More than 50 years after making his literary debut, le Carré’s beloved character returns in a new novel.
True confession. I hold novelist John le Carré’s greatest creation, the spy George Smiley, in such high regard that I named my dog after him. My corgi is not nearly as smart as George Smiley, and he doesn’t have George’s paunch. The name is a pure and heartfelt tribute to a character that has given me endless hours of pleasure over many years of reading.
George Smiley, the master spy in le Carré’s espionage universe, appears in many of the author’s novels, including “A Legacy of Spies,” the author’s latest, which publishes Sept. 5 (look for a review in next week’s Seattle Times). In “Legacy,” in a story told mostly in retrospect, George, a man with “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin,” is still in the spy game.
Le Carré, a former agent of the British intelligence service, created a world of spies and spying so compelling that real spies now use his made-up terminology — he was the first in the West to use the word “mole” for a “penetrative” agent, a spy embedded in an intelligence service who is actually spying for the enemy. George Smiley, a tormented Englishman with an anguished heart and a will of iron, is the moral center of this amoral world. As one of Smiley’s spies says of his boss: “not a natural player of the spying game, George. Don’t know how he got himself into it. Took it all on his own shoulders. Can’t do that in our trade. Can’t feel all the other chaps’ pain as well as your own. Not if you want to carry on.”
But George did carry on. Here’s a list of books and movies with stories that turn on George’s brilliance, his dogged determination and his much-tested love of England:
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“Call for the Dead” (1961) and “A Murder of Quality” (1962). Smiley made his debut appearance in “Call for the Dead” and its follow-up. Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, was still working for British intelligence when he wrote these early books (hence the pen name), and his conflicted views of his work shaped his creation of Smiley. George actually resigns in protest from the service in “Call” — the first of several such resignations/retirements over several books — but not before unraveling an East German spy ring. In “Murder” he’s still out to pasture, studying German literature at a university in England’s West Country, when he’s recruited to investigate a murder at a British public (actually private) school.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963). This devastating story made le Carré’s name as an author. Alec Leamas, a hardened British spy on the verge of retirement, is asked by his masters to mount one last charade in the service of unmasking a traitor in their midst. In the scheme Alec appears to have been fired by British intelligence, becomes an alcoholic and even goes to jail, in hopes of convincing the East German intelligence service that he’s a ripe prospect for defection.
Leamas does all the right things …cept falling in love. George Smiley is a witness to the tragic outcome. “Spy” was the anti-James Bond book of the 1960s — its harsh Cold War perspective shocked and enthralled readers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was made into an equally dark movie of the same name, released in 1965 and starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas. Le Carré’s new book, “A Legacy of Spies,” takes up Leamas’ story with a new twist, many years later.
Smiley briefly appeared in the author’s fourth novel, 1965’s “The Looking Glass War,” but he largely retired to the nether regions of the author’s imagination. When he re-emerged, he was at the center of what many readers believe is le Carré’s greatest work, the Karla trilogy. These three books — “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974), “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977) and “Smiley’s People” (1979) — tell the story of Smiley’s struggle to unmask a mole in British intelligence.
In the story arc, Smiley has been forced out of the intelligence service, but he’s brought back after a catastrophe — the murder of scores of British secret agents in Eastern Europe, a horrific event set in motion by a mole within the service. He is recruited to track down the traitor, a character based in part on real-life British spy and traitor Kim Philby. The mole is being run by Karla, a shadowy puppet master in Soviet intelligence who has spent his professional life studying Smiley. A titanic battle of wits ensues — the suspense is unbearable and the story is heartbreaking.
After the Karla trilogy, with the exception of one appearance in 1990s “The Secret Pilgrim,” Smiley retired from the field. The author went on to write about other things — the illegal world of arms sales (“The Night Manager”) and the rapacious practices of Big Pharma (“The Constant Gardener”) among them. But Smiley lived on, notably in British actor Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Smiley in two television series produced by the BBC, 1979’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and 1982’s “Smiley’s People.”
In 2012 New Yorker film critic David Denby called Guinness’ performance “one of the great literary-cinematic creations of the postwar era, an actor’s masterpiece.” Like Denby, I am an obsessive rewatcher of these masterworks and revisit them every year or so. Le Carré has said that Guinness’ portrayal of Smiley was so effective, in his own mind it became his version of Smiley as well.
There was one more George Smiley movie appearance — virtuoso actor Gary Oldman played him in a 2011 remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Benedict Cumberbatch played Peter Guillam, Smiley’s loyal lieutenant and the narrator of le Carré’s new novel. The remake was favorably reviewed, but to me Alec Guinness will always be George Smiley.
Finally, if you want to know the personal story behind all these works of the imagination, check out two books: le Carré’s 2016 memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel” and the 2015 biography of the author by Adam Sisman, “John le Carré.”