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After rereading John LeCarre's espionage thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to great satisfaction, I decided to pick up my favorite of his works Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and read it for perhaps the fifth time. It's a pretty much once-per-decade pleasure I bequeath to myself!

Of course, it's always tough to read a spy novel if you already know who's going to betray whom. The joy of reading derives, then, from admiring the architecture of the book. Where are the red herrings? Why has the author taken us here? Is that nuanced line of dialogue redolent of deeper meaning? It is much the same delight I take in thinking about how the camera is moving in one of my favorite rewatched films.

I never much liked the title Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because it immediately made me think of the novel as of the spy genre rather than as a regular work of literature--a novel. The great British writer Graham Greene used to write his novels (his serious efforts presumably) and gave us such classics as The Power and the Glory or Brighton Rock. But he also gave us what he called "entertainments", and under that umbrella he included many of his espionage novels. He considered such works as enjoyable but without "a message". I might subscribe to this notion if Greene's "entertainment" novels contained predictable plots and two-dimensional characters and outlandish coincidences. But they don't. Greene's The Ministry of Fear boasts a complex protagonist caught up in a world of realpolitik and messy choices. Greene's screenplay for The Third Man and its novelization produced the greatest film ever to come out of Britain, the movie I have seen the most in my life. The novelization wasn't memorable, but it did begin with an opening line as memorable as has been put on paper since "Call Me Ishmael." Greene wrote: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand."

Anyway, I disagree with Greene about the quality of his genre books, and I'll argue that LeCarre's novels often reach the level of minor classics. His prose style is more evocative than that of many highly regarded writers, his plots as complex, his characters as layered, and his moral stance as nuanced. Of those I've read, I think Tinker, Tailor to be his best work. It rewards repeated readings as I said earlier. What is especially thrilling, I think, is seeing the insidious impact of public treachery and misbehavior on the personal lives of the characters, as if a single breach in one's ethical armor ineluctably leads to the corruption of that armor in its entirety. The book also explores how betrayal of one's country invariably leads to betrayal of one's loved ones.

Below: Part 1 of the BBC series:

I took the opportunity to watch again the six-part BBC version of Tinker, Tailor as well. This is probably my fourth or fifth viewing of the series. The producers didn't have a big budget, but they had a first-rate cast of the finest British actors, who signed on immediately precisely because they had secured the participation of the legendary Sir Alec Guinness, a titan of stage and screen, but one who would primarily be known to my students as the actor who portrayed Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi in the first Star Wars trilogy. Guinness so successfully embodied the persona of George Smiley, a recurring character in LeCarre's novels, that a TV miniseries on the concluding title in the Smiley Trilogy, Smiley's People, was filmed shortly after.

Below: Alec Guinness as George Smiley

What appealed to me was the fictionalization of a classic true story of 20th Century espionage at the highest levels. There is a cottage industry of books about high-ranking British agents who sold their country out to the Soviets. Such a traitor is the focal point of Tinker, Tailor, when Smiley is asked to uncover the "mole" (a LeCarre term that has entered the language) who has penetrated MI6. Kim Philby was the most famous real-life "mole", but there were others in a group that came to be known as the "Cambridge Five", for it was at that vaunted university that a number of most respectable gentlemen found their political leanings tilting toward Communism. LeCarre as a young man was a member of the espionage fraternity, one who was ultimately betrayed by Philby. Another member of the conspiracy, Guy Burgess, is depicted in a fictionalized play and film called An Englishman Abroad by Alan Bennett that I also like very much. The two clips below include interviews with LeCarre (real name David Cornwell) about the creation of the series, the casting of Alec Guinness, the methods by which Guinness becomes a character, Guinness's insecurity, what it means to be a writer, spycraft, and much more.

Listening to LeCarre in these clips is such a pleasure. His intelligence comes through first, but then comes the empathy and the intuition and the understanding of what makes people tick that you see in first-rate writers. They are always observing and storing away. Even Sir Alec becomes a kind of character in LeCarre's recollections of their encounters.

A few years ago, Tinker, Tailor was done as a film, with the formidable Gary Oldman taking on the role of George Smiley. It was a quality production, although spare given the two-hour limit. Here is a clip of the actors in that film discussing LeCarre and Smiley.

My favorite closing credits sequence of any television series EVER is that of the BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I think we all agree that a boys' choir is the most beautiful sound ever created (we do, don't we?). These are the Boys of St. Paul's Cathedral Choir.

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