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George Smiley: A Spy Like Us

George Smiley: A Spy Like Us

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Published by Thomas Burchfield
Some thoughts on John le Carre's George Smiley, the greatest, truest, fictional spy of all.
Some thoughts on John le Carre's George Smiley, the greatest, truest, fictional spy of all.

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Categories:Types, Reviews
Published by: Thomas Burchfield on Dec 08, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/08/2012

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 George Smiley: A Spy Like UsBy Thomas Burchfield 
It’s a
green time for the espionage genre (at least to me: I read more spy novels these days than I do the other genres.) Another  James Bond film romps across screens to friendly applause on
that venerable figure’s 50 
th
cinematic anniversary. TV and cablenetworks are streaming spy sagas on all channels, most notably 
Homeland 
and the first season of 
The Hour 
.Last year saw a remake of  
 great novel 
Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy 
 , an outwardly unnecessary project that I first greeted with arched eyebrow and slitted eyes, my monocleswinging free in full-blown Colonel Blimp mode
. (“Really? 
Must we? 
Was something wrong the first time?”)
In the end though, the new version was embraced by most everyone, including me, without dimming the dour glow of the
 
original BBC miniseries. Both versions stand fast under repeated viewings, the new one re-visioning the original in surprisingly fluid fashion, but still knitted to the first by the fine sensibility of 
the novel’s author.
(Maybe now there will be a film of 
Tinker’s
 sequel,
The Honourable Schoolboy 
.) And really, who wants to get snared in a grey, useless tangleover who was the better George Smiley: Sir Alec Guinness or not- yet-Sir Gary Oldman?  Clearly, these gentlemen
.Pardon mewhile I clean my glasses
and 
gaze out the window at a passing lorry.The debate regarding Mr. Smiley vs. Mr. Bond is more charged,but the argument 
— 
genre fiction as literary endeavor vs. genrefiction as commercial endeavor 
— 
is one that I, in best Englishrestraint, feel cautious about: Do I support mindful boredom or mindless pleasure? Do the two
never 
meet? 
Besides I haven’t read 
Fleming 
’ 
s Bond since I was a bug-eyed,horny teenager under the bedcovers with a flashlight during summer nights in Central Texas. I have started reading 
CasinoRoyale
 
and it’s
an
okay 
and likable entertainment so far. IanFleming clearly writes with a pleasing smile up one side of hisface but there are startling lapses. For one, take this perilously dangly modifier: 
“As a woman, he
[Bond] wanted to sleep with her, but only when
the job was done.” 
 (A- 
HA
! So
that 
was what Daniel Craig was insinuating in
Skyfall 
’ 
s
torture scene with Javier Bardem?)Really, though, I like much better the brown suits and gray shadows inhabited by 
 John le Carré’s George
Smiley. Smiley livesin a truly secret world; a much more treacherous realm, a world  perilous to both body and soul, than James Bond 
’ 
s.
 
Bond’s body— 
whether He is Woman or not 
— 
faces much greater dangers, obviously. As for his soul, well, it has a well-lacquered veneer 
—scratch it and you find more veneer. He doesn’t live in
the world so much as react to it on behalf of our reactionary little-boy souls.
He’s a spy in knee pants. (He’s also more of a
commando type; Ian Fleming organized and ran commandooperations from London during World War II.)Bond is fun, even delightful, in portions and sequences, rarely asa whole, regular meal. I agree with
The New Yorker 
critic  Anthony Lane: You can walk out of 
Goldfinger 
 , make a sandwich,and come back without missing much. (Some, like
Die Another Day 
 , can be walked out on for a leisurely four-course meal,Pierce Brosnan or not.)Walk out on
Tinker, Tailor,
you 
 
miss that raised eyebrow, that shrug, that tells you everything.From what 
I’ve read, John le
Carré was, unlike Fleming, an actual field agent, in his case during the Cold War. We can thank to le
Carré’s experience
s for bringing us a George Smiley who actslike someone
who knows what he’s doing, someone
we would rely on.Very few of us are James Bond. But most of us are Smiley.Smiley is the spy you and I would be if we were spies. Heresponds as any one of us would when caught in
life’s everyday 
intrigues
— 
the lies and evasions we tell and are subject to,whether we like it or not; the small incongruous gestures that aremeant to hide, but instead reveal, and vice-versa. As spies deal with the slippery world, so do the rest of us at times.To see
the world through Smiley’s eyes
is to be drawn to look closer, for more than just whether a hair laid across a desk drawer has been sprung, or whether the label of the DomPerignon faces out instead of where you left it, at three-quarters.

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