Category Archive 'George Smiley'

24 Aug 2021

George Smiley, Cuckold

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Rosa Lyster, writing in Gawker, proves herself to be a major fan of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy novels and she argues, from the female perspective, that the Karla trilogy novels are also Romance novels (!).

Existing discussion of the Smileys’ marriage tends to focus on George, with only glancing, baffled mention of Ann. George Smiley is “arguably the most memorable character in modern fiction,” the brilliant intelligence officer at the head of the Circus, and Ann is his beautiful, aristocratic, Unfaithful Wife. George is discussed in terms of his underlying melancholy, his penetrating intelligence, his pursuit of Karla (the KGB agent whose chase is the central plotline of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People), his snuffly voice that cannot easily be heard above the bray of the more confidently upper-class members of the Circus, what some reviewers refer to as his “physique,” which is both unexceptional and strikingly disappointing (this man is somehow both physically anonymous and walking around forcibly reminding people of an egg), his lack of illusion as to human weakness, and the forbearance with which he endures the unfaithfulness of his Unfaithful Wife, who is called Ann.

Ann is discussed mainly in terms of how she is his faithless wife, Ann, permanently off to one side but still exerting a slightly occult hold over a man who she appears to have married for no reason other than to humiliate him for five books. She has to exist so that we understand from the offing that a) George is driven to pursue Karla because of a complex sense of betrayal rooted in the fact that his faithless wife, Ann, is single-mindedly focused on fucking him over, and b) his ongoing attachment to his faithless wife, Ann, means that his colleagues sometimes take him less seriously than his intelligence warrants, and they do so at their own peril etc. In this view, faithless wife Ann is an insanely sexy bit of background dysfunction, and the marriage is primarily a site of catastrophe and shame for poor, trapped, inexplicably loyal George.

Some parts of this are accurate — Ann is so, so unfaithful, and George’s colleagues are so, so rude to him about it. Over and over, we see them making jaunty remarks about how once again the old girl has had sex with the maî​tre d’ of a once-glamorous restaurant in full view of a number of junior staff members, or how she has personally ushered in a new and frightening phase of the Cold War by embarking on an affair with Bill Haydon, who is both a Soviet mole and for some reason her cousin. These men are always slapping George on the back and going on about how he will never divorce “the lovely Ann,” even as she is using George’s account at the tailors to buy suits for a Cypriot dockhand, and then after George lopes sadly away in his ill-fitting garments, they are saying “poor fellow” in a pleased voice. Nevertheless, to see George as a cuckold and Ann as a bitch is a reductive view of the arrangement, which I would argue is much stranger and more interesting than the standard interpretation would have it.

From the beginning of the Karla trilogy, at least, it is clear that George’s attachment to his wife is his definitive feature. Here is how he is introduced at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet.” A sad-seeming man, initially, whose undoubtedly sad sex life is mercifully none of your concern. Now, the sound of glass shattering at the entrance of Ann: “For reasons of vanity he wore no hat, believing rightly that hats made him ridiculous. ‘Like an egg-cosy,’ his beautiful wife had remarked not long before the last occasion on which she left him, and her criticism, as so often, had endured.”

Ann. What a swerve! Instead of a sad man in big wet clothes, we now have a sad man in big wet clothes embroiled in a complicated set-up with a beautiful woman. Why does she keep returning to him even as she is so critical of his fashion sense? Why does he keep putting up with this shit? A sad man, still, but also a dark horse, all moody and sensual (sorry), and this portrait only becomes moodier and more sensual (sorry again) as the trilogy progresses and the answer to these questions becomes clear. ..

These are spy novels, but there is a strong case to be made for them being romance novels as well, or at least ones that present a mortifyingly recognizable picture of what it’s like to not be able to live without someone, and to see the world and yourself through their eyes first. There are a lot of books that will confirm your sense that being in love is one of the most embarrassing things that can ever happen to a human being, but I can’t think of that many that go on to persuasively demonstrate that this state of abjection is to be sought out not only because it is exhilarating and consuming and makes you feel like a demon, but because it makes you smarter and better at your job, whether that job is being a spymaster negotiating the end of empires or a woman who has in her time lost her cool over someone to the extent of writing poems about it. This is one of the most comforting things I can think of.


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