Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton
Date Posted: March 11, 2015
Review by Sam Jordison
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, written in 1974:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is fluently written; it is full of vivid character sketches of secret agents and bureaucrats from all levels of British society, and the dialogue catches their voices well. The social and physical details of English life and the day to day activities of the intelligence service at home and abroad are convincing. Unlike many writers Le Carré is at his best showing men hard at work; he is fascinated by the office politics of the agency since the war. He even has a go at such “novelistic” effects as interlocking themes of sexual and political betrayal.
Well done Le Carré for having “a go” at novelistic effects! And for writing fluently! Who knew that “genre writers” (as the critic Richard Locke later terms him) could manage such tricky feats?!
I should note that the quoted paragraph is more or less the exception in a review that is well worth reading for itself, rather than simply to gawp at its antiquated ideas about Le Carré’s talents. Locke clearly knows the spy “genre” well and is a close and attentive reader—even if he blows it at the end by making the absurd suggestion that “in Le Carré’s books everything works out”. But although it’s perhaps unkind to highlight the above paragraph from an otherwise decent review, it does show how far Le Carré’s reputation has moved in recent years. Can you imagine anyone talking about him in such condescending terms today? Can you imagine anyone suggesting that one of the great writers of our age deserves a pat on the head for having a go at “novelistic” effects?
In fact, did you even raise an eyebrow when I called Le Carré “a great writer”? Did it occur to you that I may be entering the realm of hyperbole—or did it just seem natural for someone of his standing and talent? I suspect the latter. Over the past few weeks on the Reading Group, I’ve been deliberately lavish in my praise for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Partly that was because it’s no more than the book deserves, but partly it was also to see if I could get a rise. Would anyone now challenge the idea that a spy book can hold its own against more conventionally literary fiction? Would anyone disagree that this is one of the finest novels of any sort written in the last 50 years? It seems not. Instead, contributor after contributor labelled his books as “masterpieces” and hardly anyone had a negative word to say.
To an extent, that’s part of the nature of book clubs. It takes a brave soul to spoil the party by suggesting the emperor may not be wearing any clothes. While I’m grasping for counter-arguments I should also acknowledge that I may have set up a straw man by suggesting that we in the present are more easily able to recognize Le Carré’s skill. The past didn’t always get him wrong; plenty of serious critics were quick to recognize his talent. Graham Greene declared the Spy Who Came In From The Cold “the best spy story I ever read”—and it’s probably safe to assume he’d read quite a few. The mighty Philip Roth, meanwhile, went one better and said that A Perfect Spy was “the best English novel since the war”. And although it’s often noted that Le Carré has never won a Booker—or many other kinds of literary award—the omission shouldn’t be laid at the feet of judges in years gone by. He has always disdained awards, rather than the other way around.
It’s also worth noting that the “genre” question hasn’t entirely disappeared today. When Andrew Anthony profiled the author in the Observer in 2009, he concluded: “Le Carré’s legacy is almost certainly assured. In so evocatively capturing the art of spying, he is the writer who turned spy fiction into an art form.” Earlier on in the article he also said: “Since his first major success … Le Carré has been seen as a great stylist, but the question remains of whether he is primarily a genre writer and whether that matters in terms of literary reputation.”
I have dozens of objections to the idea that genre should matter, or that “spy” novels might be somehow inferior as an art form, starting with Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling and ending—probably—with Le Carré’s latest, Our Kind Of Traitor. But at this stage, I’d rather hear from you. Does genre matter?