If there's a contemporary novelist whose books have been more faithfully reworked into dramatic form than John le Carre''s, his or her name does not leap to mind. That observation is prompted by a viewing of the six-hour production of "Smiley's People," which finally found its way to Baltimore last week (we believe in deferred gratification in Charm City) and which leaves me still clucking in astonishment: never has it been my pleasure to see a more skillful dramatic presentation mounted especially for television.
The fidelity of this two-part series to le Carre''s original is remarkable -- not merely fidelity to plot and setting and characterization, which any literal-minded director can achieve with a minimum of effort, but fidelity to the novel as a work of literature. As with the Richard Burton film of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and the earlier Alec Guinness television production of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," this version of "Smiley's People" was le Carre''s novel brought entirely to life; save for the large satisfaction of reading le Carre''s prose, nothing of real significance was lost in the translation from book to screen.
To say that the adaptation is true to the novel "as a work of literature" doubtless will provoke immediate objections in certain quarters, where the mere notion that le Carre''s work can be treated as "literature" is greeted with contempt. Even when the more elevated journals of literary opinion condescend to treat his novels seriously, it is invariably with much fluttering of qualms and qualifications: but of course he is only a "popular novelist," his books are "best-sellers," he writes "diversions" and "spy stories." He does it all very well, to be sure, but the most that can be said on his behalf is that he occupies a stratum several layers below the exalted heights at which "literature" can be said to exist.
So goes the "line" on le Carre' in the right places. But all I could think, as I sat spellbound before the television set, was that the "line" is a crock. Long after all but a handful of the current darlings of the literati have passed into the oblivion that is so deservedly their reward -- if in fact as much as a handful can survive close, dispassionate scrutiny at some remove from the watering places of New York, Cambridge and Martha's Vineyard -- John le Carre' will be read and admired. This will be so not because le Carre' knows how to pluck the strings of the popular audience, but because he writes novels that have the qualities of enduring literature.
What the literati can't understand about a writer such as le Carre' -- what in fact they seem actively to dislike in such a writer -- is that his books are out there in the real world. Le Carre' writes not for other writers or for assistant professors of English, but for serious readers who understand that books can only work if they connect with life. Yes, he seeks to entertain, a quality that has been most emphatically out of literary fashion for much of the postwar era; but those who believe that he stops there are either blind to his larger accomplishments or willfully neglect them.
To be sure, le Carre''s one attempt to move his fiction beyond the world of espionage -- a best-forgotten novel called "The Naive and Sentimental Lover" -- was a failure. But that proves nothing except that his mastery of one world does not necessarily extend to others; Faulkner, after all, failed when he tried to leave Yoknapatawpha -- failed utterly. A novelist's world is narrow only if he chooses to make it so, or if he has neither the ability nor the vision to expand that world past its most immediately visible limits.
What matters is that le Carre' has found, in the netherworld of espionage, the place that all of us inhabit. It is a world of individual souls: ". . . today, peering calmly into his own heart, Smiley knew that he was unled, and perhaps unleadable; that the only restraints upon him were those of his own reason, and his own humanity. As with his marriage, so with his sense of public service. I invested my life in institutions--he thought without rancor--and all I am left with is myself." Of blind destiny: ". . . it occurred to Toby at that moment, and probably to everybody else as well, that Grigoriev was exactly what he claimed to be: a humane and decent man caught in the net of events beyond his understanding and control." Of complex and universal emotions:
"On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man; and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was eminently familiar."
All of these passages are from "Smiley's People," to which the television adaptation sent me back in a great rush of pleasure. As it happens I think this to be the best of le Carre''s novels and therefore the best of the George Smiley trilogy; the two other Smiley novels are "Tinker, Tailor" and "The Honourable Schoolboy," and the trilogy has recently been issued by Knopf in a single hardcover volume, under the title "The Quest for Karla," at the most attractive price of $10.95. But such comparisons get us nowhere and are quite beside the point. This is what counts: that over the course of nine published novels, John le Carre' has produced a body of work that is notable for technical brilliance, depth and consistency of themes, and absolute verisimilitude.
That his work has proved so adaptable for dramatization is testimony not to any shallowness in that work but to the skill and sensitivity of the adapters. If anything, it is something of a miracle that they have managed to make his intricate, ambiguous fiction come to life on the screen. For it cannot be said of le Carre' that he merely raises the standards of popular fiction; it is more accurate to say that he brings the popular audience into the hallowed terrain of literature.