Archive | November, 2010

Back to School

22 Nov

In my effort to read everything Smiley but, after finally finishing The Honorable Schoolboy, a little leery of picking up a doorstop like Smiley’s People (however wonderful), I turned yesterday to A Murder of Quality. A Murder of Quality is Le CarrĂ©’s second novel, and his second work featuring Smiley. Having already determined that the pre-Tinker, Tailor Smiley books possess a different chronology and slightly different back-story than those following it I knew that reading this particular novel was unlikely to yield any new insights into subsequent events. The novel was, however, ridiculously short, and having finished Moby Dick (required reading for my American literature course) earlier that day, I thought I would give it a go.

In many respects, A Murder of Quality is a “true” Smiley novel in miniature. The plot is simple, the stakes are local, and the wide world of espionage is here replaced by a very traditional all-boys boarding school. This boarding school and its attendant class snobbery, arbitrary rules, and rigid hierarchy is very much the precursor to Thursgood’s, the school in Tinker, Tailor where Jim Prideaux teaches, itself a Circus microcosm. Le CarrĂ©’s examination in A Murder of Quality of Carne, the school, is incredibly useful as a means of understanding the position Thursgood’s occupies in Tinker, Tailor and the commentary the omniscient narrator provides on its inhabitants.

At some point I will probably write about the interesting treatments of gender and sexuality in this book. I don’t have time at the moment, but let this serve as a placeholder, or a reminder. There is quite a lot to say.


“Post-Fall Days”

20 Nov

It has taken me quite a while to work through The Honorable Schoolboy. Part of this tardiness can be chalked up to the rhythms of the semester–the weeks surrounding midterm are not exactly conducive to Thesis Friday–although some of it must have to do with the novel itself.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Honorable Schoolboy. This is the novel that many Smiley fans skip in favor of moving straight on to Smiley’s People, but there was a significant amount of material I could see working into my thesis somehow. Although this is very much a cleaning-up novel, with Smiley and his entourage tidying up the Circus post-Haydon, themes present in Tinker, Tailor return here, with Jerry Westerby’s outsider status marking him as both hero and rogue, as asset and liability for the Circus, and, of course, the ever-present not wanting to know that marked so much of Tinker, Tailor. Peter Guillam, whose rage always simmered closer to the surface than Smiley’s did, is in this book more frustrated than usual with Circus bureaucracy and Circus willful blindness.

There is a shift in this novel away from individual betrayal and towards conspiracy. Members of the Circus, led by Smiley, attempt to determine to extent of Moscow Center’s reach in Hong Kong, while at the same time assessing the trustworthiness of their own employees and of their American allies, “the Cousins.” As the novel draws to a close, Smiley is edged out of the service, ostensibly into retirement but in truth (and in Guillam’s opinions) because he is too fond of asking difficult and potentially revelatory questions. The book concludes with a letter Smiley has written to his perpetually unfaithful wife, Ann. In it, he writes

I chose the secret road because it seemed to lead straightest and furthest toward my country’s goal. The enemy in those days was someone we could point at and read about in the papers. Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy. That is the sword I have lived by, and as I look round me now I see it is the sword I shall die by as well. These people terrify me, but I am one of them.