John Le Carré Lines I Wish Were About Me
One of the most truly satisfying pleasures about Le Carré (and there are many!) is reading myself into one of his suite of conspicuously-unprepossessing Men Behind the Scenes, who are designed to radiate secret, overlooked-yet-terrifying competence. George Smiley is their king, obviously, but they’re all a delight. It’s not unlike reading a Sweet Valley High book — just as I might have picked up the latter at ten in order to read, yet again, a minute and loving description of the Wakefield Dioscuri’s flawless size-six body, her fashion-plate wardrobe, her sun-kissed skin and sun-drenched hair, I pick up the former at thirty-four in order to luxuriate in a sense of superiority catching a Le Carré junior officer underestimating a man in a well-cut yet nondescript suit. “You fool!” I chortle heartily to myself. “He’s the most dangerous man of all! That’s just like me!”
There are few fantasies I like better than the fantasy that I am always being underestimated. Watch out, world!! You’re about to find out just how secretly terrifying my genius for spycraft has always been! It’s “she doesn’t even realize how beautiful she is,” in a slightly different key, or Elizabeth Wakefield and George Smiley producing the same tune on two very different pianos.
“His hands were large and powerful, he had the trunk and stance of a wrestler, but he spoke slowly, with a Dorset burr to his soft voice. Smiley quickly noticed that he had one quality rare among small men: the quality of openness. Though his eyes were dark and bright and the movements of his body swift, he imparted a feeling of honesty and straight dealing.”
Oh, Danny? Well, I’ve never given it much thought, but I guess if I had to describe him, I’d say that he has large and powerful hands. Probably if he wears a signet-style thumb ring, he doesn’t look like a ska magician, but an immensely effective Medici prince. He carries himself not merely like an athlete, but like a wrestler — someone who trusts implicitly in the sagacity of the body, someone who can rely upon core strength and not merely a lot of showy chest and bicep muscles. Radiates honesty and straightforwardness, although you’d be a fool to think him any less bright for his open-handedness. Rare among small men — are you surprised to learn that he’s a small man? Don’t be. He has no time for such surprises — he knows how to be small well. Not just well, brilliantly. He is small in the same way the black box of an airplane is small, composed exclusively of necessity and nothing more. And a pleasant Midwestern burr to his voice. Nothing self-consciously folksy about it.
“My dear Brim,
As soon as I arrived I handed your letter over to the CID man in charge of the case—it was Rigby, as Ben had supposed: he looks like a mixture of Humpty-Dumpty and a Cornish elf—very short and broad—and I don’t think he’s anyone’s fool.”
We were right to assume that Daniel was in charge of the whole thing. Don’t be put off by his whimsical, madcap appearance that bespeaks something of the carnivalesque and something of Enkidu — The Magician, yes, but also Judgment, the Emperor, Justice.
“One crowd, led by a blimpish fellow in charge of microphone transcription, went so far as to claim that the fitting date was some sixty years ago, when “that arch-cad Bill Haydon” was born into the world under a treacherous star. Haydon’s very name struck a chill into them. It does so even today. For it was this same Haydon who, while still at Oxford, was recruited by Karla the Russian as a “mole” or “sleeper”—or, in English, agent of penetration—to work against them. And who with Karla’s guidance entered their ranks and spied on them for thirty years or more.
To less-flowery minds, the true genesis was Haydon’s unmasking by George Smiley and Smiley’s consequent appointment as caretaker chief of the betrayed service, which occurred in the late November of 1973. Once George had got Karla under his skin, they said, there was no stopping him; the rest was inevitable. Poor old George: but what a mind under all that burden!
Oh, to be both the arch-cad who outfoxed the world that thought it birthed me and the great, burdened mind that produces inevitabilities! To be both Javert and Valjean, tireless in pursuit and deception both, always pursued and pursuing, always pouring sugar in the gasoline-tank of the global war-engine and always bringing wayward brothers to heel!
Peter Guillam fielded this loose ball. Guillam is tall and tough and graceful, and probationers awaiting first posting tend to look up to him as some sort of Greek god.
Yes, yes, you’ll get over it — thinking I’m some sort of Greek god is an unavoidable part of the onboarding process at work. The sooner you move past it, the better. I’m always having to reassure junior colleagues that I’m actually more interesting and complicated than a Greek god. I only seem perfect, I’m actually very dangerous and complicated, which is definitely worse than being perfect. Oh, I’m so tired of being always thought perfect on first blush by my many hangers-on!!
“Whereupon the conversation returned once more to the topic of dear old George Smiley, surely the last of the true greats, and what was he doing with himself these days, back in retirement? So many lives he had led; so much to recollect in tranquillity, they agreed. “George went five times round the moon to our one,” someone declared loyally, a woman. Ten times, they agreed. Twenty! Fifty! With hyperbole, Westerby’s shadow mercifully receded. As in a sense, so did George Smiley’s.”
If there’s one thing I’m more tired of than being always thought perfect (please, I’m just a man like you!) by my junior colleagues, it’s how often my contemporaries gather together at exciting, internationally-frequented watering holes in order to recollect my manifold legacies at leisure, toasting often to my many successes! It makes me less real to them, in a sense, to praise me as they do, and yet I think they feel safer the less real I appear. They need the myth of Me. Let them have it.
“When you knew he played tennis, it was hard to think of him doing anything else, even drinking. You imagined him at the net, uncoiling and smashing everything to kingdom come; or serving aces between double faults.”
Please! Please, my good friends, you embarrass me — I must implore you to stop visualizing my cobra-like victory on the tennis courts, to stop imagining the perfect tensile strength of my beauty as I smash everything around me into glorious, heavenly oblivion. Think of me doing something else for once!
“She had seen it with Englishmen before, but the schoolboy was in a class by himself, and she distrusted him; she held him dangerous through his restless charm. Today, of course, one could put down those early failings to the eccentricity of a noble English writer, but at the time the postmistress had shown him no such indulgence.”
Canny Italian women who command profound social respect in their villages are always revising their estimations of me once they realize I’m in a class by myself! Then they want to be terribly tender with me, on account of having been self-protectively intolerant towards me upon our first meeting, poor things.
“He tried at first to see Haydon in the romantic newspaper terms of a thirties intellectual, for whom Moscow was the natural Mecca. “Moscow was Bill’s discipline,” he told himself. “He needed the symmetry of an historical and economic solution.” This struck him as too sparse, so he added more of the man whom he was trying to like: “Bill was a romantic and a snob. He wanted to join an elitist vanguard and lead the masses out of darkness.”
Then he remembered the half-finished canvases in the girl’s drawing-room in Kentish Town: cramped, over-worked, and condemned. He remembered also the ghost of Bill’s authoritarian father—Ann had called him simply the Monster—and he imagined Bill’s Marxism making up for his inadequacy as an artist and for his loveless childhood. Later, of course, it hardly mattered if the doctrine wore thin. Bill was set on the road and Karla would know how to keep him there. Treason is very much a matter of habit, Smiley decided, seeing Bill again stretched out on the floor in Bywater Street, while Ann played him music on the gramophone.
Bill had loved it, too. Smiley didn’t doubt that for a moment. Standing at the middle of a secret stage, playing world against world, hero and playwright in one: oh, Bill had loved that, all right.”
Ahahahaha! That’s me!! Puzzle on my many contradictions, brother-shadow-rival-father-lover-enemy! If you are Alexander, I am the Gordian Knot — slice me, fuck me up, but you’ll never solve me, will you?
“From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability from which neither Tarr’s story nor the rare interjections of Lacon and Guillam could rouse him. He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. His interjection, however, and the donnish, inane sound that followed Guillam’s explanation, now acted like a signal upon the rest of the gathering, bringing a shuffling of chairs and a clearing of throats.”
The thing people are always forgetting about me is my Buddha-like inscrutability!!! Why does his smallest gesture act on me so powerfully, they ask themselves, as he is not physically imposing? And yet look at you — acted upon! Imposed upon! Feeling my secret power! I look like a retired bird, and yet I have only to clear my throat, and you scatter, half-ashamed of yourself as if you’d been caught sleeping in church! Who is this man, and what sceptres have the powers and principalities of Heaven empowered him to wield? I’ll never reveal my secrets!
From The Honourable Schoolboy, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
[Image via Getty]