Thursday, May 30, 2013

30th Year Reflections/46: Spies

“Smiley is one of the truly great creations of post-war English literature: a nondescript man of late middle age who confounds every stereotype of the spy as man of action; a man, as le Carré has it, with ‘a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made’, whose weapons are a beady eye and a profound understanding of human fallibility. As Sherlock Holmes is to the world of detection, so George Smiley is to the world of espionage.” — Mick Brown, The Telegraph

There are a few authors I cannot get enough of, whose works I come back to again and again, reading everything in streaks, long evenings, and entire weekends swallowed up by their writing. John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) is one such author and I am currently on a le Carré binge. Over the past few weeks I’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; watched the television version starring Sir Alec Guinness and the movie version starring Gary Oldman (multiple times). At the moment I’m reading The Honourable Schoolboy. Smiley’s People awaits. After that, who knows? Why the abiding interest? And what is the professional connection?

At a point in my career when I was looking for a change (and probably sometime shortly after the 9/11 attacks), I applied for a librarian position at the Central Intelligence Agency. I submitted an online application but never heard back from Langley. I have no knowledge of why this was so and let the matter rest. Having talked to a couple of colleagues who worked for, or had contact with, the agency I had no romanticized or movie-inspired thoughts of what the job might entail. I was realistic in my appraisal. I believed—and still do—that I had the necessary skill set to perform well at the position. But I will never know, not having the opportunity.

This brings me, then, to the pen of le Carré and the world of George Smiley, “whose weapons are a beady eye and a profound understanding of human fallibility.” Or has Holmes once said to Watson in a corrective tone of voice: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” This sense of observation became apparent during a time previously mentioned in these posts: my study of the Iranian Revolution during 1979 as part of a collegiate senior seminar in history; a time in which we of the seminar knew the revolutionary players so well that we could predict with a high degree of accuracy what would happen next. It was this experience, and others, that drew me to the world of Smiley and “the Circus” (le Carré slang for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service of the United Kingdom). This attraction had less to do with the act of spying, or the apparatus connected with those acts—lamplighters, scalphunters, or wranglers, to use Cornwellian jargon—and more with the hard grind of research; the analysis that made such acts of espionage possible. It was this sometimes grim, often demanding investigative work that drew me to the Smiley character, le Carré’s stories, and the world of academic libraries.

Here, then, is the professional connection: a delight in the difficult yet rewarding work of study, examination, and exploration. And an enjoyment in being of service to others engaged in similar work.

Early in The Honourable Schoolboy, as Smiley and his small circle of confidants attempt to reconstruct a lost portion of Circus history destroyed or misplaced by a Russian double-agent working within the hierarchy, they attack the archives with a vengeance, looking for missing pieces. Two excerpts from the book describe their work:

By minutely charting Haydon’s path of destruction (his pug marks, as Smiley called them); by exhaustively recording his selection of files; by reassembling—after aching weeks of research, if necessary—the intelligence culled in good faith by Circus outstations, and balancing it, in every detail, against the intelligence distributed by Haydon to the Circus’s customers in the Whitehall market-place, it would be possible to take back-bearings (as Connie so rightly called them) and establish Haydon’s, and therefore Karla’s point of departure….To Peter Guillam the night was taking on surreal dimensions. Smiley had become all but wordless. His plump faced turned to rock. Connie in her excitement had forgotten her arthritic aches and pains and was hopping around the shelves like a teenager at the ball.

The grit and joy of research and analysis are here for all to see. In Smiley’s world the stakes were much higher than in my world of archival special collections and rare books. But there is a camaraderie between spheres and a necessary gravitas in each endeavor. Smiley’s people and the world created by le Carré inform my work and my perspective on the world. Is there an author who provides you with the a similar professional esprit de corps?

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