Tinkering with conscience

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To propose that John le Carré’s zenith was the 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I have to retrace my steps through his body of work, and my own historical connection to it. Why bother? Because my bedside reading for a couple of weeks now has been a journey of discovery and re-discovery as I make my way through his collected works. And because I realise more clearly now why Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy always seemed so memorable.

In reading some novels for the first time, I realised that my memory is faulty, according le Carré greater status as an influence on me than is merited. It’s really only three novels I was fond of over time: The Spy Who Came in Form the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), and Smiley’s People (1979). I didn’t know the earlier Call for the Dead (1961) or A Murder of Quality (1962) until much more recently; they are fine novels in their own right, but not quite as significant.

The Looking Glass War (1965) struck me as bland and aimless years ago, and still does today. I didn’t read A Small Town in Germany (1968) until last week, and though I found it engaging, I thought the agonising about rehabilitated Nazis running West Germany for the Allies was affected, and the accent on a British betrayal of Jews to the unreconstructedly brutish Germans was far too self-righteous to sit well. Though I suppose it might have gone over well at the time, especially as an expression of le Carré’s class-based angst, being increasingly guilt-riddled as they were for the failure of Britain to be a more fitting home for liberal freedoms and its heroes.

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The Deadly Affair (1966)

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A minor British film from the 1960s that meant almost nothing to me until quite recently. It is in fact a screen adaptation of John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. This belated ‘notice’ is by way of a postscript to a recent reflection on that novel, and le Carré in general.

It seems unfortunate that scriptwriter Paul Dehn was denied the use of the name George Smiley, which had been sold along with the other rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Paramount a couple of years earlier. Instead James Mason played Charles Dobbs. A character who turned out to bear little resemblance ot the toad-like George Smiley had intended. A character perfect for the story, but probably not for the big screen.

Perhaps it was the temper of the times, but Dehn also made the huge mistake of turning Smiley’s domestic circumstances into a sordid cuckold story, with a young, foreign, nymphomaniac wife (Harriet Andersson) plaguing Dobbs with serial unfaithfulness, and on this occasion, with the villain of the piece, Dieter Frey (Maximillian Schell). Nothing much was gained by this voyeuristic device, except to waste screen time, and create a larger rôle for Schell than the story demanded. I suppose it was more contemporary thinking about leveraging foreign names, sex, and and more contemporary Cold War themes than aimed at by le Carré.
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Call for the Dead

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In life there are sometimes threads of interrelated synchronicities. A couple of days ago I posted a draft list of my top 40 favourite films in response to a challenge to do so by Randy Resnick. My number two is the excellent Thomas Alfredsen 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s singular 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Today I came across some explanation of what it was about le Carré’s characters I found so authentic. But first some nostalgia.

When I was a teenager I consumed le Carré’s novels with a voracious appetite, and to begin with, much to the alarm of my school masters. Being thoroughly British, they thought a young German boy should learn the Queen’s English first from Ladybird readers and approved ‘adolescent’ fiction (they really flipped out when I carried around Peter O’Donnell’s The Impossible Virgin for a couple of days, anticipating the title presaged sordid content!). The subject matter of le Carré’s spy thrillers was considered risqué for entirely different reasons. Le Carré was considered unsound for casting aspersions on the old British stiff upper lip. As if there was a secret conspiracy by which I would be unaware of bullshit British conceits so long as no one mentioned them.

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