I tried to read Le Carre in high school, because I knew they were among the few books my father read for fun. He never understood the appeal of James Bond, and always said that Le Carre got it right. Spies were "boring little men in trench coats with bad breath."
In 1983, he'd just retired from the military to work for BU overseas programs. I was in drama school in London and visited them in Mehlem, a small suburb of Bonn (then the capital of West Germany). We drove past the Israeli Embassy, and I noticed the razor wire threaded through the rose bushes. I'd also run out of books to read, so Dad loaned me A Small Town in Germany
. It was my first Le Carre. I then read The Little Drummer Girl
, and attempted one of the Smiley books. Smiley was beyond me at that point.
I had another minor Le Carre binge about seven years later when The Russia House
came out as a movie. I loved it. I recognized several RSC actors in minor roles, and I really loved the film. I saw it first as a test preview and even answered follow-up questions put to me a few days afterward. I saw it again for free with an advance pass, and then paid to see it a third time. I also read the book and was thrilled that Ned Palfrey (played in the movie by James Fox), who was my favorite character, had a book entirely from his point of view, The Secret Pilgrim
Smiley's in The Secret Pilgrim
and, once again I tried to read the Karla trilogy, the main books featuring Smiley as a central character. I didn't succeed.
The film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
finally, finally got me to read the books. Gary Oldman makes him more sympathetic than the books do, but Smiley is the consummate intelligence agent, and, truly, the perfect mix of compassion and the particular brand of ruthlessness that the British have honed to a point. (See the series MI-5
to understand more of what I mean.) Americans are also ruthless, but it's much more indiscriminate. (*waves at the NSA*)
I just saw the movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
and Smiley is in it. It's a small role, probably a little larger in the book, but it's key to the outcome. And I am once again reminded that Gary Oldman made the character FAR more sympathetic than he actually is.
The Berlin of 1962 had more in common with the Berlin I lived in, briefly, in the late 1980s than it does with immediate post-war Berlin or modern Berlin. The fact of the wall, the fact that Berlin was not a German city, but a city under occupation (the traffic laws were actually different in the three sectors that made up the Western side which was one reason my parents rarely drove in the city). My first time coming up the escalator from the U-Bahn at Kufurstendamm, I noticed a list. I couldn't figure out why I knew the name Theriesenstadt, but by the time I got to Dachau I realized that this, the busiest entrance at the busiest stop on the Western side of the city, was a punishment: A constant daily reminder of the camps and a war that had ended more than forty years earlier. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
is bleak. It's well acted, but it's not fun. If you've seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
, there's a little bit of fun to be had figuring out that Cyril Cusack is playing the same character as John Hurt, etc. But that's really the only fun. I still want to recommend it. The movie came out in 1965. The book came out in 1963, the same year that Philby defected, the same year that Le Carre left MI-6. It's fiction. Of course, it is.