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A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

A Perfect Spy (1986)

by John le Carré

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (29)  German (2)  Dutch (2)  Italian (1)  Danish (1)  Hebrew (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (37)
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
I’ve read all the Karla/Smiley books, including the new one, which is great, and maybe half of the rest of le Carré. His recent memoir is also tops.

I find it interesting that the same man wrote the thrilling, taut masterpiece The Spy Who Came In from the Cold could quickly succumb to so much bloat in his following books. This one is squarely in the middle of his bloat period. I enjoyed it, but it can be tough sledding if it’s not your bag.

One of the not-unpleasurable challenges for getting into le Carré is learning his peculiar British espionage slang: lamplighters, scalphunters, mothers, the Circus, the cousins, janitors, etc. It’s never been perfectly clear how much of that is literary invention versus actual usage from le Carré’s service in MI5 and MI6. You pick it up. (It helps that some of the lecarrisms have actually jumped from the novels into general usage: he introduced the term “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But this novel, like several of his others, features a spy that has a background in the criminal underworld, so there’s a whole ‘nother vocabulary to try to follow.

MI6 Vienna station chief Magnus Pym goes missing for reasons unknown to the Circus and his wife (herself a former “shoemaker,” i.e., forger of false documents for the intelligence service), maybe related to his work with his Czechoslovakian network. And maybe not. They scramble to find him, and figure out what to do with his network of agents (“Joes”), which the Soviets are going to roll up if he’s defected. Head of MI6 is loath to try to exfiltrate his Joes until they are absolutely certain that he’s compromised, because it would mean admitting to the Americans (“the cousins”) and MI5 (“the competition”) that they have another embarrassing mole so soon after their recent humiliation, which is not explicitly stated but understood to be the Tailor/Kim Philby defection.

Also long digressions about Pym’s upbringing by his con-man father.

About le Carré’s wandering digressions, especially in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: some of them are amazing. The recent memoir of legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader: A Life (2016), contains a nugget about editing le Carré that shows his gift with interesting digressions:

"[Tinker Tailor] had an extremely intricate plot, and we did a lot of work on it—totally gratifying, since David [John le Carre’s real name is David Cornwell] was one of those rare writers who loved going back to his book, rethinking, rewriting; all he needed was a suggestion that made sense to him and he was off and running. I remember saying to him that the character Connie Sachs, the superannuated spymaster who remembered everything, was so extraordinary that I wanted more of her. He couldn’t wait to get back to her, and in a week or so I had twenty or thirty terrific new pages—a few too many. No problem. A little trimming and Connie emerged in her full glory."

p. 173. (Avid Reader is a great book for anyone interested in 20th century lit.)

The backstory of Connie Sachs is not necessary to the intricate plot, but it’s interesting as hell, and she’s an amazing character. Same with much of the character of Ricky Tarr.

The Perfect Spy is recommended. (Gottlieb, by the way, called it “to me his most interesting and moving book,” p. 174. Philip Roth called it “the best English novel since the war.”) ( )
  k6gst | Feb 26, 2019 |
Le Carré writes beautifully, let's get that out of the way straight off, but something about this left me a little disappointed. It did have a lot to live up to: not only is it often considered his best work, it's sometimes considered anyone's best work. Philip Pullman reckons A Perfect Spy is ‘one of the finest novels of the twentieth century’, while Philip Roth said it was ‘the best English novel since the war’. Other Philips also speak highly of it.

It begins with the arrival of a man in a small English village. He is using a false name, he is carrying a mysterious bag, he has apparently just come from a funeral. In a guest room, he sits down to write his story; and thenceforth the book alternates between an espionage thriller that crisscrosses Cold War Europe, and a personal narrative about growing up in postwar Britain.

I found the first of these strands considerably more interesting than the second, which is clearly based on le Carré's own childhood. The book therefore has much autobiographical interest (and had even more before 2016, when le Carré authorised a biography and then wrote his own). Like the book's protagonist, Magnus Pym, le Carré grew up without a mother and in the shadow of a confused relationship with his conman father, and the dynamic of this relationship is a major focus of the novel. I mostly found it a distraction, and was anxious to get back to what I felt was the main story.

Part of the problem is that the two parts never really mesh very well. The idea mooted is that growing up with an overbearing confidence trickster as a father has predisposed Pym to a life of international espionage; well, le Carré may have felt this to be true in his own case, but I don't find it very convincing in this novel. It feels like two books have been stapled together.

It's particularly frustrating because the bits that work are so excellent: beautiful descriptions of Europe, in this case mostly Austria and Switzerland (‘the spiritual home of natural spies’), a flawless depiction of how diplomats track a potential defector, and the kind of perfect thumbnail character sketches that le Carré is so consistently good at:

She had greying hair bound in a sensible bun and wore a necklace of what looked like nutmeg. When she walked, she waded through her kaftan as if she hated it. When she sat, she spread her knees and scraped at the knuckles of one hand. Yet her beauty clung to her like an identity she was trying to deny and her plainness kept slipping like a bad disguise.

His books are always able to demonstrate exactly how politics boils down to conversations between frustrated people in drab meeting-rooms. The conversations in le Carré books are the set pieces: they are as exciting as car chases or fistfights, and this book is no different. Much hinges on the cagey relationship between British ‘espiocrats’ (to use one of le Carré's later coinages) and their CIA counterparts, and the author has a lot of fun contrasting the well-spoken, supercilious clarity of the Brits with the managerial jargon of the Americans:

‘…the ah Agency position overall on this thing – at this important meeting, and at this moment in time – is that we have here an accumulation of indicators from a wide range of sources on the one hand, and new data on the other which we consider pretty much conclusive in respect of our unease.’

(This is an affliction that has long since spread to this side of the Atlantic.) At moments like these, I felt inclined to give the book the benefit of the doubt, and was willing myself to like it more than I did. But the flashbacks were just too obtrusive and took too long to get to their point – things don't really get going until a third of the way in, which for a six-hundred-word book is a hell of a long time to make people wait. There is a sneaky sensation that the author was doing this more for himself than for us (he later talked about the book as therapy).

‘Love is whatever you can betray,’ reflects the main character. ‘Betrayal can only happen if you love.’ The theme of betrayal – to one's loved ones and to one's country – is a powerful one, even if I felt it got a bit smothered. The book is studded with brilliance – but not perfect, to me, by a long shot. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Jun 18, 2018 |
Loved it - one of those books I didn't want to stop reading. The characters are so well drawn that you feel like you know them.

Must mention the appalling quality of the conversion of the ebook though - it's obvious that the Penguin Canada edition was never proof-read as the text has a number of OCR issues. My favourite was the sentence which read "The stairs were lined with portraits of rude men." That has been making me laugh all day. ( )
  AJBraithwaite | Aug 14, 2017 |
Extraordinarily tedious and overwritten. ( )
  mlfhlibrarian | Jul 19, 2017 |
One of his greatest works. Part espionage, part bildungsroman, part autobiography, all great. Would rate as the full five but the end seemed a bit rushed (Not that it is easy to rush a 600 page novel!), and what I thought may have been important times in Pym's life were glossed over, despite this being more of a coming of age story than a full life account. ( )
  BooksForDinner | May 22, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
In his work, Mr. le Carré shows an advanced sense of irony. His characters work hard to find the truth, or to conceal it, and in the end the truth never seems to matter all that much. Life is a sort of endless agitation over unplumbable depths. If Rick Pym inadvertently made Magnus Pym into a perfect spy - a man with loyalty, but no object for that loyalty, a man who at one time or another betrays everyone with whom he has an important connection - then Mr. le Carré's father inadvertently made John le Carré into a perfect spy novelist - intimately aware of the dynamics of love and loyalty as tools to be used in the covert manipulation of men, knowledgeable in the uses of the lie, cognizant of the fragility and vulnerability of those whom life, in one way or another, has badly hurt. I accuse Mr. le Carré of no immodesty in this conceit. The books, after all, are there. He is a perfect spy novelist.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Frank Conroy (Jul 20, 1986)

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
le Carré, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Moppes, Rob vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paggi, DidaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paggi, MarcoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KariTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KjellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A man who has two women loses his soul.
But a man who has two houses loses his head.

For R,

who shared the journey,
lent me his dog and tossed
me a few pieces of his life
First words
In the small hours of a blustery October morning is a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxi-cab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church square.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743457927, Paperback)

John le Carré's classic novels deftly navigate readers through the intricate shadow worlds of international espionage with unsurpassed skill and knowledge, and have earned him unprecedented worldwide acclaim.

Immersing readers in two parallel dramas -- one about the making of a spy, the other chronicling his seemingly imminent demise -- le Carré offers one of his richest and most morally resonant novels.

Magnus Pym -- son of Rick, father of Tom, and a successful career officer of British Intelligence -- has vanished, to the dismay of his friends, enemies, and wife. Who is he? Who was he? Who owns him? Who trained him? Secrets of state are at risk. As the truth about Pym gradually emerges, the reader joins Pym's pursuers to explore the unsettling life and motives of a man who fought the wars he inherited with the only weapons he knew, and so became a perfect spy.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:06 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

When British intelligence agent Magnus Pym disappears, two desperate searches are initiated--the hunt of agents, East and West, for the missing spy and Pym's own quest to uncover the mysteries of his own past.

» see all 16 descriptions

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