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.

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