Title:                      Smiley’s Circus

Author:                 David Monaghan

Monaghan, David (1986). Smiley’s Circus: A Guide to The Secret World of John Le Carré. London: Orbis

LCCN:    87125872

PR6062.E33 Z79 1986b


Date Posted:      August 5, 2015

Reading John Le Carré takes work. Real work. Not a bedtime read. The first book of his I read was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy[1], I would get completely lost in his characters and his plot line. His action is slow, almost at a snail’s pace. I got the audiobook, and listened to it. Twice. I still had difficulty. I got the DVD, and watched it, then re-read it. I think I may understand it now.

The best way to read Le Carré is to David Monaghan’s fantastic guide next to you while reading. It’s indispensable for the jargon definitions alone. Monaghan e identifies every character—even unnamed ones like “narcotics agent”—and captures the personality of each in just a few sympathetic lines from hints sometimes spread out over several books.

Monaghan maintains Le Carré’s own skeptical voice, treating all the information as if it were friendly but not completely reliable office gossip. For example, after noting that Ricki Tarr, though reckless, is nevertheless loyal and competent, Monaghan wonders almost sadly if the boy was hired back after the Haydon case. Going into great depth in the pages on George Smiley, he tries to sort out which crimes can be laid at Smiley’s feet.

One sees that in Le Carré people are largely viewpoints: “Mrs. Pope Graham considers Norman to be sensitive but for Smiley he is a grubby little voyeur.” Nevertheless facts are facts: Prideaux digs up his gun on Tuesday, not Sunday, no matter what else the novel may say.

Readers sometimes complain about Le Carré’s overly complex plots, especially in the Circus novels. This guidebook can loosen the “very clever knots,” but first-time Circus readers must beware. Any entry can contain a monstrous spoiler.

Here are some comments by Jay Berkeley:[2]

Near the Sloane Square tube station, southwest down King’s Road to Bywater StreetAcross King’s Road is Bywater Street with its pastel-coloured houses suggesting a climate more southerly than London’s. Mid-block is 9 Bywater Street. Only two fictional sites appear in this book (to the best of my knowledge!) and this is the second one. According to Smiley’s Circus by David Monaghan, this is where George Smiley and his unfaithful wife lived from about 1950 to about 1973. It is here that Ann has several affairs, usually (but not always) while George is overseas. After their separation George stays on in the house.

Some reviewers have conjectured that John le Carré (David Cornwell) modelled Smiley on Sir Maurice Oldfield, head of MI6 {between 1973 and 1978. Indeed; Smiley and Oldfield shared the same podgy and bookish appearance, the same mild and self-effacing manner, the same habit of playing with their eyeglasses. And when Alec Guinness was preparing for the television version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Cornwell introduced him to Oldfield. Guinness was fascinated by Oldfield’s mannerisms but apparently drew his interpretation of Smiley from deeper sources. Cornwell himself explains that the model for Smiley was someone else entirely, a teacher of his at Oxford.

Cornwell, however, surely based his fictional organization (The Circus) on his own experience. He had done his National Service with the British Army of Occupation in Austria; fluent in German, he was posted to Intelligence. Afterward, he taught at Eton and was a free-lance artist (illustrating Maxwell Knight’s Talking Birds, among other things), before being recruited to MI5 (possibly by Knight). He was then a case-officer for MI6 under Foreign Office cover. Not until the 1963 publication of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did he feel able to spend all his time writing.

Le Carré obviously wanted to create an alternative to Fleming’s oeuvre; le Carré’s books are more realistic, less glamorous, more novelistic. They have character development and insight. They are simply better written. But while I admire le Carré’s novels as literature, I am uneasy about his acquiescence to the notion of moral equivalence between the Western democracies and the communist dictatorships. And I am irritated by his anti-Americanism. Still, he is a good story-teller, and if one reads his works as entertainments, not documentaries, one is seldom disappointed.

[1] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 64-66


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