Rereading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


I can’t remember when I first read John le Carré’s third novel “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” (From now on referred to as The Spy for the sake of my sanity.) I suppose that it must have been during my late teens. Anyway, after receiving a free copy from World Book Night, and after struggling through the dire translation of Stanislav Lem’s “The Cyberiad”, I want something to cleanse my pallet.

The Spy is a good way to clear my head of a really confused translation. I’m only a few chapters into my reread — he’s about to meet Liz at the library for the first time — and the most striking part of The Spy is the preciseness of the language used. It’s almost perfect.

William Boyd, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, comments that the choice by John le Carré to use the omniscient perspective for a spy novel is unusual. I do agree that it’s unusual, as one would probably expect a first-person or maybe a very close third-person subjective — which essentially the same thing as first person with some major advantages. But it works in The Spy because John le Carré is seriously fucking talented.

The vividness of the third-person omniscient perspective in The Spy is a clear example of what John Gardner writes about in his book the “The Art of Fiction.” I’ll quote from Rudy Rucker’s writing about “The Art of Fiction” because I’m too lazy to find my own copy.

“The amateur writes, ‘Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.’ Compare: ‘She turned. In among the rocks two snakes were fighting.’ … vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” p. 99. Yes! Of course! I’ll start doing that. In a way this is an elementary example of using omniscient author POV instead of third-person subjective.

And now consider this with this extract from The Spy:

“Pushing up the collar of his jacket, Leamas stepped outside into the icy October wind. He remembered the crowd then. It was something you forgot inside the hut, this group of puzzled faces. The people changed but the expressions remained the same. It was like the helpless crowd that gathers around a traffic accident, no one knowing how it happened, whether you should move the body. Smoke or dust rose between the beams of the arc lamps, a constant shifting pall between the margins of light.” (Chapter 1)

Although this isn’t the best example in The Spy, but I don’t have an ebook version to choose a better example. Still consider the above paragraph if you can’t find your own copy of The Spy. There are other examples of short stories and novels by dozens of different writers who use similar techniques of narrative distance. Graham Greene in his short stories at least certainly uses ideas related to this even if he’s writing in the third-person subjective. This is a technique worth keeping an eye out for.

I hope now that I’ve gotten this minor observation out of my head I can carry on reading The Spy for mostly for pure enjoyment, and not because I’m trying to workout how it works.

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