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Over on Twitter, there is the hashtag #fridayreads, the idea behind which is, unsurprisingly, that you should tweet what you’re reading on any given Friday. For the past few weeks, partly as a response to the fact that I seem to have very little time to write full-length reviews at the moment, I’ve been considering bringing the hashtag over here and putting up short posts about what I’m reading; and when I say ‘considering’, I mean ‘planning to but discovering that the odds of me having a spare hour to think and write about a book on a Friday are apparently zero’. On the other hand, I tend to have at least a little free time on a Sunday: hence this post, and hopefully future posts.

This week, I’m working my way through John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), in preparation for the soon-to-be-released film, apparently starring every notable male British actor currently working. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and enjoying it very much, and not envying the scriptwriter who had to make something cinematic out of what is essentially a series of long, detailed conversations interspersed with flashbacks. I have actually seen the 1979 BBC TV adaptation, but it apparently made so little impression on me that I don’t remember any of the major details of the plot, which has to do with rooting out a high-level mole, so I can’t really comment on how the transition was managed in that case; presumably in this case, and the trailer suggests as much, they are filming at least some of the flashbacks, since if they didn’t some of the big-name actors would hardly be on-screen at all.

So it has less present-tense action than the only other le Carre I’ve read — The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, earlier this year — but it shares with that novel an ability to present action without interpretation, or with only minimal interpretation (some pieces of jargon are glossed), in a way that feeds very successfully into the obsessive, furtive quality of the world le Carre is writing about. A couple of years ago I read the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow, and it now seems clear that Marias must have been much influenced by le Carre’s style in this sort of book, only pushing the ruminative aspects even more to the foreground. (I must go back and finish YFT; Fever and Spear really was very good indeed.) What le Carre conveys more than Marias, though, is a sort of entropic sense that the whole business of the Circus will always have diminishing returns, that it is eternally diminishing. I was very struck by the pity one of George Smiley’s interviewees feels for the spies: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world. You’re the last, George, you and Bill.” There’s a very particular kind of class-based nostalgia in there, and the whole novel is steeped in it, I think knowingly.

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Niall Harrison is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
8 comments comments on “Sunday Reading”
Ah - you should revisit the BBC version (but after the film probably) one of the best TV dramas ever. Amazing cast and Alec Guinness ahead of them all completely inhabiting the role of Smiley. That said the film version does look mouthwatering. I was trying to decide whether to read the book before or after the film (I'm reading all his novels in chronological order and 'Tinker…' is next on the list.) "A spy who came in…' is fantastic and I can see why it changed the whole dynamic of spy fiction back when it was published. I've had the Richard Burton film just arrive from Amazon so can't wait to watch that either. I think reading the book before the film may be the way forward tough so think I'm going to follow your lead.
I'm not sure I'm ready to put in the time to read all of le Carre -- though I do quite like the idea of reading one from each decade of his career, at least. I have A Perfect Spy on my shelf to cover off the 80s already. As for film/book vs book/film -- I actually wonder whether I'm doing this the wrong way around. It seems to me that the film will necessarily strip so much away that there would be no danger of the book feeling over-familiar, but by the same token, the film could end up feeling abbreviated if you know the book. But the early reviews are all very positive, so my fears are hopefully unfounded.
What is essentially the same story told twice is always going to suffer somewhat by dint of its repetition, I've found. And maybe I'm a bad person for making such largely arbitrary distinctions, but I have more love for the book than I do the film form, in all honesty. So my rule of thumb is book before movie -- but of course it is. Hence I'm about to get all up in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy myself; baby's first le Carre, actually. And after years of hearing how there's no-one better at what he does than the gent himself, I have hopes. But it's part of a series, isn't it? You haven't found that to be an issue at all, have you other Niall?
Not at all; I get the impression it's more that there's a continuing continuity than that there's continuing plot per se.
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