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Tag: classic novels

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

I’ve been slowly rereading all the Smiley novels by John le Carré. I first started reading them in college, so decades ago, and I reread them all a couple of times after that, but my more recent le Carré reading has been limited to the post-Smiley books, e.g., The Tailor of Panama, A Perfect Spy, and The Night Manager. When he brought back Smiley in A Legacy of Spies a couple of years ago, I realized that I didn’t want to read it until I had Smiley firmly fixed in my head again. I don’t like glomming authors anymore because it makes me too aware of their tics and lessens my reading pleasure. So Legacy languishes on my bookshelf while I make my way through the decades.

I took a good-sized break between A Small Town in Germany and TTSS, but then once I picked up the latter I read it in less than a week. My memory of reading it is patchy. I remembered the Big Reveal, of course, and Smiley and Ann’s estrangement, and Connie Sachs stuck in my head. But despite having seen the miniseries twice and the recent film, that was about it. In earlier readings, including rereads, I would often get lost in the puzzles. The first time I read it I was speeding through to find out what happened. The next times were slower, but I would still miss things.

This time, though, I had the almost perfect reading experience. I had a sense of familiarity as every character appeared on the stage, and I followed every twist and turn. It’s a fantastic story. Le Carré based it on the Cambridge Five, and his mole, Gerald, very much resembles them. We know from almost the beginning that Gerald is someone high up in the Circus (the spy agency, named that because it’s located at Cambridge Circus in London). The question is, which one of the handful of top men is he? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Beggarman, or someone else?

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Reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim

It took me a very long time to start this book, and I only did because a friend wanted to do a buddy read (thanks Sirius!). I remember it being assigned in high school (not to my class) and everyone complained about it, so I thought it was one of those endless, description-laden books where no one is likable. It is definitely description-laden; Conrad never met a similar or metaphor he couldn’t use. But it turned out to be compulsively readable. Who knew?

It’s beautifully written and far more accessible than I expected. Even though it is wordy and descriptively dense, it draws you in and you just keep going. The structure is unusual; almost the entire story is related by Conrad’s favorite narrator, Marlow. So you almost never see a character POV, and yet you come to know them all, at least somewhat. Conrad’s portraits are so beautifully observed, even when the characterization embraces a stereotype (e.g. in the case of Jewel, the young woman who falls in love with Jim and whom Jim loves), there are flashes of insight and respect in the depiction.

The writing style feels late Victorian, but the subject is entirely modernist. It’s a character study, but it’s also about fate, redemption, and imperialism/colonialism. It’s not a book for readers who can’t tolerate the High Imperial view of the colonized; they mostly wind up being infantilized and are always seen through the eyes of their colonizers, with all the expected shortcomings therein. But Conrad is no Kipling. He shows you the excesses and distortions of the imperialist project, and there are no unalloyed heroes here. Jim comes closest, and his heroism grows out of his great act of cowardice.

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