There are times when you’re in a secondhand bookshop and you come across an old and fading paperback. If it’s among a general stock of them, it tells you that the shop has limited supply options, especially if they’re thrillers and romances published in the 1970s and have been so passed on since their purchase that their spines are held together between the creases by a good dose of luck. Alternatively, the ageing can lend a feel of the time to the right book.
My copy of Le Carré’s groundbreaking spy novel is borrowed from a neighbour. It’s fairly yellowed, has signs of wear on the cover, is sound of binding, but has no foxing or sunning as we say in the trade. Actually, the yellowing is at what I’d call the tobacco stage. No matter: it’s readable.
There’s something recognisably shocking about the novel. Plenty, I’m sure, has been written about it, but I wanted to add that the colour, feel and smell add something extra to the evocation of the cold war getting into a more pendulous swing in the early ‘60s courtesy of the Berlin Wall. This is especially so when it comes to the squalor. The protagonist, Leamas, is a British agent who’s pensioned off only to descend into ever deeper trouble while adjusting to civilian life. His adjustment – a library job, a chance meeting with someone from his military past who doesn’t seem all he seems, a punch-up that’s quick and nasty – all takes place in a grimy post-war London and a recovery position from spiralling alcoholism. The ingloriousness and cynicism towards the world of spying is wrapped up in a realism that famously contrasts with the world of James Bond. And what I notice when I encounter oil stains on a few pages is the way a lived-in book from the right era carries a physical embodiment of that era right there into your hands.
OK, so it’s a 1974 reprint with a 1970s cover. But the feel is still there. I come across copies of this book regularly. The recent reprints don’t quite look the part. Partly it’s the design sensibilities. Mostly though it’s the presence itself. It reminds me of those teenage celebrities who appear on nostalgia documentaries to comment on their memories of things from before their time. Their reactions are genuine, of course. But those who speak as if they were there end up sounding slightly daft.
Extract from p.13 (1974 Pan reprint, or the opening of chapter 2)
He watched the Templehof runway sink beneath him.
Leamas was not a reflective man and not a particularly philosophical one. He knew he was written off—it was a fact of life which he would henceforth live with, as a man must with cancer or imprisonment. He knew there was no kind of preparation which could have bridged the gap between then and now. He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary. He’d lasted longer than most; now he was beaten. It is said a dog lives as long as its teeth; metaphorically, Leamas’ teeth had been drawn; and it was Mundt who had drawn them.
Ten years ago he could have taken the other path—there were desk jobs in that anonymous government building in Cambridge Circus which Leamas could have taken and kept till he was God knows how old; but Leamas wasn’t made that way. You might as well have asked a jockey to become a totalisator clerk as expect Leamas to abandon operational life for the tendentious theorising and clandestine self-interest of Whitehall. He had stayed on in Berlin, conscious that Personnel had marked his file for review at the end of every year—stubborn, wilful, contemptuous of instruction, telling himself that something would turn up. Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results. Even the sophistry of Whitehall paid court to that law, and Leamas got results. Until Mundt came.
It was odd how soon Leamas had realised that Mundt was the writing on the wall.