Archive | October, 2010

Only Connect: A Quick Links Roundup

22 Oct

“Cataloguer’s Note: Yes, it is the Blunt involved in the famous espionage case.” A Pathé clip of the Queen’s Italian art collection.

Streetlaughter has an excellent post on media coverage of Anthony Blunt after his unmasking. What media, exactly, you may ask? Comics. At last my spotty New Yorker reading habits have been vindicated.

Documentation from Guy Burgess’ time at the BBC. My personal favorite is “The Langham Incident,” wherein Burgess opens his hotel room door without a key. (And if anyone should still wonder why authors love these guys after perusing this collection, I really have nothing to say to them.)

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Plan of Attack

22 Oct

Last Friday I met with my adviser to go over my Topic Sheet. This is the piece of paper I turned in to the English Department five minutes after his office: my plan of attack. Of course, my focus will and should shift over the next months–and I will continue to blog here about anything and everything related to my topic–but it was nice to get something down on paper.

When asked, “Describe your topic in more detail: the questions you plan to ask, the critical debates or discussions you expect to join, and directions for further thinking and research,” I wrote:

In her question session in parliament exposing Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy, Margaret Thatcher asked her listeners to remember that “it is important not to be so obsessed with yesterday’s danger that we fail to detect today’s. We know what happened to a very few of that pre-war generation who had Marxist leanings and who betrayed their country. We find it contemptible and repugnant. Our task now is to guard against their counterparts of today.” While we may or may not disagree with Thatcher on particulars, it is always true that literature has implications for the world beyond the page. I am very interested in looking at how John Banville, and especially John Le Carré, do or do not make judgments about secrecy, nationalism, and memory. If history repeats itself, does literature as well?

My thesis draws and expands on my spring JP, “‘I Hadn’t Realized’: Homosexuality, Espionage, Betrayal, and the Cambridge Spies.” In the JP, I looked at the historical phenomenon of the Cambridge Spies through the literary lens provided by my primary texts, John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and John Banville’s The Untouchable. (I also drew from the plays Alan Bennett’s Single Spies and Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, and, for a factual grounding, Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt: His Lives.) For my thesis, I will step beyond my previous focus on sexuality and address questions of genre, betrayal and treason, and confession. All of these topics played roles, to varying degrees, in my junior paper, but I was not able to address them as meaningfully as I felt they warranted. Specific questions I expect to address include: What choices do authors face when their writing is based in the historical record? Who tells these stories? Do they have an agenda? Is art necessarily confession?

Sampling from other spy literature and confessional narrative will also be useful for the purposes of my thesis. I have also sought funding to travel to London during intersession break. There, I will visit the British Library and access the Manuscripts Reading Room, home to Anthony Blunt’s memoir. Although my primary focus is literary, a significant portion of my thesis will concern how these authors navigate the border between fact and fiction. Memoirs, as a genre, are notorious for bending that line. Finally, I am intrigued by the press coverage surrounding the unveiling of Blunt’s memoirs, with many news outlets remarking that he neglects to apologize in this text, which they read exclusively as a confession. Of course, this raises more questions on the nature of confession. Is confession meant to involve an act of contrition? If it does not, is it somehow less genuine? Does it pass more directly into the realm of the fictional?

Today I will make tea and press on through the George Smiley canon, hopefully finishing The Honorable Schoolboy by evening. Seventy pages in, I have already come across something which leaped out at me, especially in relation to my thesis topic: A journalist has written about the decampment of a British spy in Hong Kong. In his exposé, he links this to similar retreats all over the world, and speculates that this is taking place as a result of the discovery of a highly placed Russian mole in British intelligence. He is perfectly right.

Only those at the inmost point saw things differently. To them, Craw’s article was a discreet masterpiece of disinformation; George Smiley at his best, they said. Clearly, the story had to come out, and all were agreed that censorship at any time was objectionable. Much better therefore to let it come out in the manner of our choosing. The right timing, the right amount, the right tone: a lifetime’s experience, they agreed, in every brush-stroke.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

8 Oct

Each Friday I’m going to balance literature with history and try to include some primary source news coverage of Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt. Today, since YouTube clips are always fun, we have Kim Philby, responding in a press conference to the defections of Burgess and Maclean:

Out of the Past: The Many Returns of George Smiley

8 Oct

So far in my re-reading of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I have yet to come up with definitive answers to the question of continuity and chronology in the life of George Smiley as it spans Le Carré’s novels. A casual Google search yielded a few fans’ approximations of possible timelines, all of which failed to answer my biggest question: is it really possible that George Smiley is brought out of retirement in every book in which he is featured? This occurs most famously in Tinker, Tailor, but no less significantly in Call for the Dead or Smiley’s People.

Setting aside the question of realism, Smiley’s constant re-returning provides him with one of his best qualities; he is a constant outsider, relying on only a very few contacts within the world of the Circus for his information. We only learn of his life prior to retirement through flashbacks and the occasional moment of insight, when we can see what must have made him so good at his job.

Bill Haydon, the Philbean mole, had style and substance, but it is misdirected. He is also up to his ears in the Circus, as are many more trustworthy people who fall under suspicion for precisely this reason. Smiley stands apart and is all the more able to step in and identify the weaknesses in the service. Le Carré’s chronology, then, messy or not, intentional or not, serves a purpose.

Smiley is included in the list of those suspected of being a Soviet mole. He is given a code name, Beggar Man. Despite all this, he is never really suspected. Smiley is the first one Control asks to see when Jim Prideaux’s Czech mission goes south, he is the one Peter Guillam gets in touch with when Ricki Tarr emerges from hiding with information about a mole in the Circus, and, most tellingly, he is the one the crippled Prideaux, whose life has been quite possibly ruined as a result of the mole’s treachery, and who, even as he was sent on his mission to get the name, thought of the entire “rotten apple theory” as “damn silly,” as “poppycock,” is able to trust enough to tell him the whole, sad story.

Smiley’s outsider status serves another function, this time outside the narrative. He is the character to whom things must be explained. He provides a window into the story for the reader, allowing exposition to be unpacked with a maximum of subtlety. His reactions to new information signpost the way through the text, signalling to Le Carré’s audience what is key and what is filler.

Take, for instance, Ricki Tarr’s arrival on the scene at Lacon’s house. A first-time reader would not be aware of the pivotal role this scene plays, and without Smiley’s signals could possibly go on in ignorance for a couple more chapters until they were hopelessly lost. As it is, Tarr’s handshake and tone of voice indicate to Smiley that something has happened.

Yes, with Ricki Tarr it could have happened. With Tarr, anything could have happened. My God, he thought; two hours ago I was telling myself I would take refuge in the past. He felt thirsty, and supposed it was fear.

In Le Carré’s work, it is the past from which trouble invariably emerges, with Smiley tagging along, unwilling and canny, cleaning his glasses.

Reintroduction (“A Brief History of George Smiley”)

2 Oct

Today I sat down and read (re-read would be more accurate, although I remember nothing from my first reading many years ago) Call for the Dead, John Le Carré’s first novel featuring George Smiley and the first to be published. Call for the Dead is not part of the “Karla Trilogy,” composed of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People, which feature Smiley prominently as he matches wits across continents with Russian spymaster Karla. Nonetheless, Call for the Dead contains the kernels of themes expanded upon in the Karla Trilogy, most importantly loyalty, betrayal, guilt, and friendship.

Most interesting to those engaging in character study, perhaps, is the opening chapter, “A Brief History of George Smiley.” I, along with most fans of Smiley and Le Carré, base my understanding of the character in Tinker, Tailor primarily, with optional jaunts into Smiley’s People. His victories are, although he chooses for the most part to work behind the scenes, impressive and his defeats mostly confined to the realm of the personal. His frequently alluded-to but rarely seen wife’s inconstancy is sometimes the only constant in his life.

It is a bit of a surprise, then, to meet this Smiley. The character is fundamentally the same — he has the same way of speaking volumes merely by cleaning his glasses — but the context in which he is initially situated is far different. The novel opens with these paragraphs:

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favor of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.

In Smiley, Le Carré brings together equal parts competence and vulnerability. It is easy to see why Inspector Mendel, a policeman Smiley brings along to help him with his investigation of a suspicious suicide, is so protective of Smiley, bringing him tea in bed after he has been hit over the head and teaming up with Peter Guillam (here Smiley’s subordinate; his former protegé in the Karla Trilogy) to follow Smiley’s every instruction. In this first glimpse of Smiley, he is defined in terms of his unfaithful wife, and whole paragraphs pass before his career as a spy comes up and we realize that this “breathtakingly ordinary,” toad-like man is a member of British intelligence. Le Carré makes the choice to let Smiley’s professional capabilities to only gradually rise to the surface, a revelatory method that serves him well. Smiley may be no James Bond (I recently checked several James Bond books out of the library in order to more formally confirm this), but he is not to be trifled with either, not professionally, and it is a joy, especially for readers more familiar with the older, less active Smiley, to watch him browbeat one suspect and come to fisticuffs, however “flailing” with another. Ann’s initial description of Smiley stays on the record, but although she gets the first word by the end of the book he has been fleshed out and complicated, not least in his relationship to her. As the book draws to a close, Ann sends Smiley a letter asking to come back home:

That was Ann. Let me know. Redeem your life, see whether it can be lived again and let me know. I have wearied my lover, my lover has wearied me, let me shatter your world again: my own bores me. I want to come back to you…I want, I want…

Smiley got up, the letter still in his hand and stood again before the porcelain group. He remained there several minutes, gazing at the little shepherdess. She was so beautiful.

The matter the Smiley  marriage is left open-ended. Considering the role Ann Smiley comes to play, indirectly, in Tinker, Tailor, this is the best possible outcome. Call for the Dead lays the foundations of a character and of a series. It teaches us how to read George Smiley, but it also teaches us how to read his world and the rules that govern it. Le Carré’s characters are and will always be preoccupied with loyalty. Loyalty and love.

John Le Carré on Smiley:

As I get into the swing of blogging the thesis experience, posting will likely improve in frequency and coherence. I finished the novel with a wealth of possible material, fodder for twenty blog posts, and full of questions for future consideration. What is a spy? What is a marriage? Who exactly are “those who knew Smiley”? Most importantly: What relation does the universe of Call for the Dead have to the universe of the Karla Trilogy? The jargon (lamplighters, scalp hunters, London Station, the cousins, etc.) that peppered Tinker, Tailor and subsequent novels is completely absent here. Characters who would have been present at this point in Smiley’s history as I understood it (Connie Sachs, Control, even Bill Haydon) are absent. Peter Guillam seems older, Mendel younger. Furthermore, Donald Maclean is mentioned by name (along with Klaus Fuchs), indicating that, in this early working version of Smiley’s world, the British Secret Service has already experienced the shock of betrayal from within. No mention of the Cambridge spy ring is made in Tinker, Tailor; that world is a full fictionalization of our own, with Bill Haydon the composite character taking the place of Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and even Anthony Blunt, who had yet to be officially unmasked but who haunts the Haydon character so vividly that even Le Carré has remarked on it (in an interview for the Boston Globe with Miriam Gross):

…it gave me a slight chill to recall that Haydon had been a painter and given his own exhibitions at Oxford, with Jim Prideaux hanging up the pictures for him; that the two of them had quite obviously had a homosexual relationship; and that later in the story Haydon emerges as a fancier of classical drawing… It’s even stranger that in the first drafts of Tinker, Tailor I was going to have the traitor figure as a retired member of the Circus, not an active one, and that much of the story was going to take place in his house, in a series of interrogations that reached right back to the homosexual artistic world of Oxbridge in the thirties. Looking back through those early drafts, I find that there were easels, collections of Old Master drawings and things, dotted all over Haydon’s house, and that he was an art expert as well as a former spy.

Le Carré’s novels are peppered with recurring themes, but these are not the only echoes in the text. Over the course of my thesis work I plan to look closely at the conscious blending of fact and fiction, at the moments when history creeps in unannounced, and at those times when the lines of genre are blurred.