My introduction to John le Carré came through film and video: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with Richard Burton and the two Smiley series starring the great Alec Guinness (from the late ‘Seventies and early ‘Eighties) that I watched for the first time just a few years ago on dvd.
The 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did a disappointing box office, but Gary Oldman made a superb Smiley. I suppose that a thriller involving character study as much as plot twists falls short of popular demand to be bombarded with special effects and noise. This is a film for "mature audiences" of a different sort than that term usually means.
The introspection and quietness of le Carré's Smiley series made me a little skeptical about how one of his novels might work as an audiobook. Too quiet, or too flat, and the narration could deteriorate into monotone, but my library did not have the book, and so I took a chance on Call for the Dead (1960), the novel that introduces British spy George Smiley--the frumpy, the fat, the rumpled, the laconic, the disappointed. (Read by Michael Jayston, 4 hours and 44 minutes.) It is, in fact, a quiet audiobook, but not too quiet. I enjoyed the book for the remarkable main character and for the insight into Cold War experience and thinking. Sometimes old genre fiction, well done, reads like historical fiction, and that is the case with Call for the Dead.
One plot element struck me as too improbable, but this was merely a flaw in the book, not a fatal flaw. See spoiler below.*
In the second Smiley book, the main character takes a break from spying and turns to sleuthing, when an old friend asks him to investigate a crime. Looking for a copy of A Murder of Quality (1962), I discovered the 1991 BBC tv production, with screenplay by le Carré and starring Denholm Elliott as Smiley. This sounded too good to pass up, and Elliott’s interpretation of Smiley is marvelous. The story itself, and the tv show, are nothing special, just mildly entertaining in the manner of British detective shows, but Elliott as Smiley is well worth seeing if you appreciate fine acting. Glenda Jackson plays the friend who asks him to take on the case. A very young Christian Bale has a part in this production. He must have been about 16 or 17 in this role. And another fine performance by Joss Ackland.
Next up in the Smiley series is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which I plan to read in print, just for a change of pace and to get a sense of Smiley on the page. This book, I believe, was le Carré's first international bestseller.
Call for the Dead was written during the Cold War, and I followed that on audio with The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (1908-1980). (Read by Harriet Walter, 11 hours and 28 minutes.) Manning was sometimes dismissed as a Cold War apologist in her historical novels of WWII, but a reevaluation of her work has apparently been happening over the past few decades. After reading only one of her novels, I am not yet ready to form an independent judgment about Manning's geopolitical point of view. She does not seem like a zealot of any particular camp, on first glance.
A review in The Times Literary Supplement of Imperial Refugee by Eve Patten says that "Patten persuasively reads The Balkan Trilogy as an examination of the British Empire, a 'rumbling critique of British naivety and ego', 'an extended post-war narrative of reproach' and 'a response to the Cold War'. She also makes a case for an Irish inflexion, citing Gothic elements in Manning’s evocations of Romania where her descriptions of refugees are seen as influenced by Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu." So apparently Patten sees Manning not as a Cold Warrior but as a commentator on the Cold War, suggesting a different approach entirely. I can definitely see the stylistic link to the Irish authors she mentions.
The Great Fortune, an absorbing historical novel, is set in Bucharest, Romania on the eve of World War II. Harriet Pringle, married to Guy, a teacher, experiences the life of an expat among a colorful cast of characters. This is the first book in her Fortunes of War, two trilogies consisting of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Although the other two volumes of The Balkan Trilogy are also available in audio form, I want to read the next novel in print. The narration was good, but the slow--sometimes almost dreamy--pace of this first novel in the series makes a print version seem appealing too.
*The notion that a Jewish concentration camp survivor would become a spy for East Germany following the war is too much of a stretch. I did not buy it.