Musical Accompaniment: The Decemberists – “The Bagman’s Gambit”
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution in 2011, I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through the list that year, so I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through to try and eventually finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I read before starting two years ago. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.
“Leamas watched him take a cigarette from the box on the table, and light it. He noticed two things: that Peters was left-handed, and that once again he had put the cigarette in his mouth with the makers’ name away from him, so that it burnt first. It was a gesture that Leamas liked: it indicated that Peters, like himself, had been on the run.”
The Elevator Pitch: Alec Leamas is coming off of a disastrous operation in Berlin, just as the Iron Curtain is about to seal off half the city’s inhabitants. The master of Berlin Station, Leamas is an intelligence agent for the British Government who sees his latest operation against the Soviets go up in flames, as his best agent is gunned down at the checkpoint between the two worlds. Now, with nothing left for him, Leamas is given a chance for revenge by Control: pose as an agent at the end of his rope who’s looking to defect, get close to the East German intelligence officer who called for the death of his agent, and take him out.
What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: I didn’t really know much about le Carre going in to this book. I knew that he was basically the go-to guy for realistic Cold War stories, and that a lot of his books were turned into movies. I saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the theatre and really enjoyed it, so I was really looking forward to digging into this book when I got around to it. I was not disappointed.
Thoughts: Hello again. It’s been quite a while since I’ve written one of these posts, almost a year! And now I am remembering why they’re so difficult.
“Great” is a word that is often thrown around these parts, especially when I’m working my way through the Time list. Sometimes it’s great as in “big and terrible”, like A Dance to the Music of Time, or An American Tragedy, which are great in the same way that the Great Chicago Fire was great.
Other times you get an amazing little book like this one, the first I’ve ever read by le Carre, but by no means the last. I read this book in two sittings, devouring it like popcorn. Le Carre is so good at characterization, at dialogue, at plotting, that they seem almost effortless in his hands. He is able to make the spy vs. spy atmosphere of the Cold War at once completely bewildering and also completely understandable.
Spy takes us behind the scenes of the intricate chess match that was the intelligence world at this time. It’s a little off-putting at first, as codenames, German locations and military slang fly past the reader’s head like gunfire, but once you settle into the tense little world he’s put forth, it’s incredibly addictive. What’s more, the story is incredibly exciting despite the fact that most of it is just scenes where two men talk to each other: Leamas is cut loose from his service and taken in by various Soviet agents, all of whom debrief him as he moves up their ranks. The tension is palpable in these scenes, as we’re not entirely sure what parts of Leamas’ story are fact or fiction ourselves, and we’re just as interested in the way he spins his yarn as his new Soviet contacts. There is a courtroom scene near the end of the book where I was actually holding my breath a little bit, as the high wire act le Carre has put into place threatens to fall apart at any moment.
I really want to see the film version of this book now. And wouldn’t you know it, Criterion’s putting it out on Blu-ray any day now. I love it when a plan comes together.
My copy is the 50th Anniversary edition, with a great cover treatment by artist Matt Taylor and designers Gregg Kulick and Paul Buckley. I really like the shiny ink used for the bloodspatter, the title and the author’s name, and I’m definitely going to be picking up more of this reissued series because they’re so damn pretty (and because I liked this one so much). I did think it was a little weird that this book was marketed as “A George Smiley” novel, though. Smiley’s the main character of Tinker, Tailor, and makes a few little appearances here as a behind the scenes player, but I wouldn’t call this a “George Smiley” novel by any means. I get trying to link products together, sure, but this is the book that made le Carre explode on the scene, I don’t really think it needs much more help, does it?
“A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor, or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief.”
Similar books on the Time 100 list: I’m tempted to go the obvious route and say Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories as it does kind of hit some of the same manic, paranoid notes, if only thirty years prior to the events of Spy. I also feel like people who enjoyed The Heart of the Matter would like this one too. And, oddly enough, Snow Crash, which also drops you head-first into a strange milieu, then gradually fills in the background detail while also being a fun narrative.
Total pages read from the list since January 1st 2011: 16755 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read: 59/113, or 52% complete.