I can’t forget John le Carre’s description of spymaster George Smiley catching a glimpse of his wife Ann cheating on him.
The scene came to my mind as I read the obituaries of John le Carre, who died on December 12 at the age of 89.
Le Carre was the TS Eliot of spy fiction. Bleak, literary, romantic, his tales of espionage expressed thoughts and feelings hauntingly. The stories were complex but moved with cinematic grace — vividly and fluidly.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his third novel and first bestseller, published in 1963, was before my time. I read it much later.
But Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974, was one of the biggest bestsellers of my youth.
However, the scene that has stayed with me all these years is from the sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — The Honourable Schoolboy, published in 1977, the second novel in the Karla trilogy chronicling the British spymaster George Smiley’s covert war with his Soviet counterpart, Karla.
In The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley is estranged from his wife. He is staying in his office. To quote from the book, “he has set up camp in the meagre attics behind his throne-room in the Circus”.
Setting out for a walk one evening, however, he is drawn to his house and catches his wife cheating on him. The passage is worth quoting because of the vividness and beauty of le Carre’s prose:
He was approaching the King’s Road in Chelsea. The fog was heavier because of the closeness of the river. Above him the globes of streetlights hung like Chinese lanterns in the bare branches of the trees. The traffic was sparse and cautious. Crossing the road he followed the pavement till he came to Bywater Street and turned into it, a cut-de-sac of neat flat-fronted terrace cottages. He trod discreetly now, keeping to the western side, and the shadow of the parked cars. It was the cocktail hour, and in the other windows he saw talking heads and shrieking, silent mouths. Some he recognised, some she even had names for: Felix the cat, Lady Macbeth, the Puffer. He drew level with his own house. For their return, she had had the shutters painted blue and they were blue still. The curtains were open because she hated to be enclosed. She sat alone at her escritoire, and she might have composed the scene deliberately: the beautiful and conscientious wife, ending her day, attends to matters of administration. She was listening to music, and he caught the echo of it carried on the fog. Sibelius. He wasn’t good at music, but he knew all her records and he had several times praised the Sibelius out of politeness. He couldn’t see the gramophone but he knew it lay on the floor, where it had lain for Bill Haydon when she was trailing her affair with him. He wondered whether the German dictionary lay beside it, and her anthology of German poetry. Several times, over the last decade or two, usually during reconciliations, she had made a show of learning German so that Smiley would be able to read aloud to her.
As he watched, she got up, crossed the room, paused in front of the pretty gilt mirror to adjust her hair. The notes she wrote to herself were jammed into the frame. What was it this time? he wondered. Blast garage. Cancel lunch. Destroy butcher. Sometimes, when things were tense, she had sent him messages that way: force George to smile, apologise insincerely for lapse In very bad times, she wrote whole letters to him, and posted them there for his collection.
To his surprise, she had put out the light. He heard the bolts slide on the front door. Drop the chain, he thought automatically. Double lock… How many times do I have to tell you the bolts are as weak as the screws that hold them in place? Odd all the same: he had somehow supposed she would leave the bolts open in case he might return. Then the bedroom light went on, and he saw her body framed in silhouette in the window as, angel-like, she stretched her arms to the curtains. She drew them almost to her, stopped, and momentarily he feared she had seen him, till he remembered her short-sightedness and her refusal to wear glasses. She’s going out, he thought. She’s going to doll herself up. He saw her head half turn as if she had been addressed. He saw her lips move, and break into a puckish smiles her arms lifted again, this time to the back of her neck, and she began to unfasten the top button of her housecoat. In the same moment, the gap between the curtains was abruptly closed by other, impatient hands.
Oh no, thought Smiley hopelessly. Please! Wait till I’ve gone!
For a minute, perhaps longer, standing on the pavement, he stared in disbelief at the blacked-out window, till anger, shame and finally self-disgust broke in him together like a physical anguish and he turned and hurried blindly back towards the King’s Road. Who was it this time? Another beardless ballet dancer, performing some narcissistic ritual? Her vile cousin Miles, the career politician? Or a one-night Adonis spirited from the nearby pub?
We don’t know what Smiley does after seeing his wife cheating on him. The author cuts away to another scene. Peter Guillam, Smiley’s lieutenant — described as his “cup-bearer” by le Carre — has a subordinate following Smiley on his walk. Fawn the subordinate calls Guillam to tell him he can no longer see Smiley.
“I’ve lost him!” he shouted. “He’s bilked me!”
“Then you’re a bloody idiot,” Guillam retorted with satisfaction.
“Idiot nothing! He heads for home, right? Our usual ritual. I’m waiting for him. I stand off, he’s coming back to the main road. Looks at me. Like I’m dirt. Just dirt. Next thing I know I’m on my own. How does he do it? Where does he go? I’m his friend aren’t I? Who the hell does he think he is? Fat little runt, I’ll kill him!”
Guillam was still laughing as he rang off.
Smiley’s relationship with his wife is not integral to the story. The Honourable Schoolboy, partly set in Hong Kong, is about Russian money, a Chinese businessman, his English mistress, and a newspaper reporter who is also one of Smiley’s secret agents– The Honourable Schoolboy of the title.
Not everyone comes through alive.
Smiley is back in his “little house” in Bywater Street at the end of the novel — but not with his wife. Ann is in Wiltshire. Guillam “called on her in Wiltshire in the hope of bringing about a reconciliation”, writes le Carre, but “the mission failed”.
Guillam remains hopeful, though, to the end of the story.
These days, he says, the old boy is much more himself.
Occasionally he and Ann have lunches, and Guillam personally is convinced that they will simply get together one day and that will be that.