George Smiley: a character I’ve encountered many times on screen and radio, but never actually on the page. Yes, Call for the Dead is my first John le Carré novel, and at the risk of giving “the game” (as Smiley would call it) away too soon, all I will say for the moment is that it won’t be my last.
My impetus for reading le Carré now, of course, is his recent death, or rather the glut of tributes that followed his death about how great a novelist he really was. I don’t know why I ever doubted this – probably because of some ingrained snobbery about spy novels, I suspect – but when I saw the eulogies of John Banville and the like (“As a writer [le Carré] transcended mere genre, showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel”), then I knew I had to give him a go. And what better place to start than where it all started? Published in 1961 while its author was still in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Call for the Dead was le Carré’s first novel and Smiley’s introduction to the world.
I’d be interested to know how the world responded. This reader, for one, was rather surprised by the book’s opening paragraph:
When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.
When I read this, I thought maybe I’d picked up a Muriel Spark novel by accident: the antique adverbs, the gentle satire. This was not the hard-boiled prose I’d been anticipating. I never got that. When le Carré’s tough, it’s rarely down to an austerity of style: “The witnessing of death in war brings a sophistication of its own; but beyond that, far beyond, is the conviction of supremacy in the heart of the professional killer.”
The effect of this floridness is a kind of detachment, a key word in Call for the Dead and a defining characteristic of Smiley. Here is chapter one’s account of his years in Germany as an MI6 recruiter:
It intrigued him to evaluate from a detached position what he had learnt to describe as ‘the agent potential’ of a human being; to devise miniscule tests of character and behaviour which could inform him of the quality of a candidate. This part of him was bloodless and inhuman – Smiley in this role was the international mercenary of his trade, amoral and without motive beyond that of personal gratification.
He has softened since then – the marriage to Ann – but not much. Now in his fifties and a bachelor once again, he is just as disinterested as ever, so that even when he is implicated in the suicide of a suspected commie spy, he is able to separate his personal connection with the case from his professional responsibilities and give it his full, dispassionate attention. In another life, he’d have been a great killer.
But this is not Bond. Emphatically not. In fact, there is a moment just before the final confrontation – when Smiley considers bringing his gun, then decides against it – that can only have been a nod to Fleming: “Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.” A frightful row, and a whole lot of paperwork, no doubt. Spying is not glamorous and, as it transpires, the case is rather small fry. This is all to the good. At barely 150 pages, Call for the Dead is taut and tight and had me heading straight to Amazon for the next Smiley. The game is only just beginning.
Call for the Dead is published by Penguin and is available here.