Tag Archives | Terror

The Spy Who Wrote Me

Irfan’s recent post on John Le Carré has inspired me to pull out of mothballs this post I’ve been sitting on (forgot about it, really) for a few months now:


I’m a fan of John Le Carré’s George Smiley novels. (I haven’t read any of his non-Smileyverse novels. Nothing against them, just haven’t gotten around to them.)

Le Carré, like Ian Fleming, is a spy-fiction writer who had actually been a spy in real life; but Le Carré is not a fan of Fleming, and says he created the pudgy, plodding, aging, bespectacled, self-effacing (but brilliant) Smiley with the chronically unfaithful wife as the anti-James-Bond, stressing seedy realism and moral greyness over Fleming’s romanticised version of spy life.

Fair enough, although I would point out (indeed, have pointed out; see here, here, and here) that the early Bond novels (unlike most of the movies, and unlike the later novels where Fleming was starting to imitate the movies) are less stereotypically Bondesque; Fleming’s Bond (whom Le Carré dismisses as a “neo-fascist gangster” who cares only for his endless string of martinis, fast cars, and female conquests) is originally a pill-popping neurotic plagued by bad dreams at night and moral doubts by day; and he doesn’t always get the girl either. Moreover, the opening paragraph of the first Bond book (“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”) is decidedly unromantic.

And on the other hand, Le Carré’s work isn’t always as much the antithesis of Bond as one might think. In The Night Manager, for example (a Smileyverse novel though not a Smiley novel), we get exotic international settings, a megalomaniacal villain, and a handsome, omnicompetent spy who seduces the villain’s girlfriend – all much more Bondesque than Smileyesque. (Indeed the excellent tv adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston inspired a fan campaign calling for Hiddleston to play Bond, for which I am totally down.)

Which is not to say that the Le Carré/Fleming contrast is wrong; it’s just somewhat exaggerated.

Le Carré is certainly a better writer than Fleming; here’s a sample, from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold:

It was cold that morning, the light mist was damp and gray, pricking the skin. The airport reminded Leamas of the war: machines, half hidden in the fog, waiting patiently for their masters; the resonant voices and their echoes, the sudden shout and the incongruous clip of a girl’s heels on a stone floor; the roar of an engine that might have been at your elbow. Everywhere that air of conspiracy which generates among people who have been up since dawn – of superiority almost, from the common experience of having seen the night disappear and the morning come. The staff had that look which is informed by the mystery of dawn and animated by the cold, and they treated the passengers and their luggage with the remoteness of men returned from the front: ordinary mortals had nothing for them that morning.

One departure from realism is the elastic ages of the central characters, particularly Smiley and his right-hand man Peter Guillam. If they were really the ages they’re depicted as being in the early books, then by the latest book they should be centenarians, which they evidently are not. Instead their ages shift over the course of the series; for example, in the first book we’re told that Smiley recruited Guillam during World War II, but by the fifth book Guillam is implied to have been born in 1933, which would make him a tad young for espionage work in the war.

Le Carré has been justly criticised for his poor handling of female characters. With a few honourable exceptions (like former MI6 analyst Connie Sachs in the “Karla Trilogy,” memorably portrayed in full scenery-chewing mode by Beryl Reid in the BBC adaptations), women in his novels tend to be glamourous, inscrutable ciphers; and his descriptions of them can make painful reading. Consider this sample, from Our Kind of Traitor:

Nature had provided Gail with long, shapely legs and arms, high, small breasts, a lissom body, English skin, fine gold hair and a smile to light the gloomiest corners of life.

Please make it stop. (And see here for further examples of the same kind.) Le Carré’s literary talent seems to desert him when he moves from discussing foggy airports at dawn to discussing flesh-and blood women. (But admittedly I haven’t read The Little Drummer Girl, a female-led tale said to be one of his best, nor have I seen either of the adaptations.)

[As I note in the talkback on Irfan’s blog, another legitimate criticism of Le Carré’s work is that his focus is on the agents agonising over the morally dubious things they’re asked to do, rather than on the lives those agents are impacting. (Sometimes the agents go ahead and do the morally dubious thing; sometimes they refuse. Both are sympathetically portrayed.) On the other hand, they say “write what you know,” and Le Carré does know more about being a conflicted agent than about being an ordinary person either screwed over or protected by such agents.]

All but three of the Smiley novels have been adapted (and adapted rather well) for film or tv; in earnest whereof I’ve assembled some clips. Be warned: the clips do contain some spoilers:

1. A Call for the Dead (1961) was filmed as The Deadly Affair in 1966. The character of George Smiley (played by James Mason) had to be called “Charles Dobbs” because at that point a different company had the film rights to Smiley. Changing the clever and apposite title (Smiley realises the victim’s death was unlikely to have been a suicide when he learns that the victim left instructions to be called the next day) into a dumb and misleading one seems to have had no analogous justification:

Clip 1: Our Eyes Were Dewy

Clip 2: We had No Option

(TCM doesn’t allow embedding, because Satan.)

2. A Murder of Quality (1962), starring Denholm Elliot as Smiley, was made into a tv-movie in 1991 (this one is the odd man out among the Smiley novels, in that it’s really an ordinary murder mystery with no connections to international espionage, except that the sleuth who’s trying to solve it [i.e. Smiley] happens to be a professional spy). You may recognise more than one familiar face in the … dark night:

3. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), which picks up plot threads from Call for the Dead, was made into a film in 1965 (and AMC has been talking lately about remaking it as a miniseries, though frankly it seems too short for a miniseries; the under-two-hours movie covered the whole story pretty well). This book and movie made Le Carré’s career, enabling him to quit the espionage biz and become a full-time writer. Rupert Davies played Smiley, but none of the clips I’ve found online feature him. You’ll recognise Richard Burton as the lead, Alec Leamas:

(The book appeared a year and a half after Fleming’s similarly titled The Spy Who Loved Me. Was the choice of title a deliberate mockery on Le Carré’s part?)

4. The Looking Glass War (1965) was made into a film in 1969 (though the character of Smiley was dropped from the movie version; this was before Smiley had become as popular as he is now):

Clip 1: Finland

Clip 2: You Are Spies

(Once again, TCM doesn’t allow embedding, still because Satan.)

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), the first of the “Karla Trilogy” (because it features [without ever quite being about] Smiley’s war of wits with Karla, his opposite number in Soviet Intelligence) was first made into a miniseries in 1979, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. Guinness’s performance cemented Smiley’s public popularity (and won me over as a teenager – the same year that I saw my first James Bond movie, the dreadful Moonraker). Check out Beryl Reid’s brilliant turn as the aforementioned Connie Sachs, amd Patrick Stewart as Smiley’s taciturn nemesis, Karla:

… and then into a film in 2011, with Gary Oldman as Smiley, and John Hurt as his boss, Control:

(In the clip above, the white-haired man on the right side who stands up at 0:39-0:43 is Le Carré himself.)

Here’s Oldman’s version of his initial meeting with Karla (we saw Guinness’s above):

It’s a nice change to see the “we’re not so different speech, you and I” given by the hero (if “hero” is quite the word for someone as morally compromised as Smiley) to the villain for once instead of vice versa.

6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the second of the “Karla Trilogy,” was considered as a follow-up Guinness miniseries to Tinker, but was skipped because the locations (Hong Kong and Southeast Asia) made it too expensive. They could tackle it now, but they’d have to use CGI, since Hong Kong today looks very different from the way it did in the 1970s:

7. Smiley’s People (1979), the final entry in the “Karla Trilogy,” was made into a miniseries in 1982 with Guinness again (for a while there was also talk of a movie version with Oldman to follow up the 2011 version of Tinker, but that seems to have fallen through):

8. The Russia House (1989) doesn’t feature Smiley, but it does share characters with the Smiley novels and so belongs to the “Smileyverse.” It was made into a film in 1990, with a lead actor best known for playing a certain neo-fascist gangster:

9. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) is probably too episodic to be adapted for the screen. Incidentally, it’s primarily through connections to this book (i.e., sharing characters) that the two Smileyverse-but-no-Smiley novels are part of the Smileyverse.

10. The Night Manager (1993) is the other Smileyverse-but-no-Smiley novel. It was made into a miniseries in 2016 (starring Bertie Wooster vs. Loki!):

(Would the author approve of such Bondesque opening credits? Well, as noted above, this is an unusually Bondesque story for Le Carré anyway.)

(The white-haired man at the adjoining table, to whom Hiddleston apologises, is once again Le Carré himself.)

Here too, talk of a possible sequel seems to have died off.

Incidentally, Olivia Colman’s character (the agent who recruits Hiddleston’s character) might seem like an exception to Le Carré’s poor handling of female characters, except – she’s a man in the books.

11. A Legacy of Spies (2017), the most recent Smiley novel, is probably too dependent on The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (it’s a retelling of the same events from a different perspective, and through the lens of Tinker) to be independently filmable. Maybe AMC can borrow elements from it if they still want to stretch Spy into a miniseries.

Five onscreen versions of George Smiley

Five onscreen versions of George Smiley


Against Greatness

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about making America “great again” – from a man who seems not to care how many people’s liberty he violates in order to pursue his conception of national greatness.

In this context, I’m happy to announce the Molinari Institute’s latest t-shirt, which features a quotation from Jeffersonian political activist Abraham Bishop, one of the most radical of the American founders:

“A nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free.”

Thanks to Sheldon Richman for introducing me to this line, which comes from an 1800 antiwar speech titled Oration on the Extent and Power of Political Delusion; here’s a bit of context:

A nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free; beneath national greatness sink individual greatness, honor, wealth and freedom. But though history, experience and reasoning confirm these ideas; yet all-powerful delusion has been able to make the people of every nation lend a helping hand in putting on their own fetters and rivetting their own chains, and in this service delusion always employs men too great to speak the truth, and yet too powerful to be doubted. Their statements are believed – their projects adopted – their ends answered and the deluded subjects of all this artifice are left to passive obedience through life, and to entail a condition of unqualified non-resistance to a ruined posterity.

Bishop’s other works include an attack on church-state unions and a defense of the insurgent slaves in the Haitian revolution (showing himself, in that connection, a better Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself, who sided with the slaveowners). Bishop also championed women’s education and was an early critic of the Constitution. So he wasn’t an anarchist? Well, nobody’s perfect.


What’s So Bad About Flag Burning?

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

President-elect Donald Trump’s recent call for a year’s prison term or loss of citizenship for those who burn the American flag – incidentally a reversal of Trump’s previous support for flag-burners on the Letterman show two years ago – leaves me with some questions. Four questions, specifically: two for Trump’s conservative supporters, and two for his liberal critics.

My first question for pro-Trump conservatives is this: In the past I seem to recall hearing quite a few of you (though admittedly not Trump himself) speaking pretty loudly in favor of free expression when the issue was laws in Muslim countries criminalizing speech or writings that “disrespect” Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. How exactly do the arguments you gave then, not apply to Trump’s proposal now?

Second, I also recall that you conservatives used to talk a lot about government’s duty to protect people’s private property rights (although admittedly eminent domain poster boy Donald Trump was never really in your camp on that issue either). Well, if I buy an American flag with my own honestly earned money, or make one with my own cloth and thread, it seems like it’s then my property, the product of my labor; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t have the right to burn my own property, if I do it without endangering anyone else. If the government claims that it, rather than myself, is the one who gets to decide what I do with my flag – that it is, in effect, the real owner of the flag I bought or made – doesn’t that sound more like communism than like a free market?

Next, I have a couple of questions for the liberals who’ve been criticizing Trump’s proposal for its excessive harshness toward flag burners. First: It’s great that you’re calling Trump out on his contempt for freedom of expression; but how many of you were offering similar howls of outrage just over a decade ago when Hillary Clinton was supporting the Flag Protection Act of 2005, which likewise called for one-year prison terms for flag burners?

Finally, a question especially for those liberal critics who say that they support the right to burn the flag but disagree with the flag burner’s message. What exactly is supposed to be wrong with the flag burner’s message?

Even if the flag were legitimately a symbol of freedom, a ban on flag burning would be an odd way to honor the flag – sacrificing the reality of freedom to the mere symbol. But is freedom what the flag really stands for?

It’s now becoming more widely accepted that the Confederate flag, however much its supporters may revere it as an icon of freedom, is inextricably associated with the cause of slavery and white supremacy. But how is the American flag – the symbol of the Federal government – any more defensible?

The Confederate flag flew over slavery for five years. The American flag flew over slavery for nearly a century, and then flew over Jim Crow and similar slavery-like restrictions for another century after that. (And the Federal government didn’t move against Jim Crow until the grassroots civil-rights movement had grown strong enough to be worth co-opting rather than ignoring.) And even today, the American flag flies over a country where blacks are disproportionately likely to be killed or imprisoned by agents of the state.

The same flag flew over the slaughtering of American Indians, the kidnapping of their children, and the theft of their land; and that theft still continues today, as for example in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline. That flag also flies right now over a land where the state records our phone calls, tells us how we can and cannot medicate ourselves, and maintains a regime of privilege that props up the crony corporate elite at the expense of everyone else.

To be sure, American citizens enjoy a higher degree of freedom than do citizens in many other countries, and it is this fact that leads so many to view the American flag as a symbol of freedom. But such liberty as Americans enjoy was hard-won, in the main, by grassroots efforts that eventually prevailed against government resistance. Honoring the flag, the symbol of the Federal government, doesn’t celebrate our freedoms; it celebrates the central authority from whom those freedoms were heroically wrested.

Around the world, too, troops bearing the Americsn flag have too often propped up dictators and bombed civilian populations, from Asia to Central America to the Middle East. American bombs have killed dozens of civilians in the past several months just in Yemen alone. Is it any wonder that millions of people around the world view the American flag with fear, seeing it not as a symbol of freedom but rather as a harbinger of terror and death? In the face of that reality, defensive insistence that the flag “really” means something else rings as hollow as the neo-Confederate’s claim of “Heritage, Not Hate.”

We’ve begun, as a nation, to relinquish our blinkered reverence for the Confederate flag. It’s high time that reverence for the American flag followed it into equally well deserved oblivion.


They Love Us When We’re Dead

[cross-posted at C4SS]

I made this comment on Facebook a few weeks back, but I thought it was worth repeating here:

One thing that (many) social anarchists and (many) ancaps have in common is that they recognise anticapitalist individualist market anarchists as valuable comrades (albeit erring ones) as long as they’re dead 19th-century figures like Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, and Voltairine de Cleyre, and even include them in their favourite anthologies, but as soon as they encounter actual living 21st-century examples of anticapitalist individualist market anarchists, they cringe in horror and shriek either “capitalist!” or “commie!” depending on the direction of deviation.


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