the permanent night-time of his elected trade

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When John le Carré published A Perfect Spy in 1986, Philip Roth, then spending a lot of time in London, called it ‘the best English novel since the war’. Not being such a fan of A Perfect Spy, I’ve occasionally wondered what Roth’s generous blurb says about the postwar English novel. As a le Carré bore, however, I’ve also wondered how Roth managed to overlook Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the central novel in le Carré’s career, in which George Smiley – an outwardly diffident ex-spook with a strenuously unfaithful wife and an interest in 17th-century German literature – comes out of retirement to identify the turncoat in a secret service that’s explicitly presented as a metaphorical ‘vision of the British establishment at play’. If you sit up late enough watching DVDs of the BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness, or Martin Ritt’s version of The Spy who Came in from the Cold with Richard Burton, it’s possible to persuade yourself that le Carré might even be the greatest English novelist alive. Unfortunately, looking at his other books the next morning makes this seem less likely, in part because the classic phase of his career ended earlier than we bores like to remember, and in part because some of his early strengths have become, in a changed context, weaknesses.

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