Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Looking Glass War: John le Carré

Summary from the author's website:
The Department has faded since the war, effectively mothballed, without agents or resources. But now, with intelligence of a possible missile threat, it again has a mission. This is a chance to prove its influence to those at the Circus, like George Smiley, who think the Department’s time has passed. The opportunity to reclaim former glory cannot be missed – even though it means putting men’s lives at desperate risk, on foreign soil. 
The Looking Glass War is a gripping story of the amorality of espionage – unflinching in its depiction of the men involved, who are as much full of vanity and fear as of selflessness and courage.
I read this as a part of my project to read all the Smiley books. This is probably the first book where Smiley is actually working for the Circus, under the head of that group, Control . In the others, he is retired or has been called out of retirement. Smiley plays a very small part in this one, although he shows up more than in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

This book focuses on employees of the Department, a group in the British intelligence service that has seen better days. The area the Department handles is related to military intelligence, whereas the Circus deals with political affairs. The Circus's fortunes have improved; those in the Department are looking for a way back to their former glory. They come upon some military intelligence that could be important and they seek to finance an excursion into East Germany to investigate. Smiley is a liaison between the Department and the Circus. It is an interesting part of Smiley's story, but it is not really about him.

I would not have missed this book, but it is pretty much of a downer. It does not glamorize the world of espionage at all. The main characters are all interesting, portrayed with depth, and le Carré tells a compelling story.

In comparison to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War did very poorly, especially in Britain. In le Carré's introduction to this book, written in 1991, he discusses the reception of this book and what he was trying to achieve when he wrote it.
After the success of The Spy I felt I had earned the right to experiment with the more fragile possibilities of the spy story than those I had explored till now. For the truth was, that the realities of spying as I had known them on the ground had been far removed from the fiendishly clever conspiracy that had entrapped my hero and heroine in The Spy. I was eager to find a way of illustrating the muddle and futility that were so much closer to life. Indeed, I felt I had to: for while The Spy had been heralded as the book that ripped the mask off the spy business, my private view was that it had glamorised the spy business to Kingdom Come.
...
So this time, I thought, I'll tell it the hard way. This time, cost what it will, I'll describe a Secret Service that is really not very good at all; that is eking out its wartime glory; that is feeding itself on Little England  fantasies; is isolated, directionless, over-protected and destined ultimately to destroy itself.
One reviewer at Goodreads said this was the bleakest book he had ever read. It is not the bleakest book I have read ... that book for me was The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips. But still, I found The Looking Glass War to be very grim and depressing. I am always looking for some touch of a happy ending and this book had nothing of that for me.

List of  'Smiley' Novels (with links to my reviews)

1. Call for the Dead (1961)
2. A Murder of Quality (1962)
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
4. The Looking Glass War (1965)
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
7. Smiley's People (1979)
8. The Secret Pilgrim (1990)


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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2002 (orig. pub. 1965) 
Length:       271 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      East Germany, UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.


22 comments:

  1. That's the thing about le Carré's work, Tracy. Sometimes it is quite bleak, indeed. He does create fine characters, though, and I've always liked his writing style. It's good to hear that you're glad you read this, even if it was awfully grim.

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    1. I was surprised at how bleak some of le Carre's books are, Margot. Yet I have no regrets about reading it, because his writing is just so good.

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  2. I've not come across a review of this book. What is your plan after reading all the Smileys? Are you going to work your way through the rest of his oeuvre? Well done for getting through this rather bleak book!

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    1. The book was good, crimeworm, but it was hard to read. Took me a while. I have two more Smiley books to read (or three if you count The Secret Pilgrim). After that, I haven't decided. I could start with the earlier books, but I am sure I will read The Night Manager soonish so I can then watch the TV series sometime.

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  3. I tried to read this one many years ago and couldn't finish it. I was probably much too young at the time to understand what he was trying to do. I should give it another try.

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    1. It probably would be good to give it another try, dfordoom. It was uncomfortable for me, but worth finishing.

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  4. I agree completely, this is a very interesting, ironic take not he genre but I have not really wanted to go back because it is so depressing - did you ever see the film version? They made some pretty big changes but I thought it worked well (but not any cheerier)

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    1. I am going to hold on to my copy of Looking Glass, Sergio, just in case, but I think it is not something I want to reread. I have not seen the film version and I would love to but so far it looks like I would have to buy it and it is a bit more expensive than I want to pay. But I will keep looking around.

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  5. Sounds like my kind of book! I'll get back to Smiley one of these years (hopefully)!

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    1. It does, Col. It would be perfect for you.

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  6. I read this years ago, and don't remember much about it, but I think there's a lot I'd re-read before getting to this one - bleak I can do without right now!

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    1. I know what you mean, Moira. I might have skipped it had I known, but both this book and The Spy Who Came in... fill in more information about Smiley. And I am glad I read it, at least once.

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  7. Tracy, you have made excellent progress with John le Carré's Smiley books, which I look forward to reading. I probably have a couple of them though their titles elude me as I type this.

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    1. I am making good progress, Prashant, better than I expected. I suspect that is because the writing is so good, it keeps me coming back for more.

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  8. I believe I bought Looking Glass War as a monthly choice when I subscribed to a book club in days past. Don't remember which one, either. I believe also my take on LGW was similar to yours, Tracy, as I'm pretty sure I abandoned it partway thru. I might still have it, packed in one of the boxes from my last move (3 years ago), but now I'm wondering if can be any more of a downer than A Perfect Spy, which I recently read and, tho definitely not upbeat at the end (or anywhere else in the narrative), I found it fascinating.

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    1. I am eager to read A Perfect Spy, Mathew, based on the comments I have read about it. I don't have a copy so it may be awhile though. I hope it is not quite as much a downer as Looking Glass, but I am sure I will find it a good read.

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    2. Send me a mailing address, and I'll send you A Perfect Spy. It's paperback but in good condition (I bought it at the library's recent used book sale). You can PM me at mattpaust@hotmail.com

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    3. Thanks, Mathew. Very thoughtful of you. I will get in touch soon.

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  9. TracyK: I want realism in spy fiction but not great bleakness. I have come to accept I am unreasonable as the "wants" will usually be in conflict.

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    1. Bill, it does appear that realism and bleakness go hand in hand in spy fiction. I like a middle ground somewhere.

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  10. Looking Glass War is brilliant. "Trust no one!"

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    1. It is, Lucy. The more I look back on the book, the more highly I think of it.

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