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The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy (original 1977; edition 2011)

by John Le Carre

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2,414362,573 (3.82)127
Title:The Honourable Schoolboy
Authors:John Le Carre
Info:Penguin Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 606 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, multi-country, laos, vientiane, espionage

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The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré (1977)


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I am very fond of The Honourable Schoolboy, and I admire Le Carré's literary ambitions. It's a great middle book in the Quest for Karla story. But for some reason (perhaps those literary ambitions?) it's a slow-moving (and long!) book that requires some work to get through. It's rewarding and worth it, but it's work. ( )
  JoePhelan | Dec 14, 2014 |
Apparently, many people read John Le Carré’s spy novels for a glimpse at what the world of international espionage is really like; in other words, they read them like a kind of journalism about the shady world of Intelligence Services. And there certainly is something to it – we’ve grown used to a more realistic perspective on secret services, but we can still imagine what it must have been like to read a novel like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold for someone whose idea of spy thrillers were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Le Carré profoundly debunked the myths about the spy trade, showing it to be a world not of elegant womanizers lounging in luxurious surroundings, but of middle-aged men holding bureaucratic meetings in dull offices, not of noble deeds and lofty aims but of petty infighting and political maneuvering. The novels of Le Carré were filled with detailed descriptions and precise observations, and had authenticity written all over them and thoroughly destroyed any conception of glamour clinging to the spy profession – today, nobody would consider a James Bond novel anything but fantasy.

The Honourable Schoolboy lends itself with particular ease to such a journalistic reading due to the place and time it is set in: a very large part of the novel takes place in Hong Kong and South-East Asia during the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and a lot of room is given to highly atmospheric descriptions of the situation, of the feelings of uncertainty, unrest and frustration pervading the area during that period – making this by far the longest book of Le Carré’s so far. Even though Le Carré’s account is fictional, he appears to have done an impressive amount of research for it, and I doubt any journalistic, presumably non-fictional report could do a better job at painting a picture that is both authentic and immersive.

Therefore, one might consider The Honourable Schoolboy worth reading on those merits alone. But Le Carré’s ambition for this and his other novels does not extend to merely being reportage, this novel, like his previous ones, aims for something more, and I think that it is this which makes them stand out. And this is not just true for the novels’ content but for their form, too – quite often, the apparently realistic exterior of Le Carré’s spy novels conceals inner mechanisms that do not run by the same rules governing realistic narratives but are structurally quite experimental. The Honourable Schoolboy is another example of this – its main thematic concern is with truth and its uses, and the novel’s forms reflects this, even if it is by adding its own distortions in the process.

Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters quotes from a poem by John Donne:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

This, even if it comes late in the novel, after its plot and its protagonists have taken many turns about and about, constitutes something like the motto for The Honourable Schoolboy. Indeed the whole novel could be taken as a variation on the poem those lines comes from, Donne’s Satire III, to the point where it feels that one might place both works next to each other and draw in the correspondences. Correspondence is part of the novel’s theme, too, as it is set not just in Asia but has London as a major setting too, and the events in both spheres, while never shown to result from each other immediately, do influence each other in oblique ways that had me think more than once of the Renaissance alchemy concept of correspondence, where things not directly connected still work upon each other by way of mystic similarities. Except, of course, that there is nothing mystical at place here, but the driving forces are mostly political in nature – but not really any less obscure for that.

There is a recurring image in the novel of truth as a small circle or kernel, surrounded by layers upon layers of untruth that grow steadily larger, up to the outer ring which is a vast area of rumour and obfuscation. The novel in fact starts with out rumours, and continues to refer to them, in the plot and by way of its anonymous narrator who tries to pierce through the mist of lies and half-truths surrounding “Operation Dolphin” to arrive at its kernel of truth. And both Jerry Westerby and George Smiley, the novel’s main protagonists, are surrounded by rumours, putting the reader in a very similar position of having to cross through obfuscation to arrive at the truth. A truth that becomes ever more elusive the further the novel proceeds, and it eventually becomes clear that for all its descriptive vividness and journalistic authenticity, the novel lets us see its kernel of truth only through a thick haze of distraction and misinformation. In fact, its undoubtedly brilliant journalistic element might constitute precisely that haze – one can hardly consider it accidental that so much of the novel takes place among journalist and that one of its main protagonists is a journalist who has no scruples to manipulate the truth when it serves his purposes and who in turn is manipulated by his employers in London. By the end of The Honourable Schoolboy it is by no means that there every was any kernel of truth at all, and if there was, it might be impossible to find – but not for epistemological reasons but because it has been so distorted and hidden under layers and layers of obfuscation by political power plays that it is simply gone, and the wanderer, when he takes that last turn that last turn that will take him up to the summit of that hill, finds himself on top of a sheer cliff, stepping off into the air.
3 vote Larou | Jan 28, 2014 |
This was a huge book by Le Carre, who up to now has been writing fairly short spy novels, like The Looking Glass War and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Hong Kong is the center of the action, and the agent known as the Honourable Schoolboy, who had a cameo in the prior novel Tinker, Tailor, is the main man. ( )
  br77rino | Jan 3, 2014 |
The Honourable Schoolboy
by John Le Carré

Book #2 in the Karla Trilogy
Book #4 in the Smiley Series
Book #7 in The Circus novels

Originally published in 1977
Mass Market Paperback edition published in 1978 by Bantam Doubleday Dell

WHO: George Smiley, now the head intelligence officer at the Circus…
WHAT: detects a money laundering scheme (a Gold Seam)…
WHERE: runningfrom Moscow to Hong Kong…
WHEN: that has been exposed in the aftermath of the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Saigon has fallen and the post-Vietnam War landscape of Asia is rife with military “leftovers.”
WHY: Smiley has professional and personal motives in exposing the purpose and persons involved in the operation.
HOW: Sequestering himself in his office at the Circus and talking walks through London, Smiley attempts to puzzle out case. He runs other intelligence officers and agents that he can trust; but he also requires support from Whitehall and from the CIA (“The Cousins.”)

NOTE: You don’t need to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before The Honourable Schoolboy, but doing so will give you a better understanding of what drives Smiley during this story.

+ Everything I wrote about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is equally true for this sequel. So yes, you should read my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (no spoilers.) :-)
+ Le Carré’s second novel in the Karla trilogy is rich fare: Characters are well developed in all their flawed glory, at times flying with delusions of profound truth, at other times bowing to political expediencies, always conflicted and acting accordingly. The physical settings are richly detailed, from the wreckage of the offices in London to the ruins of a Tuscan villa to the scramble of life in China.
- The major plot, basically a story about auditing, is rather cerebral and not terribly sexy though Le Carré does provide color by drawing in the life drama of key characters. Also, the reader has to thread through the socio-political context of Asia after the American pullout, which while not indecipherable, needs the reader’s attention if it is unfamiliar terrain. Overall, The Honourable Schoolboy is not a novel to rush through. Still, we’re spitting hairs of excellence when we’re talking about the difference between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy. I would rate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy five stars or an “A+” grade and, The Honourable Schoolboy four-and-a-half stars and an “A-” grade.

OTHER: I acquired a used print copy of The Honourable Schoolboy (by John le Carré) from Rogue Book Exchange in Medford, OR. I receive no monies, goods or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post. ( )
  Tanya-dogearedcopy | Aug 18, 2013 |
A disappointing follow-up to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" - perhaps because it feels like two novels jammed together and the pieces don't quite match up. For one thing, it's a solid 150 pages too long. For another, I rather hated Jerry Westerby. But the story of George Smiley is what keeps you going through this book - and I feel that the next novel in his tale might in fact make this book worth slogging through.

More "meh" thoughts at RB: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-jj ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
A retired missionary and his daughter, a Hong Kong policeman, an Italian orphan, an English schoolmaster, an American narcotics agent, a slovenly Kremlinologist, a mad bodyguard, the quite splendid Craw -- all are burned on the brain of the reader. If they are not marooned in loneliness, their cynicism corrodes or they go blank when there are no explanations, only helicopters. Loneliness, in fact, rather than betrayal, is the leitmotif. It is the leper's bell around their necks. They have only themselves to be true to, and they are no longer sure who they are. Not a page of this book is without intelligence and grace. Not a page fails to suggest that we carry around with us our own built-in heart of darkness.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, John Leonard (Jul 20, 1977)

» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John le Carréprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Le Carre, Johnmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Davidson, FrederickNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Laing, TimIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nousiainen, JussiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Soellner, HeddaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Soellner, RolfTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
-W.H. Auden
For Jane, who bore the brunt, put with my presence and absence alike, and made it all possible.
First words
Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London's secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description

1. How the Circus Left Town

2. The Great Call

3. Mr. George Smiley’s Horse

4. The Castle Wakes

5. A Walk in the Park

6. The Burning of Frost

7. More About Horses

8. The Barons Confer

9. Craw’s Little Ship

10. Tea and Sympathy

11. Shanghai Express

12. The Resurrection of Ricardo


13. Lies

14. The Eighth Day

15. Siege Town

16. Friends of Charlie Marshall

17. Ricardo

18. The River Bend

19. Golden Thread

20. Liese’s Lover

21. Nelson

22. Born Again
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743457919, Paperback)

John le Carre's classic novels deftly navigate readers through the intricate shadow worlds of international espionage with unsurpassed skill and knowledge and have earned him -- and his hero, British Secret Service agent George Smiley -- unprecedented worldwide acclaim.

In this classic masterwork, le Carre expands upon his extraordinary vision of a secret world as George Smiley goes on the attack.

In the wake of a demoralizing infiltration by a Soviet double agent, Smiley has been made ringmaster of the Circus (aka the British Secret Service). Determined to restore the organization's health and reputation, and bent on revenge, Smiley thrusts his own handpicked operative into action. Jerry Westerby, "The Honourable Schoolboy," is dispatched to the Far East. A burial ground of French, British, and American colonial cultures, the region is a fabled testing ground of patriotic allegiances?and a new showdown is about to begin.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:38 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

In an attempt to recover from the devastating effects of having uncovered a double agent in a high position in its organization, the British Secret Service carries out an elaborate espionage scheme in the Far East.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 12 descriptions

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