Each of us has only a quantum of compassion

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John le Carré

Audiobook read by Michael Jayston

Many years ago I was sent a free copy of this novel (I think as a welcome gift to one of those book-buying clubs; I loved those when I was a teenager with my first part-time job) and I turned my nose up at it. It sat for years on the bookshelf and is probably still there at my Dad’s house faded and unread. Then when the film came out last year one of the newspapers offered the audiobook free to its readers, so I downloaded the mp3s and finally got round to listening to it over the past few weeks.

I have discovered more about me and audiobooks, I suspect, than I have about the book itself. Because it turns out I’m not great at listening to audiobooks, especially not during my commute (when I usually listen to podcasts). My mind wanders; I don’t always have a free hand to turn up the volume when the traffic noise drowns out the narrator; if I see someone I know I get chatting and fumble over hitting pause. I had more success listening to it at home while doing housework or, my favourite discovery, while having a bath (so much better than getting a nice book wet!). But even when giving it my full attention without distracting background noise, I still struggled a little. I think I just don’t take in information as well audibly as I do when I read it. I missed being able to flick back through the pages to check a name or other detail. I missed marking quotes I liked. Which was a real shame because there were some gems in here. I cribbed these off Goodreads:

“’I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,’ Smiley went on, more lightly. ‘Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things.’”

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

For those who haven’t read the book/seen the film/watched the TV show, this novel follows George Smiley, a spy who was forced into early retirement from MI6, as he is persuaded to help former colleagues track down a mole within the British ranks. Le Carré really brings alive the day-to-day existence of a spy, often humdrum, occasionally explosively exciting, always suspicious. I loved the language of Le Carré spycraft – how MI6 is “the circus” because it is (fictionally) located at Cambridge Circus in London; how babysitter, caretaker, janitor and mother are all euphemisms for jobs within the circus (there are others too that I missed; see this list for more); and terms I remembered from the brilliant children’s book I had of spycraft, which I think was a forerunner of the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

The story is heavily political, with real ambiguity about whether any of what any of the spies is doing is of use to their country, or humanity at large. There’s a lot of men talking in rooms, as I believe Mark Kermode said of the film, and what action there is is in flashback. There are two main narrative threads – the main one following Smiley and an occasional one following a former spy called Jim Prideaux, who is now working as a schoolmaster at a boarding school in Somerset and has developed a sweet facsimile of a spymaster–apprentice relationship with one of the boys there. The latter thread was more immediately accessible and has made me interested in Le Carré’s earlier novel A Murder of Quality, which sees Smiley investigate a murder at a boarding school. (Incidentally, I hadn’t realised this wasn’t the first Smiley novel and now hope I can read the earlier ones without plot points having been spoiled for me.)

Michael Jayston’s narration was spot-on and it was only a small surprise to discover that he played a main role in the 1979 TV series. I loved his voice for Smiley, a quiet, almost bored, quickly forgettable tone perfectly in keeping with Le Carré’s description.

I wish I could properly assess Le Carré’s writing but, aside from knowing that there were many brilliant phrases that stood out for me, I don’t think listening to the words allows me to be sure of my reaction the way reading them would.

First published 1974 by Hodder & Stoughton.