The Honourable Schoolboy
by John le Carré
Knopf, 533 pp., $10.95
Le Carré’s new novel is about twice as long as it should be. It falls with a dull thud into the second category of le Carré’s books—those which are greeted as being something more than merely entertaining. Their increasingly obvious lack of mere entertainment is certainly strong evidence that le Carré is out to produce a more respectable breed of novel than those which fell into the first category, the ones which were merely entertaining. But in fact it was the merely entertaining books that had the more intense life.
The books in the first category—and le Carré might still produce more of them, if he can only bring himself to distrust the kind of praise he has grown used to receiving—were written in the early and middle Sixties. They came out at the disreputably brisk rate of one a year. Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962), The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), and The Looking Glass War (1965) were all tightly controlled efforts whose style, characterization, and atmospherics were subordinate to the plot, which was the true hero. Above all, they were brief: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is not even half the length of the ponderous whopper currently under review.
Elephantiasis, of ambition as well as reputation, set in during the late Sixties, when A Small Town in Germany (1968) inaugurated the second category. Not only was it more than merely entertaining, but it was, according to the New Stateman’s reviewer, “at least a masterpiece.” After an unpopular but instantly forgiven attempt at a straight novel (The Naïve and Sentimental Lover), the all-conquering onward march of the more than merely entertaining spy story was resumed with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), which was routinely hailed as the best thriller le Carré had written up to that time.
The Honourable Schoolboy brings the second sequence to a heavy apotheosis. A few brave reviewers have expressed doubts about whether some of the elements which supposedly enrich le Carré’s later manner might not really be a kind of impoverishment, but generally the book has been covered with praise—a response not entirely to be despised, since The Honourable Schoolboy is so big that it takes real effort to cover it with anything. At one stage I tried to cover it with a pillow, but there it was, still half visible, insisting, against all the odds posed by its coagulated style, on being read to the last sentence.
The last sentence comes 530 pages after the first, whose tone of myth-making portent is remorselessly adhered to throughout. “Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London’s secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin.” The Dolphin case history, it emerges with stupefying gradualness, is concerned with the Circus (i.e., the British Secret Service) getting back on its feet after the catastrophic effect of its betrayal by …