Toby: George, do me a favour, okay? If you want a Hungarian babysitter someday, call me. If you go messing around with creeps like Kirov and Leipzig, you better have a creep like Toby to look after you. You’re an old spy in a hurry, George. You used to say they were the worst.
George: Oh, they are, Toby, they are.
There are too few episodes of the original BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People to binge on, so I play those few over and over. I always stop at the scene in the art gallery. Replay. Replay. Toby is out of the “Circus” (MI6) and has become Signor Bernardi, seller of fake art. George wants to know why a statue supposedly by Degas is not numbered. Toby says “It’s a very grey area.”
What is it about these two, played by Alec Guinness and the also god-like Bernard Hepton, that so enthrals me? Oddly enough, I have met a good many people who served in intelligence or lived on the edges of it. I am now writing a biography of the novelist and sometime MI6 agent Graham Greene, and this makes it necessary for me to read armfuls of biographies and memoirs of cold-war spies – what St. Paul would refer to as a mushroom-cloud of witnesses.
A few years ago, I interviewed John le Carré (pseudonym of David Cornwell) at his home near a cliff in Cornwall. In the early 60s, Graham Greene promoted the young novelist, claiming that The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the best spy story ever written. Later, the two fell out over Greene’s public support for the double agent and defector Kim Philby, whom Cornwell, himself an ex-MI6 officer, regarded simply as a “shit”, someone naturally disposed to betrayal. I suppose I bored Cornwell – I was yet another fellow with a recording device. After a few minutes of awkward q. and a., I showed him a letter Philby once wrote to Graham Greene, saying how he had read all le Carré’s books but hated The Honorable Schoolboy. After that, I think Cornwell got interested. I spent another couple of hours with him and his family, talking about spies, war crimes, and cricket. And the Philby letter was duly dispatched to Cornwell’s biographer.
But, again, why do we care so much about spies? Homer did not need wiretaps. There is no micro-photography in the Aeneid. And yet, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, John le Carré and any number of others have written epics of the secret world. Our century believes that battles are fought largely in darkness. Behind each bullet is a long line of gadgets and codes reaching to some far-away desktop where the betrayal really happens and the trigger is pulled. Once in a while a great act of public heroism matters – say, Boris Yeltsin going to meet the tanks on 19 August 1991 – but the secret world is never long in eclipse. What we have now is Vladimir Putin, his FSB hackers, and, their protégé, Donald Trump.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Philby-like Bill Haydon (played by Ian Richardson) says to Smiley, “I still believe the secret services are the only real expression of a nation’s character.” We don’t have to believe all Haydon says, but Smiley’s answers are tentative and somewhat resigned. Guinness is praised for saying almost nothing when he played George Smiley – acting by small gestures: wiping his glasses, lighting a cigarette, looking uncomfortable in a love seat. I think Le Carré’s point is that the learned, brokenhearted Smiley is close to a saint in this ugly world. But then, he is a hard read. It seems that he is partly driven by a lasting rage against the treachery of his profession and his wife’s infidelities. An old friend from the circus, Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid) describes George as the kind of man who has “fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold and deep-frozen.” But the England he was meant to serve no longer exists. Smiley is a paragon without relevance.
In captivity, King Lear tells Cordelia that they would “take upon’s the mystery of things, /As if we were God’s spies …” Le Carré holds no faith, but his books are racked with a religious yearning. In Smiley’s People, one young spy is so horrified at the murder of an Estonian expatriate that he leaves the Circus and enters a Franciscan friary near Ipswich – which is, as a senior spy observes,“A cold bloody spot to pray.” When Smiley traces the schizophrenic daughter of the Soviet spymaster “Karla” (Patrick Stewart) to a Swiss sanatorium she tells him he is a very dangerous man as he represents the forgiveness of the authorities. Then, she asks, “Are you God?” When Smiley leaves she is distraught, throwing herself on his car – it is as if her universe is being emptied. I am convinced that in an age with no flames to keep, some scrap of religious culture makes a last stand in literary spy novels. Almost always, the plot turns on treachery. If you cannot believe in the empty tomb, you can at least believe in Judas Iscariot.
For most of their careers Karla and Smiley probe each other’s weaknesses. In Smiley’s case, it is his wife Anne, who betrays him repeatedly with, among others, Bill Haydon who is acting on Karla’s orders. Indeed, Karla keeps as a trophy a lighter Anne gave to Smiley. It is inscribed with a message of love, and as Smiley observes, “It was just an ordinary Ronson. Still, they were meant to last, weren’t they?” In time, Smiley finds out the one person Karla loves and is able to blackmail him. When the spymaster defects in order to safeguard his daughter, he acts out of love rather than ideology. Karla crosses a bridge from East Germany and then wordlessly tosses the lighter at Smiley’s feet. Having himself lost all hope of love, Smiley leaves it there.