Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1977). The Honourable Schoolboy. London: Hodder and Stoughton
Date Posted: December 31, 2016
Review by John Leonard
George Smiley says: “A lot of people haven’t these days. They will. Specially in England. A lot of people see doubt as a legitimate philosophical posture. They think of themselves in the middle, whereas, of course, really they’re nowhere.” Of George Smiley, failed priest, lonesome man, it is said: “One day, one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.” And George Smiley writes to his wife, whom he has finally left: “These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers.”
At the Circus, they are impatient with and embarrassed by Smiley’s philosophizing. The Circus, as we learned in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, has enough trouble. Having been penetrated at the very highest level, it knows its entire system of undercover agents, or “moles,” is compromised. Smiley’s job is to patch things up, to salvage something from the long season against the Bolsheviks. He ought not to be wandering around alone at night in the rain. It is as if a football coach in the middle of a losing streak had left the field to cry and read Rainer Maria Rilke.
Shade of Conrad
But, of course, Smiley and the Circus will make a comeback. The Honourable Schoolboy is a remarkable sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If it falters at the end, what book wouldn’t under the weight of so many ambitions? John le Carré seems to have gotten tired of being compared to Graham Greene, and decided instead to be Joseph Conrad. What, he asks, is honor, anyway?
They come back by backtracking. They look in their archives for what is missing, a line of inquiry deflected or aborted by the double-agent who betrayed their Service. They find a “gold seam” of Russian money, amounting to $500,000, variously laundered and pouring into Hong Kong. Surely this is the work of Karla, the super spymaster of Moscow Centre. But what is he buying?
The “schoolboy” of the title, Jerry Westerby, second son of the press baron Lord Westerby, a failed novelist as Smiley is a failed priest, several times married and a guilty father, ex-agent prepared to do his duty–“You point me and I’ll march”–is dispatched to the Far East: “He had never seriously doubted, in his vague way, that his country was in a state of irreversible decline, or that his own class was to blame for the mess.” No sooner does he arrive in Hong Kong than he falls in love with the dumb-blond consort of the Chinese businessman who is receiving all the Russian money.
There are more than several novels inside The Honourable Schoolboy. There is the novel of Jerry and Lizzie, who is one of those inexplicable femmes fatale who simply don’t understand the world they live in–a sort of English Judith Exner. There is the novel of Ko and his brother, of Smiley’s marriage and England’s rot, of the paper chase at Circus and parliamentary committee work, of the greedy “Cousins” from Langley, Va. and the pack of journalists in Southeast Asia. We also get Tuscany, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Sino-Soviet split and the opium trade.
And the huggermugger is appropriately elaborate. To act is to betray, either the self or someone else, or the past or the idea of civilization. In Smiley’s metaphysical scheme, Karla is the great red whale. According to Jerry, as to Ko, one honors one’s contract. Lizzie will dream on. The Cousins, as ever, arrive by helicopter. Smiley is spared, because someone must be left to feel bad.
Measure of Achievement
But the achievement of The Honourable Schoolboy is not in its huggermugger: With the plots of so many novels to resolve, Mr. le Carré is bound to leave us unsatisfied in a number of particulars. The achievement is in the characters, major and minor, and the correspondences, the private lives, erotic depths, furious guilts, mute understandings of hunter and hunted, expert and amateur, the war within, hot and cold.
A retired missionary and his daughter, a Hong Kong policeman, an Italian orphan, an English schoolmaster, an American narcotics agent, a slovenly Kremlinologist, a mad bodyguard, the quite splendid Craw — all are burned on the brain of the reader. If they are not marooned in loneliness, their cynicism corrodes or they go blank when there are no explanations, only helicopters. Loneliness, in fact, rather than betrayal, is the leitmotif. It is the leper’s bell around their necks. They have only themselves to be true to, and they are no longer sure who they are. Not a page of this book is without intelligence and grace. Not a page fails to suggest that we carry around with us our own built-in heart of darkness.
If, with James Bond, Ian Fleming gave us a pop-up Kennedy, all Fifties flash and missile crisis, for the Seventies Mr. le Carré has George Smiley waiting for Godot.
The aftermath of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the ascendancy of spychief George Smiley, the wholesale dismantling and piecemeal rebuilding of Britain’s betrayed intelligence service, and Le Carré’s longest, deepest, and quietest incisions into the gentlemen who steal secrets, hide bodies, and rarely blink. When Smiley’s tetchy crew searches the fries for salvageable plums (which investigations did the traitor squelch?), they come up with a “golden seam”—thousands of dollars fed from Moscow into the numbered Hong Kong account of Drake Ko, president of China Airsea, Ltd. and one of the colony’s leading humanitarians. Query: for what purpose is this cash being hoarded on the border of Mao’s China? Among the agents sent East to “shake the tree” is the aging honourable schoolboy, Jerry Westerby, called in from pasture in Italy to assume his convenient cover—hack journalist (“Seven-day coverage, wars to tit-shows”) for the London rag that his father founded. While Smiley’s burrowers research and deduce, Jerry, his oafishness and cries of “Super!” all part of his disguise, tracks Ko’s dealings from Hong Kong through Thailand and Laos. But by the time that Ko’s secret is understood and ready to be exploited—he plans to rescue his Soviet-agent brother from China-expendable Jerry, bewitched by Ko’s British mistress and rattled by the two innocent-bystander deaths that his inquiries have caused, is ready to scrap all loyalties except those between lovers, brothers, and friends. The final pages here offer no switcheroos of unmasking or decoding; instead of twists, Le Carré slowly unwinds spirals that go haywire just when you expect them to form a neat helix. And for some readers, the intricacies of “tradecraft,” the loaf-and-lurch lives of newsmen abroad, the anti-travelogue Asian backgrounds, and the brisk but massive waves of elegant prose may prove an unacceptable substitute for more obvious sources of spy-tale energy. But if Le Carré is the Henry lames of spy novelists, firing more nuances than bullets, this is his Golden Bowl—dense, hard, and gleaming on the outside, clark within, and worth possessing whatever the price.