Back from the Cold


George Smiley came into the world as a very different kind of spy, one perfectly adapted to the crepuscular realm of cold war intrigue. He appeared the same year as the Berlin Wall in Call for the Dead (1961), the first novel by his creator, John le Carré. The book is a rather modest murder mystery set in London against a background of East–West espionage, its palette dominated by woolly browns and smoggy grays and the embers of wan coal fires. It begins with a brief chapter devoted entirely to the main character:

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad…that fleshy, bespectacled face puckered in energetic concentration as he read so deeply among the lesser German poets, the chubby wet hands clenched beneath the tumbling sleeves.

Smiley, we are told, has somehow made a glittering marriage to a glamorous aristocrat, Lady Ann Sercomb, who genuinely adores him. Yet not long after their wedding she reveals herself to be a serial adulteress:

That part of Smiley which survived was as incongruous to his appearance as love, or a taste for unrecognised poets: it was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer.

We learn that Smiley spent World War II running his own agent networks inside Germany under various cover identities, and found his true vocation in the job—even if “he had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long.”

Small wonder that some critics saw Smiley as the “anti-Bond.” Ian Fleming had created his own trademark spy in Casino Royale (1953). But he quickly discovered, in a reflection of just how little the actual cold war lent itself to his character’s macho antics, that his readers seemed to enjoy 007 more the more garish his plots became, and he soon abandoned those boring Russians for cartoon characters like Goldfinger, Blofeld, and their ilk.

Smiley, by contrast, remained firmly anchored in the gritty reality of a great-power conflict that by its nature produced few clear victories. He continued to crop up in le Carré’s next novels, most notably in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), the book that transformed its author into a global literary celebrity. Yet one can argue that Smiley revealed his full potential as a character in the three great novels that are nowadays known as the “Karla trilogy.” Together they tell a story that revolves around le Carré’s mythologized version of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (sometimes known as MI6), referred to in the books as “the Circus” (taken from the imagined location of its headquarters on Cambridge Circus in London1). The Circus is a dingy civil service purgatory, an “Edwardian mausoleum” adorned with chipped fire extinguishers from the Ministry of Works, creaky cage elevators, and…

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