This past summer I re-read Smiley’s People, which I vaguely remember reading as a kid, years before I managed to actually be able to appreciate John Le Carréand his work with The Spy Who Came In From The Coldand Tinker, Tailor, Soldiers, Spy.
Commonly-thought of as the “anti-Bond,” Le Carré’s Smiley is everything we ignore about the people around us. He is short and dumpy, in plain and oft-times ill-fitting clothing. He wears glasses, he’s quiet, and in the bits and pieces of his past that we learn, he’s an academic with an unremarkable background except for how he has somehow, naturally, slipped into the role of spycraft and skullduggery with an alarmingly-easy comfort. The author describes Smiley as having the air of an academic, and indeed, his recruitment into espionage was through academic circles, an odd contrast with the image that we have of spies being some form of soldier. Smiley isn’t a soldier, not in a conventional sense. He’s a modular device, meant to easily fit into various machines, do what is needed, and then be removed and move on without ever being remembered, not drive, but all function.
Le Carré worked specifically to create a “realistic” world in his writings, primarily influenced by his own work during the Cold War. In his world, in his own work, and in overall history, so much of we think of when it comes to spies and espionage runs counter to what pop culture had and has continued to tell us, that it’s a constant game of cat and mouse full of cut-throats and monsters who hold the fate of the world in their hands. It’s why our favorite fictional spies are martial arts badasses, brute killers who don’t abide by the rules, soldiers who disdain stealth and tradition and whose ever action has some form of huge consequence for the better. Every James Bond mission is life- and civilization-threatening, a situation only Bond and Bond alone can thwart through skullduggery and brute force. However, Le Carré and Smiley, moreso than any James Bond-esque gadget or Jason Bourne innate skill/combat technique recognized the most valuable weapon at someone’s disposal, which was anonymity. It, more than any gun or knife or poison, was the greatest weapon to strive for using perfectly. Anyone knowing who you were outside of the carefully-crafts and limiting shell you presented as a social necessity was a failure on your part, entirely. Men like Bond would have been tools of brains like Smiley, “scalphunters” to use the parlance of the author himself, needing unseen hands to guide them. Otherwise, they’re useless on their own with little to no direction, floating like kites festooned with broken glass. On their own, they’re dangerous to everyone and anyone involved.
It’s only through the shabby everymen of administration, of careful and slow information gathering, that heroic figures like Bond, as hyperfictional as it gets, could get anything done. In Smiley’s Circus, scalphunters are lowest of the low in terms of “agents,” and treated as such. While we might consider all these types of people “spies,” in reality the definitions of who did and who does what for who is much, much more fluid than that, born of the boom of civil service’s love affair with compartmentalization and bureaucracy as well as slow grind of modernization creating new social classes. All of them are small, shabby, unobservable, unknown.
Even Smiley’s “nemesis” Karla in Smiley’s People brings his own downfall to fruition by breaching his own anonymity, ultimately, in trying to maintain that sacred of states for his illegitimate daughter. Smiley, in turning Karla, “wins” by bringing in one of the few to ever truly breach his metaphorical castle walls and strike at the true person beyond them, in the way that Karla did the same to Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Also, that weapon? More often than not, it was being used for something that you’d never see the outcome of, if there even was an outcome. The Cold War was, in reality, not just a game of cat and mouse, of standoffs and back and forths, but a game of pointless gestures, of sacrifices to hollow causes. Smiley himself is sacrificed over and over again, just like he sacrificed the lives and careers and souls of so many others. Le Carré’s 2017 A Legacy Of Spiesis specifically about the sacrifices of the Cold War coming back to haunt those involved in a way that breaches the unspoken membrane of decorum that “the Circus” clung to.
That desperate attempt to hold some sort of decorum and hierarchy and set of traditions in defiance, almost blindly, of the actual boring, tedious, unethical, and outright dirty work of Cold War espionage is a prime example of what was going on domestically as documented in noir/crime fiction. After all, what is a spy but a private eye that goes overseas for the government? And what is a spy but a private eye with a steady paycheck and some memory of one time being a patriot?
Smiley’s noir sensibilities also reflects the new fluidity of the middle class, with so many of his protagonists occupying that space between the moneyed elite in charge and the simple civilians they protect. No, Smiley and Toby Esterhase, Connie Sachs, that whole gang, they’re in-between. In being that in-between, in seeing the world change around them, sometimes because of them and sometimes despite them, they recognize how they’re not shielded from it. Sure, those in charge at “Circus” might have the socioeconomic pull to maintain a social standard of living and authority they’re used to for a while, but it’s the end of the line for that sort of position. That middle, those who worked there that did the bulk of the work, took the bulk of the risks, and therefore bore all of the burdens, they’re the actual future. It’s ironic that in this, the worlds of Smiley and Bond finally intersect in creating the nameless and ultimately replaceable supervisors who run agencies but have ultimately no say or control over day-to-day operations. Those in the trenches, they’re the actual protagonists, and slowly, like all good noir characters, they find themselves either as parts of the machine, or the pointless aftereffects of its workings.
It’s no surprise that so much of espionage fiction intersects with crime fiction. Writers like Le Carré in particular managed to convey so much futility and confusion about an incredibly fluid time in world history, in the same way that someone like Chandler tried to make sense of this cowardly new world he was faced with under hot sun and the weight of uncertainty. There’s less hot sun and more spooky fog for spies, but the uncertainty is definitely something they share. After all, just as Marlowe or Spade are unsure how to get out of their jams, Smiley’s uncertain how anything he does matters in the long run.