I SPY

John le Carré and the rise of George Smiley.

Anthony Lane

The opening sentence of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a 1974 novel by John le Carré, runs as follows: “The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.” The tone is instant and unmistakable, with our narrator buttonholing us like a man who, having overheard our conversation in a pub, is leaning across to join in, or to contest our version of events. We are plunged in medias res, but what are the res? Taunton is a town in Somerset, in southwest England, but who, pray, is this defunct major? And what might Thursgood’s be? It turns out to be a prep school—a private establishment, for boys up to the age of thirteen, and a likely seedbed for some of the future spies, at once clubbable and closely guarded, who bestrew le Carré’s work. Hence the dash of genius in those first three words, enough to show that we are already in the hands of a supreme ironist: “The truth is.” It never just is. Truths are misty and multiple, like ghosts. Believe in them all you like, but you won’t pin them down.

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Le Carr

Le Carré in Hamburg, in 1964. He had served with the S.I.S. for five years, and Smiley had already appeared in his novels.

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