The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré

by Sunita

My reread through the Smiley novels continues, and this was a big one. I’ve never revisited The Honourable Schoolboy after the initial read, and I’m pretty sure I powered through it way too quickly on my way to Smiley’s People, because I remembered very little of the story. This installment is highly rated by most reviewers, although Clive James panned it in the NYRB when it first came out. And he’s not wrong about the “elephantiasis, of ambition as well as reputation” that seems to undergird the novel. But I agree with the majority who praised it. Yes, it’s baggy and long and there are a multitude of storylines. But it’s not that way only (or even primarily) in order to produce a novel that is more than “merely entertaining” any more than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is merely entertaining.

The novel takes a while to get going. We are first introduced to a group of foreign journalists in Hong Kong, who are hanging out and speculating about the sudden rolling up of the British government office there. We then move to Tuscany, where the Honourable Jerry Westerby has rented a small house, taken up with a young woman he refers to as “the orphan,” and is desultorily writing a book. There’s a surfeit of local color and stereotypically colorful characters in both settings, and I had to force myself to keep going. But then Westerby receives a telegram that send him back to London, the Circus, and George Smiley. The Circus is in dire straits after the discovery of Karla’s mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the atmosphere is funereal. But Smiley and his much shrunken band of investigators discover, during their wrapping-up operations, that there may be an important Moscow agent operating in East Asia. Jerry Westerby assumes the guise of a journalist and heads off to Hong Kong, while in London Smiley puts together a team of Soviet and China hands (the former led by Connie Sachs) to pore through the records and connect whatever dots they can find.

In addition to the main two storylines, there are a number of subsidiary ones involving the raft of characters le Carré introduces. He builds a thick context with backstories not only for them, but for even minor figures who appear once or twice. Westerby’s mission is to trace the movements and relationships around Drake Ko, a prominent and powerful Chinese businessman in Hong Kong whose interests extend into China. This leads him to Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and other sites of the Vietnam War. Ko’s mistress, Lizzie Worthington, provides an avenue to other associates, and since she is beautiful, mysterious, and in jeopardy, Jerry naturally falls in love with her.

Meanwhile, back at Cambridge Circus, Smiley and his group are doing battle not only with the British foreign policy establishment (readers will note the reappearance of several characters from TTSS), but also with the Americans, known to the British as the Cousins. The Cousins were in the background before but now they are front and center, and le Carré brutally depicts the way the balance of power has shifted between the two nations and their intelligence operations. Britain is barely hanging on in Hong Kong while the US owns the Southeast Asian theater, for good or ill. Smiley is constantly battling unholy alliances between ambitious and amoral members of each side, who use the opportunity to advance personal rather than collective goals.

Where le Carré differs from so many writers of big, sprawling novels is in his ability to draw all the threads together in the end. A minor character like Lizzie’s father offers connections to a variety of more prominent players, and the set piece between Jerry Westerby and a character who was assumed dead at the beginning of the story is worth the wait. Yes, there’s a lot of research and sometimes it shows, but if you’ve read Vietnam War fiction or nonfiction, it was a complex, messy, and unpleasant time. That really comes through here.

For me le Carré’s biggest weakness is his depiction of women, and they run true to form here. Connie, while brilliant, is grotesque, and the younger women function primarily as objects of sexual desire, even when they have other assets. I read le Carré in spite of this, but if you don’t find his strengths sufficiently rewarding it might be a deal-breaker. The depiction of Asians (especially but not only the Chinese characters) is extremely stereotyped as well, so be warned. They aren’t stereotypes in place of characterization, rather in addition to characterization, but they are everywhere.

James in his review describes the prose as overblown, but I didn’t find it so. Yes, there are a few too many metaphors and lyrical turns of phrase at times, but it is a lush and messy setting, and I find the tone elegiac rather than romantic. What struck me, reading The Honourable Schoolboy forty years after it was set and written, is how prescient it is, just as le Carré’s earlier Cold War novels were prescient about the real price of the deals cut in the name of democracy and freedom. This is a Cold War novel set during a Hot War, during which power is shifting and the future is going to look very different from the present, let alone the past.

I was also struck by the parallels between The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and this novel. The settings are wildly different, the characters and modes of infiltration diverge, but at the center we have a main character who is a washed-up field agent with little to live for on one last quest. And there’s a girl to put a spanner in (all) the works. Despite being more than twice as long, you can see the questions which have motivated le Carré throughout this series of novels. On to Smiley’s People.