Hello Ordinary Readers! This is the first recap of the Ordinary Times book club for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, covering Part 1 (the first third of the book). I hope we aren’t going too fast for anyone. If we are, please skip down to the comments and let me know. Also, as usual with book club posts, try to avoid spoilering the rest of the book in the comment threads (use the handy-dandy spoiler code, rot13, or some other means of avoiding spoilers, if you need to). Thanks and I hope you are enjoying this as much as me!
A fussy old man, concerned with the money his wife has deducted from accounts, wanders to a bookstore to sell a rare edition in a fit of pique. There, he spots an old work acquaintance outside and slips out, into the arms of… Various interesting characters come and go in this first section of Tinker, Tailor. Terms we are unfamiliar with are used casually. Inside information is the order of the day, indeed, the order of the business.
John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell, a former teacher at the posh British school of Eton, a cold warrior and son of a con man. All of which inform this novel. Years as a teacher and spy are obvious at first glance in the novel, but the con man is one of the most interesting things, as the whole novel is shadowed by the ghost of Kim Philby. Indeed, le Carré’s intellegence career came to an end when Philby betrayed the covers of British agents. And in many ways, that is what this is a story about.
To start we have the story of a school teacher, who sets boys to be watchers. Who is this man? Then we have Smiley himself, selling rare books after his wife drained the checking account. Rikki Tarr tells us a lively tale of Hong Kong goings on, but it is told in secret, away from the intelligence officers of the day. For the tale is a rough one, leading to the belief that there is a double agent in the service. Smiley, an ousted agent, is called back to listen to the tale, to find its truth. And we have further tales, the memories of Smiley himself. Looking for old information, a trip to visit Connie, a tutor at Oxford, and the memory of the old service. And old service it is, as a new leadership has taken over the daily running of intelligence.
We are introduced to a variety of people in the course of the first section, from the above mentioned Rikki Tarr and Connie, to Peter Guillam and the other currently serving members of the “circus.” But none are so important to the story as George Smiley, the central character. Smiley has a long and varied career in spying, appearing in le Carré’s first two books, middling detective novels with a slight taste of the spy world. He then has a minor part in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, seemingly a background character, but in the end showing us how devious the secret world is, laying traces of information quite deep. In these books we start to see how deeply buried the activities of the circus are, the cover stories that we have no idea that others are telling about agents, so as to make sure that information is where it is needed. And at the same time rumors and innuendo rule the day, as they are far more accessible than cold truth, and can be traded, bought and sold like stocks.
How does England look at the end of its empire? What motivates these men and women to follow this profession? Why is Prideaux setting watch boys?
So, what are you seeing? What are you picking up?
(Image by danxoneil )
First of all, I am at sea regarding who to trust. Both in terms of who is loyal to Queen and Country, who is loyal to the Circus (which I presume is code for MI-6), whether the Circus is working autonomously or in concert with HM Government, and of course who is a reliable narrator, most especially Tarr.
Secondly, the feeling of being plopped down in media res is a bit overwhelming. WTF did Control do in Czechoslovakia? Sounds like whatever the op was, they shat the bed, and Smiley was one of the heads that rolled as a result. But beyond that, it’s murky and since these are oh-so-British characters, their pride seems to stop them from actually saying anything. (Is this a reference to events in a different Le Carré novel?)
Finally, I’m delighted with many gorgeous turns of phrase:
Gorgeous writing, that. Perceptive and illustrative.
Also, can someone help me out on one bit of jargon: “lamplighters.” I’ve figured out most of the rest of the jargon from context, but this one is elusive to me.Report
LeCarre invented most of this jargon, though some of it has entered the language, notably “mole” for “highly places double agent”. Though, to LeCarre, an agent is someone recruited from outside the organization, say, a janitor at a secure facility that sells information.
There’s a pretty good glossary here.Report
And if you’re frustrated with British spies that never say anything, try these instead.
To the group: are references to foregoing events in these characters’ (or the agency’s) lives in this novel references to the events of previous novels, or does everything in this world begin here (in whatever tense it’s being told)? Is this the first of the Smiley novels?Report
No, the character is in several of le Carre novels. He is the lead in the authors first two books and has small but important parts in Spy Who Came In From the Cold and A Small Town in Germany. That said, we are talking about Smiley and the other characters only in the placement of this book. The events talked about in the novel are only in the history of the novel, not in the history of the character outside Tinker, Tailor.
Does that make sense? Confused myself in there…Report
Nit: Smiley has a small part in The Looking-Glass War, but none in A Small Town in Germany.Report
Oops, you are correct, was going off memory here.Report
I think so. So, it’s the same character, but the stuff that happened to him in previous novels didn’t necessarily happen here.Report
Smiley was in 4 books before TTSP: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and The Looking Glass War.
Coincidentally, I have A Murder of Quality in my bag with me this morning.Report
I know this sounds very Kimmi, but I’m a close friend of an employee from “the Company”. We met at the individual’s mother’s birthday party and we bonded through a mutual love of Geography in what was otherwise a very boring party.
The employee works “abroad” so we see each other once or twice a year, but we keep in regular contact because we are talking about an very uncommon individual with interesting quirks. We discuss fusion power, music, languages, wild life, tons of geographical trivia, and geopolitics. The employee sets the subjects. I never ask anything, just follow whatever is shared, be it river deltas, climate change, or the latest adventures in the filed and how many times shots have been exchanged (more than zero, less than ten).
It was six months before the employee came out of the professional closet for me (parents still thinks the employee works in the garment industry, you know, one of those foreign places that stole good ‘Murican jobs).
Long story short, these individuals do have a very peculiar life, and a very strange way of seeing the world. You don’t make a Company employee. You have to be born one.
EDIT: I have the feeling the individual did a full checkout about me before coming out of the closet. I didn’t share it with anybody, not even with my partner. The individual came out to the partner some months laterReport
Its interesting to see everything get set up, but I don’t have a lot to say at this point.Report
I had not read the book before, but I have watched the BBC miniseries. In consequence, I hear George Smiley’s voice as Obi-Wan Kenobi. I am a shallow person.
On a different note, there are a lot of cultural assumptions that can make it hard for an American to keep up. I am curious how people understood this snippet:
Do you already know what a “fives court” is, or figure it out of context, or pass over it in perfect mystification? Also relevant is which dialect of English is native to you.Report
I have a reasonable approximation of what a fives court is, good enough to be relevant; and my native dialect is Eastern Canadian, which means I started reading British books just about the same time I started reading American (ie when I started reading).Report
I’ve read about fives, but reading about different sports and games is something I did a lot of when I was younger. I used to know the rules of a lot of different card games that I’ve never played and in all likelihood never will.Report
@mike-schilling Heh. Same here.Report
I know what a fives court is strictly from reading novels about English public schools (such as the one in that scene). Fives seems to be a game known only to rich English people and those of us who read about them too often.Report
I’m trying to get caught up!Report
The paranoia that pervades each and every character is fascinating. Smiley looking out the windows at the booksellers and spotting Guillam, ducking out the back. Keeping little splinters in a door to make sure that no one else has been in since you left. And so on.
I am a context clue reader. I almost never look up a word to find out its meaning, instead prefer to learn it by osmosis.* The jargon in books like this is bread and butter to me, reading wise. Few things I like better than feeling like an insider and getting the feel of the language that pervades is the best way.
*This has lead me to mispronounce almost every word that I don’t use in casual conversation, and my wife to be constantly correcting me. At least she knows what I am trying to get across. I hope.Report
Finished part I just today (but am moving rapidly into part II).
Aside from agreeing with many of the comments above, I was interested in how much British conversational culture is shown through dialogue (no one in the Circus ever says “oh, that was a terrible thing” or “I barely escaped with my life”) even as the narration / Smiley’s inner thoughts reveal how intense all these lightly-told events actually were.
And also, as much as I enjoy the characterizations, it seemed fairly obvious that some of the characters were written from a “lived in” space of empathy (eg Roach, Haydon, Smiley) while others were written from an “observed” space that was sometimes sympathetic, sometimes almost a caricature (and almost always funny) but not really… internalized. At first I thought this was a male/female dichotomy but it really wasn’t, it’s just that all the woman characters (so far) go into the “observed” pile. There’s lots of male characters that go in there too. Not necessarily a bad thing – probably almost a requirement in a tale with so many actors – but it was … jarring. Took me out of the story a few times (whereas in general I find it a very immersive story).Report
Prideaux is an interesting case. He’s the sort of character LeCarre generally has a lot of sympathy for, but we only see him through other character’s eyes. Largely Roach, who understands far less than we do about what he sees.Report
Yes. I just read a scene where we’re seeing Prideaux through someone’s eyes who was observing someone else’s grief for him (trying to avoid 2nd part spoilers) and it really got to me. Perhaps more so *because* of the refraction.Report