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Spy Writers On George Smiley

George Smiley, a Spy among Spies

When John le Carré introduced the character of George Smiley in his 1961 novel Call For the Dead, he was hardly the figure of a deadly secret agent. On the first page, le Carré wrote he was  “short, fat, and of a quiet disposition” and someone who “appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes.” Not exactly 007. But in the last 50 years, George Smiley has quietly and utterly changed the landscape of the spy novel. We asked several prominent novelists to tell us what Smiley, and by extension John le Carré, means to them.

Olen Steinhauer on George Smiley

Tinker, Tailor is, to my mind, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century –– the finest espionage novel I know of –– and is a book I return to annually as I try to rethink my approach to my own work. As with Smiley himself, this repeated examination continually yields riches and fresh insights. We all know that Smiley came along at a time when spy fiction was in dire need of a realistic protagonist, but Smiley is more than that –– he's the wise old man that we all hope is keeping watch over our security. With the 20/20 of hindsight, it seems that Smiley might have been as much a fantasy as Bond, but he's a fantasy that we can return to because of his complexity and rare intelligence. Each time Smiley polishes his glasses, we sit up and take as much notice as when James Bond slaloms down the Alps with a Walther PPK in hand. Only a writer of le Carre's power could achieve this wonderful trick, and three and a half decades later we're still noticing.

Bio: Olen Steinhauer’s first novel, The Bridge of Sighs, began a five-book sequence chronicling Cold War Eastern Europe, one book per decade. It was nominated for five awards. The rest of the sequence includes: The Confession, 36 Yalta Boulevard, Liberation Movements –– this one was nominated for an Edgar Award for best novel of the year –– and Victory Square, which was a New York Times editor's choice. With The Tourist, he began a trilogy of spy tales focused on international deception in the post 9/11 world. The second volume, The Nearest Exit won the Hammett Prize for best literary crime novel of the year. The finale, An American Spy, will be published in March 2012. Learn more at his site: http://www.olensteinhauer.com.

Philip Kerr on George Smiley

I‘ve admired George Smiley for years. I think a lot of older men such as I am, see something important of themselves reflected in Smiley’s very anti-heroic, window-sized glasses. In our various chosen professions I suspect that all of us have, at one time or another, like John le Carré’s inimitably doleful spy, been passed over, dismissed, forcibly retired, and forgotten; or have disappointed or been disappointing as husbands and lovers. But the great thing about Smiley is his quiet and very Churchillian determination to keep buggering on against all the odds; more than that, to triumph over the insulting assumptions of small-minded and spiteful colleagues that ‘dear old George’ is no longer up to it, and spectacularly to succeed where the self-declared high-fliers, the wide-boys and the Lord’s anointed have all failed. To that extent, Smiley is an inspiration to us all and the only too human equivalent of Aesop’s victorious tortoise. It’s not Jason Bourne, or James Bond, or Jack Ryan who wins my vote as the greatest spy in fiction and on screen. It’s George Smiley.

Bio: Philip Kerr is the author of more than 20 books, including seven Bernie Gunther novels, several standalone thrillers, and six books in the young-adult series Children of the Lamp under the pen name of P.B. Kerr. In 2009, he won the British Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award and Spain's RBA International Prize for Crime Writing for his Bernie Gunther series. A former advertising copywriter who released his first book in 1989 and in 1993 was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young British Novelists, he now divides his time between London and Cornwall. Learn more as his site. http://www.philipkerr.org.

William Boyd on George Smiley

Photo by Eamonn McCabe

George Smiley is le Carré's Mr. Pickwick – in the sense that this fictional character seems to have leaped the bounds of the novels he has appeared in and has achieved a life of his own. Smiley is middle-aged, small, portly, bespectacled, a cuckold and a bibliophile –– the very opposite of a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. His extra-literary life has been facilitated by two compelling portrayals of him in adaptations of Tinker, Tailor. The first was by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC television series and now, in the new film version, we have Gary Oldman, who commendably resists the temptation to channel Guinness and turns in a performance of mesmerizing, still intensity. "Less is more" was never better exemplified

Bio: William Boyd has written over ten novels, many which have been internationally honored: A Good Man in Africa (Whitbread First Novel Award & Somerset Maugham Award), An Ice Cream War (John Llewellyn Rhys Prize & shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction), Brazzaville Beach (James Tait Black Memorial Prize & McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year) and Restless (Costa Book Award, Novel of the Year) –– to name just a few. He’s also written various screenplays and recently adapted his novel Any Human Heart into a miniseries for Channel 4 (UK) and PBS (USA). Learn more at his site: http://www.williamboyd.co.uk/.

More From Focus Features:

Smiley Lives
A Short History of George Smiley
Tracking down the many lives of John le Carré’s famous spy.
Gary Oldman
Being Smiley
Who could don the larger-than-life spectacles of George Smiley?

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