Well, it’s been an intense last 6 months, and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Not a word, I know: zilch, nada, and so on. And don’t think I didn’t feel bad about it, either. Wracked with guilt, I was—to use one of my favourite clichés. I could blame it on my MFA thesis, on my gig as the online editor for PRISM international… I could find all kinds of excuses, but I won’t. Anyway, I hope you’re not too angry, but it doesn’t matter either way because I know you’ll forgive me; I’m far from being the first or last blogger to go on an unexpected hiatus.
More importantly: did you miss me? I hope you did, because I’m back with a vengeance, and I’ve devised a devilish plan to get us right through to the end of my school year (and my MFA—after that, I guess I’ll have to hunker down and force myself to write about things as they happen). That’s right, I haven’t given up on you yet! Because during all this time I was gone, I wasn’t blogging, but I was reading, you see. Boy, was I ever reading. Okay, I wasn’t reading as much as I should’ve, but I still have a list of books, 20 or so, that I’ve read since last summer and haven’t done anything with essay-wise, and I hereby promise to write a short, blurby review of one of these books every week. Let’s say it’s always going to happen on Sundays, just so you know you have something to look forward to.
And, before we start with our first catch up review, I just want to say it’s been a really terrific last six months in the literary world, and I’m sorry not to have been part of the conversation. I’m very pleased because it’s been a tremendous year for women: Alice Munro (my favourite, as you know) winning the Nobel, Lynn Coady winning the Giller here in Canada, Eleanor Catton getting the Booker (for a very manly book, but still)—plus Rachel Kushner and Donna Tartt (the latter especially) getting all this attention for their new novels. I know there’s still a lot to do to give women the space they deserve in literary arts, but after seeing female writers shine so much recently, the future does seem a bit brighter.
It’s also hard to believe we’ve lost two of our strongest female voices in the last few months: Doris Lessing (whom I wrote about here) and, more recently, Mavis Gallant (whom I wrote about here). These brilliant, phenomenal women will be sorely missed and, I hope, relentlessly honoured and read.
There’s an added difficulty to what I’m doing now—added to the fact that I’m going to start by discussing books that I read a while back—and it’s that I don’t have immediate access to most of these books; they’re all back home in Montreal and I’m here in Vancouver. But anyway, not having a given book in my hand has never stopped me from discussing it before!
I see on my list here that the book I read after Barney’s Version was Smiley’s People. I even remember that I started le Carré’s book on the same day I finished Richler’s; it was during a nice, sunny weekend at the cottage; I just dropped the first and picked the other one up.
I’d initially planned on dealing with le Carré in an elaborate post on this blog back in August, talking about how my father had first talked to me about George Smiley some years ago, on a cycling trip in Niagara, Ontario. As we cycled side by side and burned under the sun, my father told me the thrilling story of George Smiley and his doomed quest to find the mole hiding inside MI5, and how much he’d enjoyed both the book and the 80s BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley (the cycling trip in question seemed to pull back all his memories for the first time in years; he subsequently ordered the DVD box set of the BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries and we both watched it with relish). This was some years before the wonderful movie starring Gary Oldman and directed by Tomas Alfredson. Anyway, I never got around to writing that post so I might as well write about Smiley’s People now.
I have to admit first of all that I’ve never actually read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—the only other le Carré I’d read before this was The Constant Gardner, in high school, and I’d found it a little tedious although not uninteresting. What I found really interesting about Smiley’s People was the atmosphere, the thickness of it. Even now, without the book at hand, I can recall quite vividly the different settings: the London park where the initial murder occurs, the dreary Paris apartment where the old Russian émigrée waits for her fate, the wet dreary Hamburg where Smiley’s car gets attacked by gipsy boys, the final moments in snowy Berlin when Smiley faces the true meaning of victory and defeat.
The other brilliant thing about Smiley’s People is that it’s not really about the surprise of how things will end, or even how that end will come about—it’s about seeing how George Smiley will react along the way: what he will do and say and, especially, not do and not say. In effect, Smiley is more or less given all the information he needs to solve the mystery at the centre of the book and catch Karla; what’s fascinating is seeing him dreading what might happen, utilizing all of his skills as a spy, and managing his agents and old friends along the way. My favourite passage in the novel is near the end, when Smiley meets Karla’s henchman, Grigoriev, whom Smiley needs to use to get to Karla through Karla’s daughter (secretly kept in a Swiss nunnery). Le Carré does a neat trick where, instead of keeping the narrative voice quite close to Smiley’s consciousness, he pulls us back from the moment and explains how the interview later became legend in the circus*, and how other agents refer to it later, what they say happened, etc.—it’s as if the novel were narrated from the circus itself, or its communal consciousness.
Le Carré doesn’t have the reputation he has based on facility or luck or, god forbid, a Dan Brownian ease with urging the reader to turn the page. There is an intelligence, a complexity, a deliberateness, and a despondent form of wisdom behind his stories that is undeniable. Le Carré invented the espionage genre as we know it today, and he is a expert at deploying its tropes: exchanges of information, blurry old photographic evidence, the stress of being under watch, visits to old informants, that obliqueness of language that comes when people’s lives are in danger—all the elements are there for a grand time in the company of men and women who would be either incredibly dull or incredibly scary in real life, and yet who are the finest to be with in a work of fiction. Only, of course, in the hands of a master.
Photograph: Jane Brown/The Guardian
*In case you don’t know, “the circus” is what le Carré calls the British secret service in his novels; the equivalent of “The Company” in Robert Litell’s eponymous novel.