they were more of a rigmarole than we at the time supposed; as now at last emerges... final very bitter irony; also final OH THE HUMANITY thumb- on-the-scale if this is an element yr allergic to... Which it may well be: I don't want to belabour it, but my threefold reading of "method is morality" seems to me finally to hover over the characters we're encouraged at the end to be thinking of, and through: haydon obv, now forever an enigma; prideaux, broken and betrayed, and back at thursgood's, learning to forget; and smiley himself, also much betrayed (tho honestly ann's behaviour is NOT a parallel with bill's if yr actually sane)... and of course, since all three are characters jlc has put a lot of time and love (and some hate) into, which is he saying is most him also? He far too obviously hopes smiley; he far too obviously fears haydon. And Prideaux is masked when visible; and most himself when not? Are novelists street agents or desk agents? 11 September 1:02pm: footnote: as per discussion far far above [i.e. in a section not included here], suspect SOLDIER, roy bland, is a miner’s son who became an academic, and thus the closest to a non-middle-class contributor to the central tale

11 September 12:12pm: Haydon “also took it for granted that secret services were the only measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.” <-- actual quote on p306, 11 pages from close So I was wrong above, it's not JLC saying this, and nor is it his oft-times pained and sententious mouthpiece smiley, it's the defeated villain in his rambling foolishness. So does this mean JLC absolutely does NOT think this, and indeed thinks it ridiculous to think this? ah-hum: well that is the conundrum really... how much does JLC see himself in the villain as yearning wish fulfilment ("AT LEAST HE HAS A BELIEF SYSTEM!") and how much does he think the villain's ideology is would-be-ideology is absurd bad-artist self-delusion and no wonder he ends up defeated etc etc. Of course we can all be right here, since a novel is not a maths problem: it doesn't have an "answer" [comment from history mayne: 'well, im pretty sure jlc-the-man isn't a communiss. but i think he probably agrees with gerald about 'the state of britain' today a little. the pigs-in-clover society, sucking up to the US -- that stuff (...) 'a small town in germany' is really hard to fathom, politics-wise. one of the villains, karfeld, is a populist german nationalist politician, but i don't think jlc ever calls him a 'neo-nazi', and there's even some business about him wanting to make an alliance with the SU? in a totally non-communist way. many of his supporters are young people, though, and they don't seem to be particularly nazi neither. wonder if they relate to the hippies in 'smiley's people'."] 12 September 1:48pm: tbf i don’t think this is about politics-as-grand-narrative-ideology, it’s about national and individual praxis: which the individuals and nations grab at labels for, of course, but what interests and concerns him is how people treat other people, not so much how they tribalise this <-- so far so wishywashy liberal maybe, hence his constant flagellation that he can't lay hold of an aggregate formulation, and conflcted envy of those who can gerald's self-disclosure at the close is intentionally a chaotic unself-aware adolescent mess: even if gerald would describe himself as a marxist or whatever, JLC doesn't allow him the dignity of passing the description on to the reader...

Comments

  1. 1
    enitharmon on 15 Sep 2011 #

    Many thanks for that commentary, Mark.

    I read the book somewhere between the first and second episodes of the TV series. I’d never read any Le Carré before and was blown away by it. That first TV episode was both baffling and compelling; at the time it became a kind of national joke of a kind that I dislike, implying that anything challenging is pretentious and not for the likes of us common-sense folks.

    The delight, for me at any rate, is the way Arthur Hopcraft (football correspondent of the Times, wasn’t he?) let the story breathe; its very slowness and oppressive atmosphere made it one of the towering monuments of the golden age of television (for me it’s just the very best TV ever). They (whoever ‘they’ are) tell us that such a TV series could no longer be made in a world brought up to demand constant high-paced stimulus – more’s the pity. Even a few years after TTSS, Smiley’s People was made in a much faster-paced way and it’s the poorer for all that.

  2. 2

    since i’m going full disclosure there’s a actually couple of still-veiled crypticisms i could afford to open out better — and will, in a while

  3. 3
    Tom on 15 Sep 2011 #

    I saw the TV series for the first time a few years ago – the title card was really familiar to me, and I remember seeing the book (tho no other Le Carres) hanging around our house too so I’m guessing my parents had a similar experience to you Rosie!

    Anyway I thought it was amazing of course – agreed that the opening pre-credits sequence is a superb scene-setter, hypnotically mundane. The great trick TSSS pulls as TV (and Smiley’s People moves away from) is of making you almost resent incident – when actual examples of spycraft happen (Ricki Tarr’s flashback liaisons for instance) they feel like intrusions into the patient game-playing.

  4. 4

    still-veiled crypticism i: jlc does this very neatly, by moving the “explanation of how everything fits” early, to scare a suspect he appears already to have cleared into switching sides: i have to say despite close rereading i don’t quite get why this particular suspect has been cleared, mind you

    i’m talking about toby here: i don’t quite follow how smiley decides toby cannot be the mole — in terms of character i can see why he’s considered the weak link (also actually: the interesting link) (viz alleline is a pompous cartoon suit and bland is a cipher: toby is actually an interesting character with interesting skills)

    still-veiled crypticism ii: Another very deliberate irony: a key consequence of this conclusion ensures that prideaux loses moral high ground firmly established (over Smiley et al) as Smiley heard his tale earlier in the book. (The post-it note sentence here having been: “Why did he choose the same order for their names? Smiley wondered.”)

    what i’m getting at here is that, back in his climatic scene with smiley, prideux twice names (in the exact same order) the czech agents who died as a consequence control’s catastrophic operation (which also got him shot): “Landkron, Krieglova, Bilova, the Pribyls” — and this is an indictment of the entire spying game, and smiley for stirring everything up again. But now, by killing haydon, prideux dooms many further agents in the field (because they can’t be exchanged for gerald): hence loses the moral high ground.

  5. 5
    Mark M on 15 Sep 2011 #

    1 & 3: seriously? I rewatched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People a few years ago, and SP is one of the slowest things I’ve ever seen on TV (in a good way). There’s a whole episode where Smiley drives to somewhere like Charlton, chats to someone, and drives back. And that’s all. With lots of manifestly real London traffic.

  6. 6
    Mark M on 16 Sep 2011 #

    As my homework for the TTSS film, I read Call For The Dead, the first Smiley book, which goes into the whole Ann-George thing at considerable length (or at least, proportionally – unlike the books Le Carré wrote from the ’70s onwards, it’s a trim 156 pages in the Penguin edition I got). But it’s really no more convincing in that, either. In a sense it’s a little like one of those unwatchable US sitcoms with Ray Romano or James Belushi: glamorous posh girl forces herself on pudgy civil servant for no apparent reason. Years of total inability to communicate ensue…

    Also, as you say, there’s nothing in Le Carré that isn’t in the A-Z – no magically popping from Hampstead to Battersea in five minutes for Smiley and chums. If a company ran a Smiley tour (maybe they already do), they would be working with clear literary signposting…

  7. 7
    Andrew F on 16 Sep 2011 #

    Missing photo = Ronnie Barker as Smiley in Tinker Tailor Smiley Doyle – the internet is short on such, but unfortunately long on Ronnie Corbett getting an hilarious face full of soot, because he has black curly hair, you see.

  8. 8

    ^^^also slow! barker’s guinness-accent is intermittently pretty good, and it includes the most laboriously set up “mole” joke in the history of human culture

  9. 9
    Mark M on 21 Sep 2011 #

    When do we get to talk about the film?

  10. 10

    pete and i saw it last night, so i’m ready! he may review it in its own post, of course

  11. 11

    ++ loved the look, mise en scene somewhere between 10 rillington place and brazil (with a dash of the ipcress file); i think tomas alfredson’s sense of place is strong anyway, as is JLC’s of course, and they compliment one another here
    — gary oldman seemed to be playing smiley as a man in a rubber alec guinness mask; he has the voice down but you felt he was often just standing there saying “listen! i have the accent down!” (deep caveat: if alfredson’s conception is mission impossibly and oldman was actually playing a mole in an alec guinness mask)
    ++ some of the second-rung actors were excellent (BC = guillam; MS = prideaux; KB = connie obviously; JH + control) (and LACON: i am a huge giant fan of simon mcburney as near-walk-on in “popular” drama, he is often massively cheeky and scene-stealing in a subtle way, and was here too) — interestingly mcburney was probably the most effective at overly “playing” a double (the little fellow who played esterhase was the worst: but only one of the mole-suspects was presented as remotely attractive) (making it easy to guess which one was the mole)
    — it didn’t solve and i think exacerbated the tension between the two species of book JLC tries to pass of as one; one a fraught procedural about precision of observation (where the unglam uber-technician turns out champ), and one a sententious lament about the morality of geo-political manouevre by other means <-- the second is by a long way the least interesting, jlc is shrewd about (non-female) people but windy at best when he turns this into aggregate generalised form... and this film did not allow space for much of the former, in fact: the detecting was as nugatory as the "playing double" was ++ it did actually clarify a few plot points in the original! ++++++ BLAZING OWL QUIDDITCH <-- funniest moment ??????????? what actually was the little wooden object bill roach made for prideaux?

  12. 12

    forgot to say: i strongly feel alfredson is of the “secret intelligence is a worthless activity, and besides these men were drunks and clowns” school = VG TICK in ref my own equivalent prejudices

    despite the ultra-grimy mise en scene, this is anything but a work of sociological or historical realism: no such milieu ever existed, and the director is unbothered if we leave the cinema thinking this

  13. 13
    Mark M on 21 Sep 2011 #

    I was fairly ambivalent about the first 20 minutes or so, partly just because of the usual “but… but…” problems of adaptations (as in: what’s Smiley doing living in Finsbury?)

    I liked: Tom Hardy, Hurt and the Christmas party (I remember going to an awesomely dismal seasonal do at the FCO in the mid-’80s, and this certainly got the look of that). And the pods (the courtyards and corridors of the great Whitehall buildings were indeed full of prefabs in the postwar era)

    On the other hand: only one of suspects who gets a proper role is Toby Jones as Alleline. One of the things that’s lost in the movie (probably inevitably) is the sense of the service being made up of semi-autonomous fiefdoms (each with its chief) strewn across London with a relatively pokey HQ at the Circus itself (as it were) – there’s a brief allusion to this when Guillam is on one his searches. Without that, you don’t get the sense of an alliance of sort of equals pushing forward Percy as their frontman.

  14. 14
    byebyepride on 22 Sep 2011 #

    ??????????? what actually was the little wooden object bill roach made for prideaux?

    I guessed a prop to keep the caravan upright.

  15. 15
    byebyepride on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Actually Catherine is certain it’s a boot remover – place the boot in the V and pull your leg out.

  16. 16
    Andrew F on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Because I found myself ranting earlier, in conversation, with someone who couldn’t remember what was and wasn’t in the book:

    A quick list of stuff cut down:

    Some of the stuff at the school where Prideaux is teaching
    Most of Prideaux’s Czech adventure – there’s a lot of v. tense fannying around in Prague and then a ride out to the country (NB I thought rewriting this as the cafe scene, and opening with it, was brilliant)
    All of Guillam’s wondering about his hippy flute-playing girlfriend (!)
    Not Roy Bland, because there is basically no Roy Bland in the book – this structural flaw is considerably reduced just by getting Ciarán Hinds in to play him.
    The Czech stringer that Smiley goes to interview after Westerby, his story about the tension in Prague and dropping Prideaux to the meet is a victim of that first scene.
    And obviously all the internal monologues from people about what an absolute pillar of the service Bill Haydon is, sleeper agents planted by him popping up every ten feet in half of the world etc.

    Not missing from the books is the extended remix of Ricki Tarr in Budapest, and how he was in love, love you see, you have all possibly forgotten what love is, let me show you. Sod off and go form Coldplay, Ricki Tarr.

    I think the kind of peremptory FYI Guillam is Gay scene might be seen as a counterweight to FYI the Non-Straight Guy is the Villain, by giving us an uncomplicatedly heroic non-straight figure (uncomplicatedly because hello Jim Prideaux), though a friend I saw it with had a lot to say about the film (and book)’s attitude re those bisexuals, can we ever really trust them?

    “we never see Ann so Bill snogging a woman at the Circus Christmas Party may pass viewers by, even though Smiley sees it and is pained by it,”

    Ah now see, I saw this the other way: You can see Smiley talking familiarly to Ann in the first Christmas party, so I thought that the outside snogging was actually just her being indiscreet (as she is with many), and not necc. with Bill. Though G pointed out that Bill is conspicuously missing from the preceding shot of the other main characters inside the party. Actually, that’s one thing that’s been dropped from the book as well – the cosmic co-incidence of Smiley finding out because he’s been called back from Germany early due to the Czech disaster.

    One thing that did annoy me was the “Boys are Back” montage at the end, with Smiley going into work past Allenine leaving shivering in the rain because he is now out in the cold Do You See, and doesn’t have access to any of the ministry umbrellas (ftb they’re all poison-tipped), and Smiley welcoming Guillam (“Congrats! You’re now back on the market!”) and particularly particularly that Smiley SHOULD NOT GET ANN BACK, because that destroys the effect (very well done by Colin Firth) of “Sorry I ruined your life old man, just orders”.

    And that is all I think. :)

  17. 17

    that’s the most comprehensible justification of the guillam-is-gay scene i’ve read, though i can’t pretend it works on those terms (since it failed with me to read that way)

  18. 18

    also westerby and sam collins are fused into one character in the film

  19. 19
    Mark M on 22 Sep 2011 #

    My take on the Guillam-is-gay thing is that it was a) meant to give him a big more poignancy as a character and therefore lead you to care a little more about him when he has to nick the papers from the Circus* and b) maybe play around a little bit with our Mad Men-style smirking at the casual sexism of the past – ‘look at Peter and all those blonde dolly birds… oh, OK, so now I see’.

    *Trying to add weight to those scenes because Alfredson clear not the kind of guy who would/could ever direct a classic heist movie on this evidence.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page