Ended up reading this book on many a lark – first purchased because it was cheap in a second hand book store online, and then picked up for reading because it was small and compact making it the ideal travelling companion. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold comes with a lot of baggage – from Le Carre’s self-assessment that this was the book that changed his life and ensured he would never write in the same carefree way again to Graham Greene’s recommendation on the book cover reminding us that this is the book that changed the espionage genre – there was plenty of pressure anyways.
I think there are 2 aspects to every book – well fiction at least. The first is obviously the plot. Content is King. A good plot can in most cases salvage everything else. Realistic or fantastic, past or future – but a good plot is step 1.
Step 2 is how that plot is presented. This is in other words – the writing style of the author. The manner in which the content is put across, how easy it is to read, how words are pierced together to form beautiful sentences, how suspense is created, how tension is strung, how readers are caught in a web (OK I’ll stop, you get the idea). Whether it is the writer or the editor who takes responsibility for this is something I as the final reader am not too concerned about.
The problem with passing judgement on famous books is that everyone (as well as at a subconscious level, you yourself) feel – ‘who are you to be saying these things’? Hence one treads with caution.
I think (as have millions before me I’m sure) that the plot of TSWCIFTC is fantastic. A double, double cross – or is it a triple cross (?) which is complex enough for you to not be able to understand until every layer is peeled away one by one is the work of a genius. The other part though, the Step 2 which I mentioned above – well, if I can be polite I will just say it didn’t come across well to me. And this is more about the small things – characters who speak in prose and polemics, who ‘cried’ and express themselves in stilted dialogue – especially the ‘commies’. And an atmosphere of cold-greyness which seems thrust on us rather than inviting us into it.
By no means do I mean to say that this is the same as a writer not being skilled. To unravel a plot like that by releasing information at the right time is no mean feat. There are complex ideas and thoughts presented as well in a pithy manner – what a pity they’re not more quotable or relevant today. It’s just a style which is not fluid or graceful like many others.
I wondered if this was a product of the era from which the book came from, but I then I remember Arthur Hailey’s books which are from the same time zone and had a tremendous amount of irrelevant content, but still always seemed to ‘flow’ ( I can’t think of a better word to explain what I meant). Likewise for Agatha Christie going a few decades further back, and even to an extent Arthur Conan Doyle despite the Victorian era influences making them a little more ‘formal’. Would be interesting to read a recent work of Le Carre who has continued to churn out works even as an octogenarian and see if this is an issue which persists. So once I could accustom myself to the discomfort of the way the characters speak and think and sink my teeth into the story, TSWCIFTC is gripping and educating like few others.
PS : A great influence on how I perceive this work comes from this wonderful break-down of the book by the Guardian in their Rereading column. I am convinced more and more, there is little point to watching a movie, reading a book or for that matter experiencing any form of art unless we take the time out to discuss and deliberate about it, read about it and the context in which it was written and exchange thoughts on how it came across to us. A stunning exposition which helped me view TSWCIFTC in a much brighter, if not new light.
Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★