Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Honourable Schoolboy: John le Carré

The Honourable Schoolboy is the middle  book in the Karla Trilogy. After unmasking the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is now after his opponent in the KGB, Karla. John le Carre's website gives this description of the book:
George Smiley has become chief of the battered British Secret Service. The betrayals of a Soviet double agent have riddled the spy network. Smiley wants revenge. He chooses his weapon: Jerry Westerby, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’, a passionate lover and a seasoned, reckless secret agent. Westerby is pointed east, to Hong Kong. So begins the terrifying game…..

Another very long book by John le Carré. I have yet to read a book by this author that I did not enjoy, so the length is not an issue. But this one did go more slowly for me. I love the characterization in his novels and he writes so beautifully. I did get involved with the characters and I wanted everything to turn out well; of course it doesn't. At least in this story, some of the characters appear to be make choices about their futures.

I liked the focus on Jerry Westerby in this book. He is an interesting character, a spy called on to do Smiley's bidding. He had been put "out to grass" because he was no longer useful, with the possibility that his identity had been blown by the mole.

There was just enough of Smiley in this novel for me. Smiley seems to be more ruthless than he was in earlier novels, which seems realistic, if he wants to achieve his goal. Along the way I began to feel that Smiley and those working for him were being set up for failure. Spying is dirty work (like politics). Of course, knowing that this is part 2 of a trilogy gave me some hope that things will work out in the end, although it is unusual for a novel by le Carré to have a feel good ending.

I loved reading the reviews of this book. So many people panned this novel as a bore and not up to the rest of le Carré's work and just about the same number said it is one of their favorites by le Carré. Some say it is a slog; others say it is exciting. Maybe it is all up to whether one enjoys the scenes in Southeast Asia, which do tend to go on. I fall in the middle. I did enjoy it, I would have no problem rereading it because I know I would understand more the second time around. But it did have less of an impact than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and it was more depressing in the end. I can't speak for Smiley's People, as I haven't read that one yet.

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)

Other resources:


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Publisher:   Penguin Books, 2011. (Orig. pub. 1977)
Length:       606 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Karla Trilogy, #2
Setting:      UK, Cambodia, Hong Kong
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.


14 comments:

  1. Must admit, it is probably my least favourite of the three - wish I had a more original viewpoint, but actually I am not as keen as many on the Smiley-Karla trilogy. Great review Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. The only real problem I had with it was it was long and slow reading. But the Westerby character (and others) balanced that out. Probably, after I have read Smiley's People, I will agree with you on the ranking in the trilogy.

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  2. I know what you mean, Tracy, about the length. Somehow, I tend to forgive that sort of thing in le Carré when I might not in others. This one's not the very best of his work, but le Carré at his weakest is heaps better than many other writers at their best.

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    1. I suppose it could have benefited from being shorter, Margot, but I enjoyed it throughout regardless. So far I have been pleased with everything I have read by le Carre, even when it is depressing.

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  3. It has been too long for me to remember the book. What I find best in the Le Carre books is that the stories feel real, frighteningly so at times. He builds dread so well.

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    1. He definitely does that, Bill. I remember that there were intimations that things were not going well, and it added to the tension.

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  4. I'll get back to Le Carre and Smiley one day. I'm glad you are enjoying them, I've plenty to look forward to.

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    1. I had been saying I was going to read these for a long time, Col, so I am glad I finally did. You know how I love espionage fiction.

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  5. Tracy, I have not read this book. I loved the cover though I can't say the same for the page count.

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    1. I like the cover too, Prashant. The book is nearly 200 pages longer than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and that is not a short book. But I felt it was worth it.

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  6. I bought this when it came out, Tracy, possibly as a book club selection. And I've never tried to read it--or maybe I started it and gave up. Pretty sure I still have it in one of the several boxes of books I haven't unpacked yet after two moves. I probly ought to give it a try, again if that's the case.

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    1. You should definitely give it another try, Mathew. You might still not like it but worth a try. It is soooo long. But when I read le Carre I don't mind so much.

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  7. I'm like Sergio - this is my least favourite. But I do remember getting lost in it when it was first out: it wasn't what I was expecting, but I read it less as a spy thriller than as a novel. But I have re-read the other 2 Karla books, and never this one.

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    1. I never have figured out why I like spy novels so much, Moira. They confuse me (almost always), they are often bleak and depressing... and I like to be entertained and have a feel good ending. But I keep coming back for more. It will be interesting when I try some le Carre novels that are not really spy fiction.

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