The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


I've been working on and thinking a lot about the Cold War recently--my scholarly work these days deals with it, I'm putting together an anthology of articles on the subject, etc. And although I was never a spy-story fan I do have an appreciation for John le Carré; listening to THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD on books-on-tape was one of those literary experiences that I really remember (along with ULYSSES and Roth's AMERICAN PASTORAL on tape--very vivid) from the last few years. So although my interest in the Cold War is more in overt propaganda and cultural diplomacy than in skulduggery and black ops, I was struck by an irresistible desire, while at the library the other day, to pick up le Carré's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. It might have had something to do with seeing THE GOOD SHEPHERD two weeks ago, which is a fictionalized portrayal of CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

What struck me first about the novel is how little it compromises with the needs of the general reader: there's essentially no exposition apart from what is given by the charactets, and that is in the jargony shorthand of people in a secretive, insular profession. It's very difficult to follow the plot, although the setup is pretty easy: after a series of disastrous or blown operations, the head of British intelligence (name of "Control") is deposed and dies soon afterward. Exiled with him are several of his key lieutenants, most notably George Smiley. Control had suspected that there was a mole high up in the intelligence service and so, after his departure, the Prime Minister's office wants to continue that investigation, but without involving anyone still in the service. George Smiley must investigate and find out which of the top men is actually working for the Soviets.

It's one of those puzzle plots, where the investigator talks to a bunch of people and gradually pieces together the whole story until he has enough to make an educated guess about the identity of the mole. He then lures the mole out and tapes him making incriminating statements. It takes at least a couple reads, I'd imagine, to really put together everything that's happening--the chronology of the operations Smiley traces, the personalities and responsibilities of the main characters, and the significance of the clues. It's fundamentally disorienting. I ended up checking out the BBC miniseries version of TINKER, TAILOR from the library, and although I understood the broad outlines of the plot watching that miniseries really cleared up a lot of the details of the plot for me. (Although the miniseries is much easier to follow than the book, the DVD company was so concerned that viewers wouldn't understand what was happening that they included a cheat-sheet in the case, glossing some of the vocabulary but also laying out who the characters were.)

The miniseries is pretty remarkable: five and a half hours, the vast majority of which is Alec Guinness just talking to people in dingy rooms. There is so little action of any sort, and so few exotic locales, that it doesn't seem like a "real" spy movie--like the BOURNE cacaphonies, for instance. It's slow and grim and quiet, and the actors are gray and unappealing. But it's entirely engrossing.



  • At 3:43 AM, Anonymous anna said…

    Little Drummer Girl is one of my favorite books- I re-read it recently, and it was even more delightful. The replacement of a personality with the spy's, and the whole idea of a woman spy- in a genre that is so male-dominated. The best bit is Diane Keaton in that role, though. I have a big fat crush on her anyways. She does a great flustery hippy in awe of the espionage, with none of the lame doe-eyed naivete that Mia Farrow or someone of that time.

  • At 9:33 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    I haven't read that, but it's next on the list. I'd also like to see that movie. Did you read the article in Slate recently (I think, it might have been the TIMES) about why smart people, especially smart women, like bad Diane Keaton movies? I really liked the article--it boiled down to, if I remember, that we all want Keaton's movies to be good because she's so great, and seems to enjoy her life and not suffer from Hollywood pathology--one of the quotes from the article was that she hasn't "mutilated" her face like other actresses her age. She really is in bad movies (BABY BOOM, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, THE FAMILY STONE) but I love her.

    ANNIE HALL is my favorite movie of all time.


Post a Comment

<< Home