I had a relaxing evening yesterday, eating dinner with my parents by the Chanukah lights and then spending some time reading a novel, which I haven’t had much time/energy for lately. It’s too easy to prioritise religious reading over recreational reading, and then be too tired to read for fun and just vegetate in front of the TV instead.

I woke up very drained today again. This is what frustrates me most, constantly waking up so drained and burnt out, particularly after busy days, and only slowly being able to motivate myself and get going, particularly on non-work days. I’m not sure how I manage to get going faster on work days. If I worked every day, would I get up earlier and get going faster, or would I just crash and burn after a while?

I took today as a mental health day, really, because I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed lately and close to relapsing into depression. Even so, doing nothing, or not much, makes me feel guilty, so I can’t win, especially as I tend not to do anything relaxing, because that would provoke even more guilt, so I just procrastinate while trying to do things.

I was glad that I didn’t have much to do today, mainly cooking dinner (Hungarian pepper ragout) and writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which was easier than I feared it would be. We (my parents and I) also went to my sister and brother-in-law’s house for socially distanced Chanukah donuts in the garden, hours before the tier 3 quasi-lockdown comes into effect. Cooking was a real effort. I enjoyed seeing my sister and BIL, but I am worried that we were out rather late and I have to be up early for volunteering tomorrow morning. I don’t want to oversleep, as I’ve missed the last two weeks.

Today’s donut: white icing, and then I was prevailed upon to have another, chocolate-filled. I think the second one was probably a mistake, all things considered.

***

I’m reading the James Bond novel Doctor No. I haven’t read any James Bond novels before. My Mum wouldn’t let me read it as an older child, thinking the novels were more sexual than the films (going by this book, they aren’t, nor are they any more sexual than the Doctor Who novels I was reading at the time) and then by the time I was old enough to read what I wanted, I had lost interest in James Bond. But it was part of the omnibus of spy novels I started reading, so I just carried on. Literary Bond turns out to be a more interesting and likeable character than film Bond, capable of compassion and self-criticism. I’m not sure if I’ll actively seek out any of the other novels, but if I come across one in a charity shop, I’d be tempted to buy it, or to borrow from the library.

Speaking of spy novels, I heard that John le Carré had died. I have a weird relationship with his books. His non-George Smiley ones don’t interest me much. I’ve read seven and only two were any good (A Small Town in Germany, and A Perfect Spy, which is a bildungsroman disguised as a spy novel ). However, I’m a big fan of the nine George Smiley novels, even the ones were Smiley barely appears, or the ones that objectively probably aren’t that great (The Looking-Glass War would arguably be better-received if it wasn’t a Smiley novel, as it’s stylistically very different to the others, basically a very dry and ironic satire, almost imperceptibly so). The Smiley books, especially those of le Carré’s mature period, from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy onwards inhabit their own world, every bit as complex and well-crafted as any fantasy or science fiction universe, but notionally more “real,” a world with its own nomenclature and rules of engagement. It’s one of my autistic interests and I love to lose myself inside it. The early Smiley books don’t have that level of detail, but are still interesting and engaging.

I think part of the reason I prefer the Smiley books to the non-Smiley ones (there is technically some overlap of characters and terms, if you want to be really fannish about this, but I’m defining Smiley novels as the ones where Smiley appears, however briefly) is that le Carré wasn’t a great writer of thrillers. I know that sounds like heresy, considering his reputation as the great thriller author, but his best novels (Tinker, Tailor…, Smiley’s People and the non-Smiley A Small Town in Germany) are crafted as mysteries rather than thrillers, just set in the world of spies; A Murder of Quality, despite having a retired Smiley as the protagonist isn’t even set in the spy world, but deals with a murder in a public school that Smiley gets roped into investigating. The non-Smiley books are mostly thrillers and I find them too slow, and they suffer from uninteresting and often irritating protagonists. Le Carré seemed to have a fondness for somewhat passive heroes coming from lower depths of the English ruling class. His treatment of women wasn’t great either, and I could write a whole essay about his presentation of Jews. Le Carré was at his best when building a world of spies, then creating an unravelling mystery so that the reader can slowly explore it.

George Smiley himself was a creation of genius. In a genre dominated by oversexed, amoral superheroes, the diminutive, fat, bespectacled, much-cuckolded spy, bothered by his conscience and constantly dreaming of returning to academia is pretty much unique, and more suited the unravelling of mysteries than action sequences, although his spycraft is immaculate.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably his best novel. It’s a novel of character, a story of Britain’s post-war decline and a satire on the way that greed and ambition can blind people and organisations as to what is happening before their eyes as much as it’s the story of Smiley’s search for the traitor at the heart of British intelligence.

5 thoughts on “Spies

  1. The only spy novels I ever read were by Robert Ludlum. I was kind of disappointed when the Jason Bourne movies came out because they didn’t have the low-tech, cigarette after sex in a hotel room 80s vibe the books did.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve read a couple of Le Carre books and liked them. I am a mystery lover so they must have had a large element of that. I got way more done and felt more accomplished when I worked, but was also stressed out and tired a lot of the time.

    Liked by 2 people

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