Once in a while there comes a book which rather takes over. Other books being read (of which I usually have a few) get abandoned. The book dominates, and it is only possible to hope it’s fairly short- before people notice that they are getting ignored.
One of these books, happily not a long work, is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre. Often seen as the classic spy novel, it famously was written in six weeks while le Carre (the nom de plume of David Cornwall) was still working in the Intelligence service. As some one said to me,”although it’s years since I read the book, some of the images stay with me”. It opens with a planned escape from East Germany via a checkpoint on the Berlin Wall. I remember student tales of those who had visited Berlin during the Cold War, and watching the Wall fall just before baby no. 2 was born. Trying to teach a particularly unresponsive group of year elevens about the siege of Berlin was not a memory I’ll dwell on; those teenagers were not easily impressed with anything, let alone the plight of a long gone regime in their eyes.
It maybe the spontaneity of the novel which gives it the bite. Certainly it has colour: the grey of postwar London, the grimness of life in a world without luxuries. The story of the hero, Lemas, in his assumed world of poverty, bitterness and betrayal is only briefly cheered by his relationship with Liz. People are challenging, exhibiting differing loyalties and obsessions which twist and turn so the reader finds herself as bewildered as probably intended. Smiley makes a shadowy appearance, for keen le Carre readers the first of many. Even the rural scenes which do sort of intrude are not comforting but threatening.
This is not a depressing book. Exciting, even exhilarating, and certainly not as wordy and confusing as some of le Carre’ later works. Having seem his last tv interview, he claims, on Channel Four this evening, le Carre recognises that this is his main book, the book on which he stands or falls. This is a spare, yet descriptive book, more approachable than Tinker, Tailor or the far more recent The Mission Song. My daughter rated the film The Constant Gardener very highly; it represents what le Carre wrote to protest about when the Cold War was finished. I think that the reissue of The Spy is to coincide with le Carre’s new book Our Kind of Traitor, which I may try and get hold of asap.
This is not just a spy novel, although it may have started the genre, it is a picture of a man caught up with forces that he may or may not control. It is not a novel to be limited by descriptions of a boys own book, or a spy procedure book. It is the sort of book which transcends that. If you can only imagine reading one spy novel, I think it should be this one. But if you do abandon everything else, or get hopelessly hooked on le Carre, it’s not my fault!