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George Smiley #6

The Honourable Schoolboy

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John le Carré's classic novels deftly navigate readers through the intricate shadow worlds of international espionage with unsurpassed skill and knowledge and have earned him -- and his hero, British Secret Service agent George Smiley -- unprecedented worldwide acclaim.

In this classic masterwork, le Carré expands upon his extraordinary vision of a secret world as George Smiley goes on the attack.

In the wake of a demoralizing infiltration by a Soviet double agent, Smiley has been made ringmaster of the Circus (aka the British Secret Service). Determined to restore the organization's health and reputation, and bent on revenge, Smiley thrusts his own handpicked operative into action. Jerry Westerby, "The Honourable Schoolboy," is dispatched to the Far East. A burial ground of French, British, and American colonial cultures, the region is a fabled testing ground of patriotic allegiances?and a new showdown is about to begin.

589 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1977

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About the author

John le Carré

371 books8,091 followers
John le Carré, the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England), was an English author of espionage novels. Le Carré had resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, Great Britain, for more than 40 years, where he owned a mile of cliff close to Land's End.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,225 reviews
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,639 followers
May 3, 2019
"What a man thinks is his own business. What matters is what he does."

This quote seems fairly elementary in substance, and I can’t help thinking how much this seems to reflect the basic expectation of the intelligence agents in this novel. A man or woman is given a set of orders, and those orders should be followed through with no exception. Associations with other human beings and emotions should not come into the equation. They do not belong in the world of espionage. Stopping to question certain morals is a major blunder. A bit of a fairy tale, I think, because when you insert a human being into the lives of others, not everything is black and white. That gray area in between can be quite confounding and rather perilous at times.

The Honourable Schoolboy is the second book in John le Carré’s Karla trilogy. After rooting out a Russian mole in the British intelligence agency, George Smiley is trying to pull his team back together and pick up the pieces of a broken service. A picture of Karla, his archenemy in the Russian service, hangs in his office serving as a constant reminder of his greatest objective – to remove this plague from not just the world at large, but from his own tormented mind.

"Smiley perceived in himself the existence of a darker motive, infinitely more obscure, one which his rational mind continued to reject. He called it Karla, and it was true that somewhere in him, like a left-over legend, there burned the embers of hatred toward the man who had set out to destroy the temples of his private faith, whatever remained of them: the service that he loved, his friends, his country, his concept of a reasonable balance in human affairs."

While I thought Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was my favorite le Carré thus far, I’d have to say this one exceeded even that! Admittedly, starting out, I struggled just a tad, but more as a result of my own decreased attention span given some external distractions. These books demand your full concentration. You don’t want to miss a beat! Eventually it was a full sprint to the end and I couldn’t read fast enough. Here we are taken into Southeast Asia in the early 1970s. Jerry Westerby, newshound and sometime-British secret agent, is plopped down right in the midst of a hornet’s nest. Danger lurks in every corner. The energy and glamour of Hong Kong and the turmoil-ridden landscapes of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are remarkably depicted. The threat of Red China to the interests of the rest of the continent is a major force to be reckoned with. The settings alone were enough to hold me captive; then throw in the rapid pace and exceptional characterizations and I was completely ensnared. What I particularly appreciate in this series of ‘spy’ novels (they are so much more than just that) is that we get to spend time in the gray area I mentioned above. Exploring the psyches of these characters is a major part of the attraction for me. I loved it!

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world."
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
May 5, 2014
Popular opinion has it that this is the weakest of the three Karla novels. I thought it was a masterpiece, and a more ambitious novel than Tinker, Tailor.

It is very different from the last book: suddenly there is this unexpectedly huge scope of Southeast Asia to go alongside the muted meetings in grey London office rooms. I can well understand how some readers might have felt it was two books jammed together, but for me the contrast worked perfectly and I was riveted by how brilliantly Le Carré unfurls the story. The writing here is simply incredible. I can't think of another writer who could have me on the edge of my seat with a twenty-page description of an interdepartmental meeting, but somehow that's what we get here. Here's the halfway point of the meeting, after several pages of close, detailed description: just admire how easily he suddenly slips into this spare, witty style:

‘Lunch,’ Martindale announced without much optimism. They ate it upstairs, glumly, off plastic catering trays delivered by van. The partitions were too low and Guillam's custard flowed into his meat.

The Southeast Asia sections are wonderfully accomplished. We have thumbnail sketches of the Laotian capital, the Cambodian Civil War, rich descriptions of pre-handover Hong Kong. Jerry Westerby, the hack reporter who doubles as an occasional stringer for British Intelligence, is a character who will ring true to anyone who's worked in journalism. As a reporter myself, I've never yet read a better description of why journalists do dangerous things for so little money – why they get out of the car, cross the road, head towards the gunshots:

Sometimes you do it to save face, thought Jerry, other times you just do it because you haven't done your job unless you've scared yourself to death. Other times again, you go in order to remind yourself that survival is a fluke. But mostly you go because the others go; for machismo; and because in order to belong you must share.

Oh that's wonderful (and practically thrown away in the middle of a paragraph). This comes in a long, virtuoso section which sees Jerry digging up information on a contact under cover of writing a story on frontline fighting in Cambodia. The book is full of such delights: everything from tiny foreign airline lounges to fashion shows to opium dens have an air of truth to them. I don't know if Le Carré is drawing on personal experiences, or if he just writes so well that I believe anything he says. Either way it makes this book a pleasure.

There are flaws. The final third is less good than what comes before, and the one main female character is too much of a damsel-in-distress, who has really no reason except convention for falling for our antihero. But I'll take that, for the joys of reading a spy novel I can actually believe, with some descriptive set-pieces of ‘The East’ that are unmatched.
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,607 followers
February 28, 2018
In the review I wrote for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I mentioned that it took me a while to accustom myself to the spy jargon as well as many of the British idioms. It gave me a very strange feeling to start reading this episode (# 6 in the George Smiley series) and discover: (1) the British idioms are offset by the fact that the Circus (centre of espionage in London) is balanced, and often explained by the Cousins (their American counterparts, based in Langley, Virginia); and (2) the definitions of the spy terms are woven seamlessly into the narrative itself. So we not only know who the Circus and the Cousins are, but we also know what Housekeeping is, what the Nursery is, and the many other phrases for departments within the British secret service.

This novel takes place largely in China – Hong Kong, for the most part. However, it also takes us to other parts of Asia and there are a few side-trips to London where George Smiley has been doing everything possible to pull together a stronger team after exposing the mole Russia had planted high in the ranks of the Circus. (See Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for that story). While he is busy ensuring all bugs are cleaned out and missing records are cobbled together out of the pieces that remain, an entire Chinese development is underway.

Coordinating the new development as well as wrestling some order and security back into being is a huge connected project for any one person. With his usual calm and quiet, but sharp intelligence, George Smiley is pulling everything together successfully, despite potshots from the Cousins and even some of his own team. How this all plays out is a credit to the author’s amazing storytelling.

John Le Carrè’s writing in this book is simply outstanding. The characters were all well-developed – some of them I loved, some of them disgusted me, some of them I felt deep empathy for, and there were some that I just didn’t know how I felt about them. Some had crystal-clear motivation, some had mixed motives, and some didn’t know what they wanted for themselves or what they wanted to accomplish.

The descriptive parts of the book were also excellent. In his introductory piece, John Le Carrè writes that he spent some months in China researching for this book. He traveled around with a group of journalists and also spent time getting to know the hang-outs for many different classes of people. His research is woven so smoothly into this novel that I felt like I was there myself. This is what great writers can achieve: carry us along on a journey we might never be able to take in real life, but create it so well and with such detail that we live it, too.

If you enjoy great storytelling, tangible atmosphere, plots with multiple threads that twine themselves together into an absorbing pattern, and fascinating characters, I can happily recommend this book to you.
Profile Image for Feliks.
496 reviews
September 17, 2016
I'm a longtime reader of the espionage genre --beginning as just a lad--and although I massively enjoyed all of John LeCarre's earlier works and particularly his George Smiley series--I must call out "The Honourable Schoolboy" for especial recognition.

This penultimate work of that series is really the triumph of LeCarre's career; the point at which he reached the full breadth and scope of his powers. Afterwards--although he enjoyed further achievements--I suggest that he never again eclipses this colossal, supreme effort of authorship. I name it the single greatest espionage novel ever penned. Pound-for-pound (in any one-on-one matchup versus any other 'stand-alone' title) it has no peer. Read on if you wish to learn why.

First: it is a lengthy book; much longer than most others in the genre--and written with rich, subtle prose. Prose honed by two decades of LeCarre's experience with the novel form. Every chapter is liquid, supple, silky. His best writing in a long time. Splendidly restrained, tempered, calm, and observant throughout. It's a sustained exercise in pacing and suspense which exists nowhere else in the genre, handled as finely.

Second: just as one would expect, there's an intricate and meandering unfolding of plot. But here [as always in leCarre] it is supported by an enormous array of warm, chewy, savory characterizations. More than he's ever tried before, I think. George Smiley is here; Peter Guillam; Saul Enderby; Connie Sachs; Molly Meakin (all the 'regulars' who make the rest of the 'Karla saga' so great). But there are new and unforgettable exotics such as 'Tiny Ricardo', 'Crazy Luke', 'Old Craw', & 'The Rocker'. Thoroughly inventive.

And certainly--just as in any novel of intrigue--there's a web of interlocking relationships uniting all these creations. But these characters don't just sit around in offices (as they do in some of LeCarre's earlier works). They act. They move. The story bounces and ricochets all over the lawless by-ways of early 1970s Hong Kong. It explodes over the pages.

Now, in his protagonist: we meet what may be LeCarre's most human, likeable character ever. Jerry Westerby, foreign correspondent; the eponymous 'schoolboy'. Affable, courageous, cynical, seasoned. A more complete and sympathetic version of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold's 'Alec Leamas' (played by Richard Burton in the hit movie).

But Westerby is not 'dead inside', not a 'shell'. He has the passion and idealism which the bitter and deflated Leamas completely lacked; he is the ideal sort of 'reckless' figure to support a 'journey-narrative' (as LeCarre gives us here). He doesn't just skulk sullenly around Mayfair or Brighton. He is one of those Britons who tramps all over the globe, TE Lawrence-style. [This 'globe-trotting' is one of the story's main themes: dying empire].

And that theme is grandly unfurled. You'll see immediately that the plot is set not just in Hong Kong--as bookcovers might suggest. Events and incidents in 'Schoolboy' range all over SE Asia. This is a startling, refreshing, and welcome change from the usual trenchcoat-tales which always feature dreary Berlin and London. Not since Eric Ambler, had any author made 'international' settings the backdrop to a tale of treachery. LeCarre merges Ambler's 'fun' format with his own introspective, deeply-psychological storytelling--which is very different even than what Graham Greene does.

And as you can immediately see, LeCarre really 'stretches all-out' with research for this sprawling yarn. Combat was still ongoing when he visited the East; and he captures some of the best ever visual imagery from that landscape. You will be wide-eyed at the descriptions of war-torn South Vietnam. You will visit Laos, Cambodia, & Saigon. First-hand. This is some of the most vivid Vietnam-era prose you will ever encounter. It's also a gesture of homage to the grand days of the Far East under British rule.

What else? Well, there is romance in 'Schoolboy' (Westerby wears his heart-on-his-sleeve), sadness and sexuality (Lizzie Worthington) there is weariness and cynicism (Smiley, Ann); issues of loyalty (a fiendish little Peter Lorre-like character named 'Fawn') and family (Drake & Nelson Ko, two mysterious Chinese brothers); there are smarmy colleagues and 'old boys' betraying each other. There is all manner of foiled schemes and collapsed lives; abandoned hopes and tainted ideologies. So this is far more than mere 'espionage'. It's a rummage-bin of motley, worn-out, subjects-of-the-Queen, all struggling with agonizing inner concerns--their duties, obligations, and lusts. And they're set off against a caustic, dispiriting, new frontier of money, injustice, and murder. Thus, it's a timely novel by any measure.

That's in addition to laying a new cornerstone in British spy fiction. You may as well consider it the most fully-formed, most mature, & most robust espionage novel yet produced in English literature. For that's what it is. This is the lone title to judge all others by. Previously, that torch was held by Somerset Maugham, or Greene, or LeCarre himself. But now, only Len Deighton's 'Game, Set, Match,' series (a trilogy, mind you) can favorably compare in depth and breadth to just this one, extraordinary LeCarre masterpiece.

I'm not done yet. I can--and shall--go on with my review. The praise I've ladled out so far may sound extravagant, but I've hardly scratched-the-surface. Let me put it this way: 'Schoolboy' is not just my favorite spy novel; it is also my personal favorite British novel since WWII, and actually...yes, maybe even of the entire Twentieth century. A sweeping statement from me; but yes, it is that superb. And I'll explain why.

Its partly because Le Carre writes about society from a unique perspective unavailable to most authors. He has Dickensian attention to detail and theme (you can say this about other moderns too, of course). But only in the same way that Charles Dickens portrayed his own era of Britain by describing--from top to bottom--institutions like law, labor, industrialization, banking, or prisons, can and does LeCarre express our own time by addressing the world of espionage and conspiracy. This is the lodestone for our era as nothing else is; and LeCarre writes as an insider.

Its partly also because LeCarre doesn't offer us just 'conventional' characters from the 'covert' world (the fetter of far too many of his competitors). His espionage is an all-embracing literary device. 'Schoolboy' draws its dramatis personae from all quarters of society: politics, journalism, academia, drugs, arms, the courts, the class system, economics, commercial trade, industrial trade, or even the church. His characters speak from knowledgeable positions within all of these spheres. They represent a Greek chorus which can only be enlisted by John LeCarre's special kind of storytelling; his singular flair for narrating 'institutional psychologies'. He illuminates these dynamos for us--all these engines of our era--from the inside. [This is why espionage is so valuable as a genre, by the way--and why LeCarre leads it.]

One more point: 'Schoolboy' is great because of the timeperiod in which LeCarre wrote. Who else was better positioned than LeCarre, to describe the fading rays of English colonialism? Who else there to witness the long decline and fall? Who else to sum up the whole postwar epoch? Who else to deliver both bureaucracy & diplomacy to lay readers? Who else to delineate the new era of geo-maneuvering? Only LeCarre can craft a tale with a fine-grained cross-section of such grand themes, events, & personalities all at once. From the highest corridors of political power, down to the dullest middle-class drudges of London's suburbs, down to the meanest, alley-scrabbling police informant, he roves his eye.

No, there's really no surpassing 'The Honourable Schoolboy' either as a spy novel or a novel-of-the-modern-world-at-large. Think of 'Schoolboy' as John LeCarre returning in triumph to the compacted, ultra-pressurized motifs which made 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' so potent, and re-igniting everything contained there, on a now-enormous scale. It's not just a spy story, it's a document of colonialism and empire. LeCarre is the only man who can make sense of it all. It's what we're all crying out for in this frightening age of government mandarins and official denials. I label it the best reading experience of our time, the best description of our grim, continuing-to-crumble, post-WWII era.
Profile Image for Nikos Tsentemeidis.
405 reviews206 followers
January 11, 2017
Σε αντίθεση με το πρώτο μέρος της τριλογίας, αυτό με κούρασε. Το τρίτο αστέρι πάει βέβαια στον Le Carre, ο οποίος δεν είναι απλώς ένας συγγραφέας noir. Είναι ένας πολύ καλός λογοτέχνης, με ωραίο λεξιλόγιο και ιδιαίτερη ικανότητα να αφηγείται.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,688 followers
November 16, 2015
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

― W.H. Auden

“Yet it's not for want of future that I'm here, he thought. It's for want of a present.”
― John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy


Well sport, this was a messy, sometimes uneven AND occasionally a plodding novel but I absolutely loved every single word of it. This is the second book of le Carré's Karla trilogy. Perhaps, the greatest spy trilogy ever. While more people focus on the first book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I personally love this one more. Le Carré is often compared to Graham Greene, but the only real literary comparison for this novel is Joseph Conrad. I was wondering why I kept thinking of Victory and Nostromo, and why I was overcome with this desire to read The Secret Agent. Conrad's ghost floats and haunts almost every page of this wonderful, beautiful, and sad spy novel.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,868 followers
March 27, 2022
This is the longest, densest, and in some ways most savage of Le Carré’s novels I’ve read, and it continues to affirm for me that he was a singular writer, even when aspects of his work feel a bit too obtuse and elusive, as some aspects do here. However, in this novel in particular, the manner in which his unflinchingly clear-eyed outrage interrogates and dissects the games played by governments and their intelligence agencies, is especially stirring, disturbing, and mournful. He is deeply interested in, and grieves for, the cost of these games on the individuals playing them, because almost all of them are deemed entirely expendable and forgettable by their lords and masters.

I will continue to make my way through his works, as heavy of a lift as they sometimes present themselves, because reading his writing feels like bearing witness to a terrible, unseen swath of history.
Profile Image for Mizuki.
2,971 reviews1,177 followers
May 9, 2022
One of the few bright spots in this story is how the author wrote the 1970s colonized Hong Kong ---Mr. le Carre actually did his field work in Hong Kong back then and he gave thanks to a lot of people who'd helped him there, I also enjoy how the author described the international spy network and how those spies work, but all the good things I have to say about this book end here.

Here are the bad things: I found the characters are rather flat, the plot and the war among spies slow paced and uninteresting. In the end I don't care what might happen to any of those characters. So it's a disappointed 2 stars.

My review for A Spy Who Came In From the Cold: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
431 reviews270 followers
October 16, 2021
4 ☆
In this life you can give yourself or withhold yourself as you please, my dear. But never lend yourself. That way you're worse than a spy.

The spy business is indeed rough and dirty. George Smiley successfully flushed out the longterm sleeper agent, the Russian mole, from the Secret Service (aka the Circus) in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He was then immediately tasked with rescuing the Circus from an ignominious demise and dealing with the growing mistrust from both Whitehall and the American "Cousins" (ie. the CIA). Fearing the corrosive reach of the mole, Smiley wielded not a scalpel but an axe. The Circus' staff is now one quarter of its "pre-fall" size and Smiley has admitted only 4 persons into his inner circle. Connie Sachs and Doc di Salis are old-hand analysts respectively in charge of intelligence for Russia and China, the two biggest Communist threats. After months of meticulous research into the traitor's past actions, Smiley has devised a plan of attack.
Never had Smiley gone into battle knowing so little and expecting so much. He felt lured, and he felt pursued. Yet when he tired, and drew back for a moment, and considered the logic of what he was about, it almost eluded him. He glanced back and saw the jaws of failure waiting for him. He peered forward and through his moist spectacles saw the phantoms of great hopes dancing in the mist. ... Yet he advanced without ultimate conviction.

It's mid-1974 and the battle arena encompasses Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Hong Kong has another twenty-plus years as a part of the British empire, which has been cut down in size as much as the Circus but for different reasons.
We colonise them, Your Graces, we corrupt them, we exploit them, we bomb them, sack their cities, ignore their culture, and confound them with the infinite variety of our religious sects. We are hideous not only in their sight, Monsignors, but in their nostrils as well—the stink of the round-eye is abhorrent to them and we’re too thick even to know it.

With much of the Circus' old networks blown, Smiley turns to the Honourable Jerry Westerby, journalist and "occasional" agent, to be his man in the field. Westerby has spent time reporting in war zones, and he'll need those hard-won skills as Smiley directs his steps into the tumultuous Southeast Asia of 1975. The Khmer Rouge is gearing up to create their killing fields in Cambodia while the US is in its last inglorious days before pulling out entirely from Vietnam.
In the East, sport, survival is knowing what you don't know.

Published in 1977, The Honourable Schoolboy feels different from its predecessors; this isn't a criticism. My only quibble was that I
wasn't entirely convinced about the motivation for the protagonist's course of action in the final chapters. Around 1974 or so, John le Carré had traveled in the company of a journalist throughout Southeast Asia and Hong Kong to capture the feel of the times. The place descriptions are strongly evocative. The speech of Westerby and his journalist colleagues are heavily peppered with the idioms of the decade. Excluding Smiley and his chosen, the characters in this international cast reflect the racist and sexist attitudes of their period (which probably still exists today albeit better masked).

But when I look at the themes, this novel is unmistakably by le Carré. There's a pervasive sense of diminishment or of loss - not only experienced by the Circus, by the British empire, but also by Western political philosophy. As Smiley plots in order to save the Circus, he will find more than two players on the gameboard. Worse, Smiley may not realize in time just which game is actually in play. Who else will need to be sacrificed?
To be inhuman in defence of our humanity . . . harsh in defence of compassion. To be single-minded in defence of our disparity.

... I chose the secret road because it seemed to lead straightest and furthest toward my country's goal. The enemy in those days was someone we could point at and read about in the papers. Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy.

... These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers.

The Honourable Schoolboy can be read as a standalone. But if you haven't yet picked up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, then read these two books in their proper sequence.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book485 followers
April 19, 2019
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
- W.H. Auden

What if you devoted your entire life to something because you thought it was the right thing, the good thing, the moral thing, and then you ended your life wondering if you had been completely wrong? It happens to a lot of people, particularly because things shift on us as the years go by and change in ways we do not notice or acknowledge, and because with age comes wisdom, or if not wisdom, perhaps just clearer vision.

MacArthur famously said, “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Perhaps the same can be said of old spies, cold wars, and people who live on the fringe of society, just clambering for survival. And, if they have not died, but are only faded, can they be restored?

These were some of the thoughts I had while reading this novel, because John le Carre is one of those who sees the underbelly of life, and the betrayals it contains, and does not flinch. The time is 1974-75, Vietnam is falling from the hands of the Americans, Southeast Asia is a hotbed of activity, legal and illegal, the British still exercise control of a sort over Hong Kong, and all the major powers are jockeying for power. The Russians are actively working the Asian world for intelligence, and Karla, Smiley’s nemesis is playing cards that the British and Americans don’t even know he is holding.

Enter George Smiley, an aging British spy, who still carries the moral code and convictions of World War II, but must try to fit that image of the world into a more cynical, less forgiving, reality. He releases into this malestrom a seasoned operative by the name of Jerry Westerby, a man who seems so isolated and lonely that he made me ache, another man who has given his life to an occupation that breeds doubt and insecurity in men who are so seemingly strong and fearless. And, another man who is questioning what it has all been about.

Peter Guilliam sums it up rather well, I thought, and in doing so lays out the basic premise of the entire book:

One day, thought Guillam, as he continued listening, one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.

This is the sixth book in the Smiley series, and the second in the Karla Trilogy, and what I have observed in reading them is that George Smiley’s struggle to reconcile the job he does--the terrible consequences that often go with it, the deception and the sacrifices--is constant, never-ending, and personally costly. That he survives at all is miraculous, but he does, because he is the heart and conscience of the Circus, and eventually the heart is needed or the body dies.

One last thought, if anyone can write a more complex, intricate, entangled plot without failing to leave even the slightest element dangling, I have never encountered them. This is a spy novel, of course, but it is oh so much more. When you close the book, you will not leave the characters or the story behind, and you will see parallels all around you in our own society, in the duplicitousness of government, in the way some people play chess with other people’s lives, in the way sometimes everyone loses.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.5k followers
June 4, 2020

There is a passage more than halfway through The Honorable Schoolboy which discusses the reading material that Jerry Westerby—the “schoolboy” of the title, about to embark for Phnom Penh—has brought with him on the plane.
He read the Jours de France to put some French back into his mind, then remembered Candide and read that. He had brought the book-bag, and in the book-bag he had Conrad. In Phnom Penh he always read Conrad; it tickled him to remind himself he was sitting in the last of the two Conrad river ports.
I smiled when I read this, for I had been thinking of Conrad for the last hundred pages or so. Most of Le Carre makes me think of Conrad. A career in espionage is—in its way—as isolating and maddening for the spy as the sea is for the sailor, as a far-flung colonial outpost is for the civil servant. Each of these remote milieux calls forth the uniqueness—and the oddness—of the lone individual, who, deprived of society’s customary comforts and restraints, may be seduced into making rash, irretrievable choices. This is perhaps doubly true of the secret agent, whose tasks require a counterfeit identity, the maintenance of which demands some degree of self-deception. Such a double life intensifies loneliness and may well lead the agent to disaster.

Thus it is for Jerry Westerby, the “honourable schoolboy” of the title. In 1974,George Smiley, spymaster of “The Circus,” intent on rebuilding the agency’s reputation after the discovery of a highly placed mole, believes the exposure of the purposes of a recently detected “gold seam”—a laundering operation of money through Laos in which the Soviets have a hand—may be just what the Circus needs to restore credibility. So Smiley sends Westerby—under cover as a sportswriter—to track the “gold seam,” determine its route of travel, its beneficiary, and its purpose. Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Laos provide Westerby with the answers, but they also change him personally, profoundly, leading him toward his own Conradian tragedy.

This is a rich, unsettling novel. Like Conrad’s heroes, Le Carre’s Westerby faces ambiguous moral choices, but in a post-Vietnam world filled with machinations and deceptions—both between and within governments—Smiley’s and Westerby’s moral charts seem more convoluted, less navigable—if it be possible—than Marlow’s and Lord Jim’s.
Profile Image for rameau.
553 reviews187 followers
August 18, 2012
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a tough act to follow, but I must admit I was expecting more. At first, I thought that’s exactly what I was getting but then the mind-numbing second third happened and I was lost in a way I never was in Tinker Tailor. I still don’t have a clear understanding of what happened—in the book or with my interest in it.

All I know is that I got sick of reading about Jerry. I got sick of Guillam’s overdone fawning. I got sick of the female characters—including Connie—portrayed as little else than objects or victims of a man’s obsession. Smiley himself, he was a changed man in this.

Still, the story had its good moments, and when it was good it was oh, so very good. The ending with its rebirth almost reassured me enough to forget all my troubles with this book. Almost.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,385 followers
July 21, 2016
John le Carré calls Hong Kong the world capital of espionage of the seventies. There on the invisible battlefields the unseen combats are being fought… But the invisibility doesn’t make the mêlées less cruel. Clandestinity just makes spy battles much more psychologically complex.
“A redhead, which was half-way to whoredom for a start. Not enough breast to nurse a rabbit, and worst of all a fierce eye for arithmetic. They said he found her in the town: whore again. From the first day, she had not let him out of her sight. Clung to him like a child. Ate with him, and sulked; drank with him, and sulked; shopped with him, picking up the language like a thief, till they became a minor local sight together, the English giant and his sulking wraith whore, trailing down the hill with their rush basket—the schoolboy, in his tattered shorts, grinning at everyone, and the scowling orphan, in her whore’s sackcloth with nothing underneath, so that though she was plain as a scorpion the men stared after her to see her hard haunches rock through the fabric. She walked with all her fingers locked round his arm and her cheek against his shoulder, and she only let go of him to pay out meanly from the purse she now controlled. When they met a familiar face, he greeted it for both of them, flapping his vast free arm like a Fascist. And God help the man who, on the rare occasion when she went alone, ventured a fresh word or a wolf call: she would turn and spit like a gutter-cat, and her eyes burned like the devil’s.”
The language is outright juicy.
“Sam had ranged a little wider in his enquiries than Head Office had sanctioned. Hard pressed, he had gone to the pedlars rather than file a nil return. He had fixed himself a side-deal with the local Cousins. Or the local security services had blackmailed him—in Sarratt jargon the angels had put a burn on him—and he had played the case both ways in order to survive and smile and keep his Circus pension. To read Sam’s moves, Smiley knew that he must stay alert to these and countless other options. A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”
All's fair in love and espionage…
The Honourable Schoolboy has its special stress not on spying but on the psychological subtleties of undercover affairs.
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,159 reviews104 followers
July 6, 2022
le Carré hitting on all cylinders. Through the eyes of Jerry Westerby we experience the moral ambiguity and messy consequences borne by the pawns and innocents caught in the fallout from the decisions of those whose desks and careers insulate them, by necessity, from society and humanity.
Profile Image for Nigeyb.
1,210 reviews265 followers
February 28, 2022
I'd wanted to read the George Smiley books since watching the BBC adaptation of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' back in the 1970s. I also subsequently loved the 2011 film adaptation directed by Tomas Alfredson, which I saw in the cinema, and rewatched recently.

Everything I had heard about the source material suggests joy and wonder would await and, I’m pleased to report, that’s exactly what I have found so far.

I have read the series, up until 'The Honourable Schoolboy', in quick succession…
'Call for the Dead' (1961)

A really intelligent, beautifully written novel, and a great introduction to the Smiley books which I know will only get better and better.

'A Murder of Quality' (1962)

Beautifully written and expertly plotted, it also takes a razor sharp scalpel to snobbery and the British class system, and has a pleasingly authentic and complex psychological dimension.

'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' (1963)

Treats the reader as sharp witted and bright enough to keep up. It is magnificent. Beautifully and economically written, and dealing in politics, intrigue and what it is to be human. A bold claim, but all life is here. It’s dark, very dark, but quite brilliant too.

'The Looking Glass War' (1965)

John le Carré lays bare snobbery, vanity, a sense of denial and delusion, repressed emotions, faded dreams, and incompetence. It's palpable, and often hard to read, but remains grimly compelling throughout. It’s exactly what he set out to write: a more truthful novel that captured the internal politics, the little Englander mentality, and the complacency of the mid-60s UK intelligence service.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974)

A complete masterpiece and my favourite in the series to far. It is also the first of the Karla Trilogy. A joy from start to finish.

And so to 'The Honourable Schoolboy' (1977)

It's 1974 and George Smiley - following his exposure of Bill Haydon as the mole - is the new acting chief of the Circus where he, and analysts Connie Sachs and Doc di Salis, look into investigations unreasonably suppressed by Haydon. They discover that Sam Collins's investigation of a money laundering operation in Laos could point to involvement by Karla.

Overall 'The Honourable Schoolboy' is a slight disappointment after the wonderful 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'. It felt incredibly long, overlong, and full of unnecessary detail, although there is also much to enjoy too.

As usual, the Smiley parts are excellent, his sections crackle with excitement even when they are confined to discussions in meeting rooms. However big sections of 'The Honourable Schoolboy' are given over to field agent Jerry Westerby. He is a character who never rings true. Why does he do what he does? What motivates him? Nothing about him is clear or plausible. It’s a shame, as there are some wonderful descriptions of his time in South East Asia including one long journey which is pure 'Heart of Darkness'/Apocalypse Now and which was surely some kind of homage to Joseph Conrad.

My enthusiasm for the Smiley books remains high, however I am hoping for a return to the highwater marks of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' and 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' in the next instalment, 'Smiley's People' (George Smiley #7) (1980).

Profile Image for Left Coast Justin.
390 reviews78 followers
March 14, 2021
I've never felt the need to apologize for preferring Le Carre's more recent novels to his cold war classics; The Honorable Schoolboy is the best of both worlds, and cements my belief that he was at his best when exploring the world beyond Moscow.

In an earlier discussion, I once mentioned that Le Carre writes two plots: Good guy gets crushed, and good guy barely avoids getting crushed. This is usually not resolved until the final few pages, and this book is no exception. But does anybody read him for the plots? I should think not. I read him in order to meet and really get to know new people, people who generally live much more interesting lives than the office managers, software developers and grocery clerks who make up my everyday social circle.

The enigmatic, outwardly calm but inwardly stressed legend George Smiley is in the driver's seat of an espionage operation involving a wealthy Hong Kong businessman and his shadowy relations to mainland China. Flavor is added by setting the story in the waning days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War (or, as they prefer to call it, the American war). A new character, Jerry Westerby, for reasons of his own, is not fully sold on the goals of the operation, and further complexity arises from the Americans' attempts to intervene. At the time the book was written, Hong Kong was still a British territory and so Smiley has some leverage to stave the Americans off.

All of this leads to plenty of palace intrigues in London and Washington, D.C., a struggle that is conveyed with impressive insight and understanding. But the heart of this book is really the bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, realistically located fourteen floors up in a Hong Kong highrise, fourteen floors above the "mud-brown sweat of building dust and smuts from the chimney stacks of Kowloon." This is where Jerry Westerby, putative journalist and actual spy, hangs out with his fellows, the vividly-described Craw, Rocker, California Luke and the Dwarf.

A common complaint against Le Carre is that he writes women poorly, which I agree with -- to an extent. I would argue that he has little interest in people who don't lead double lives, male or female, and reserves his awesome descriptive powers for people who are hiding something. Which, in this book, encompasses nearly everyone we meet, with the notable exception of the beautiful blonde Brit Elizabeth (though her parents, in a short scene painful to read, are well-rendered).

I don't think I've ever read a truly convincing description of Hong Kong, though Le Carre does as well as anybody else. To be fair, his focus is on the more rarified top-of-the-hill British section, which I have never visited. But the infernal heat and humidity, the mildew-blackened concrete highrises are still there, just as he described them. Another of the pleasures of this book (for me) is that a lot of it took place on boats, a place where we have not yet ventured in Smiley's books.

This book is a really enjoyable escape from reality for several hours. It's Le Carre's first attempt to expand his world beyond Eastern vs. Western Europe, a direction that comes into full bloom later in his career, and which provides his best writing. In my opinion, this is the best of the seven or eight books in which George Smiley plays a role.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books1,341 followers
May 26, 2017
I love le Carre, and I love the other two books in the Karla Trilogy, but for some reason this one didn't do it for me. I found the writing flat, devoid of le Carre's usual angry incisiveness, and the characters seemed more like wooden dolls than people. Maybe I'll revisit it some day, but let's just say, I'm in no rush.
Profile Image for Nilesh Jasani.
988 reviews135 followers
October 22, 2017
The Karla Trilogy is not a true trilogy but a marketing spin and this book proves it in more ways than one.

To start with, this book has little connection with the Karla-Smiley story of Tinker, Tailor. Yes, Karla is mentioned as linked to the spies being chased but with no other role whatsoever. Smiley team is there but more as a sideshow to the juvenile story of a fringe spy falling in crazy love over a single meeting, his Southeast Asian ventures and a complex capture tale where one is never clear what the entire fuss is all about.

Positively, the book vividly describes the expat life in early Seventies in HK, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand etc. It takes a while to overcome the inherent biases, but when one moves beyond what was an acceptable behaviour of so called heroes of the time, the book provides a good narration of interplay between people of various races then and there.

That said,there is no intrigue of the previous book. The twist of the tale never materialises. Too many characters are presented as caricatures of various stereotypes. The know-all Smiley himself never really crafts anything ingenious. And to top it all, the end is too incomplete even though realistic, one never knows whether Nelson, the chief villain, really mattered in the tiniest to Karla, China or the West. One is equally dark about the true nature of feelings between Jerry and Lizie, and if this was supposed to be the pinnacle of the retiring Smiley, it was simply too sad.

The book may have had more meaning in the Seventies when political events of Asia were momentous, the Cold War for all its inaction appeared thrilling and not much was known in the West about people and cities discussed here. Most of this appears less appetising now.

Second reading review:

I have decided to go through the entire le Carre collection and was least excited to pick this one up given the first reading impressions. I found the East Asian life descriptions more interesting than the first time. The story read as meaningless as the first time, although I had far more appreciation of the 1970s spycraft described the second time. If I were to change my rating, on second reading, the book is a three star.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books277 followers
May 28, 2014
This is one of the greatest spy novels I've ever read. It's a powerful, ambitious, satisfying sequel to the very great Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The plot concerns the Circus (British espionage unit) tracking down a Soviet operation in the far East. Smiley rebuilds the shattered agency and hurls it into the fray. Without spoilers I can assert that The Honourable Schoolboy takes place largely in south and southeast Asia, with long stretches back in London, and an ultimate focus on Hong Kong. Every locale is sharply drawn.

The Asian plot plunges into major stories of former Indochina, namely the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge and the conquest of Saigon by the North Vietnamese. Those chapters would have been a standalone novel for any other writer; le Carre works them into the depths of this single book beautifully, integrating tones, themes, and action.

One affecting scene has the book's lead agent, Jerry Westerby (the title is his code name), confronting an American spy right after the fall of Saigon. The somewhat terrifying, utterly depressed American demands that the Brit shake his hand:
"I want you to extend to me the hand of welcome, sir. The United States of America has just applied to join the club of second-class powers, of which I understand your own fine nation to be chairman, president, and oldest member. Shake it!" (436)

Without spoiling, I can view the plot as a detailed description of a single intelligence operation, from start to finish. Or as an epic of moral compromises and attempted redemptions (note the plural). Or a thick slice of a thin moment in Cold War history. The details are extraordinary, from the micropolitics of inter-governmental lobbying to the intricacies of a city quarter to many minor characters.

Honourable is gorgeously written, with passages that range from lyrical to brooding, snarling to contemplative. I've been noting and reading aloud bits from throughout the novel:

The tiny ponds outside the high-rise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. (5)

Nobody learned anything, nothing changed, the offal was cleaned away in the morning. (331)

First, Smiley reviewed the wreck, and that took some while, in the way that sacking a city takes some while, or liquidating great numbers of people. (54)

[L]ittle ships, as Craw knew very well, cannot change course as easily as the winds that drive them. (192)

[Smiley]These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers. (533)

Talking of others, old men talk about themselves, studying their image in varnished mirrors. (236)

While the Americans are adding another five metres of concrete to the Embassy roof, and the soldiers are crouching in capes under their trees, and the journalists are drinking whisky, and the generals are at the opium houses, the Khmer Rouge will come out of the jungle and cut our throats. (346)

[Smiley again] To be inhuman in defense of our humanity, he had said, harsh in defense of compassion. To be single-minded in defense of our disparity. (460)

On Britain's elite:
[Jerry Westerby] had never seriously doubted, in his vague way, that his country was in a state of irreversible decline, or that his own class was to blame for the mess. (449)

On getting into something incredibly dangerous:

Sometimes you did it to save face, thought Jerry, other times you just do it because you haven't done your job unless you've scared yourself to death. Other times again, you go in order to remind yourself that survival is a fluke. But mostly you go because the others go - for machismo - and because in order to belong you must share. (341)

Reading matters a great deal, as is usually the case (every medium calls out to itself). Westerby chooses Conrad over Voltaire, just before heading into the fall of republican Cambodia.(328) He's a failed novelist, but very skilled in espionage, arguably as a kind of sublimation. An American spy compares one account to espionage fiction, to "something out of Phillips Oppenheim" (171)

When I finished the book I reread the last two pages several times, teasing out implications, savoring phrases, and letting the mixture of triumph and melancholy wash over me. Then I started to read the whole book from the first chapter, and only now have forced myself to stop in order to write this review. Enough.

I really, really want to read Smiley's People, the next book in this sequence, but am going to let some time pass in order to give The Honourable Schoolboy richly deserved space to breath in my memory and imagination.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,543 followers
June 17, 2022
The Smiley books are all outstanding and this one is no exception. What really impresses me is how the narration of each of them is completely different. The tone of Schoolboy is sort of a retrospective, written after the end of the story and looking back with an omniscient, unnamed narrator with a sense of humor and a daft talent for revealing details only as the story unfolds (with occasional teasers thrown in.) Rather than following the downfall of Smiley's wife's lover who took out the entire British secret service with him, we pick up the action as the survivors are picking up the pieces and eventually we make sense of the details we get from action taking place in Hong Kong. The pace picks up to a roar as the book draws us in and propels us to an explosive finish.

A nice setpiece about Smiley reading and thinking about his former boss, Control, who died in the course of the previous book:
"Smiley stared at an evening paper, not reading it. In a corner, not twelve feet from him, little Fawn had taken up the baby-sitter's classic position. His dark eyes smiled agreeably on the diners and on the doorway. He lifted his cup with his left hand, while his right idled close to his chest. Did Karla sit like this, Smiley wondered. Did Karla take refuge among the unsuspecting?

Control had. Control had made a whole second, third, or fourth life for himself in a two-room upstairs flat, beside the Western bypass, under the plain name of Matthews, not filed with housekeepers as an alias. Well, "whole" life was an exaggeration. But he had kept clothes there, and a woman--Mrs. Matthews herself-_even a cat. And taken golf lessons at an artisans' club on Thursday mornings early, while from his desk in the Circus he poured scorn on the great unwashed, and on golf, and on love, and on any other piffling human pursuit which secretly might tempt him. He had even rented a garden allotment, Smiley remembered, down by a railway siding. Mrs. Matthews had insisted on driving Smiley to see it in her groomed Morris car on the day he broke the sad news to her. It was as big a mess as anyone else's allotment: standard roses, winter vegetables they hadn't used, a tool-shed crammed with hose-pipe and seed boxes."

Typical poetic description from Le Carré:
"...northern fringes of London that are like the superstructure of perma-
nently sinking ships. They lie at the end of long lawns where the flowers
are never quite in flower; the husbands man the lifeboats all in a flurry at
about eight-thirty in the morning, and the women and children spend
the day keeping afloat until their men-folk return too tired to sail any-
where. These buildings were built in the thirties and have stayed a grub
by white ever since. Their oblong, steel-framed windows look on to the
lush billows of the links, where women in eye-shades wander like lost
(pp. 201)

I liked this one too:
"Last night there had been a storm, he remembered. Must have hit an hour before Luke telephoned. He had watched it from the mattress while the girl lay snoring along his leg. First the smell of vegetation, then the wind rustling guiltily in the palm trees, dry hands rubbed together. Then the hiss of rain like tons of molten shot being shaken into the sea. Finally the sheet lightning rocking the harbour in long slow breaths while salvos of thunder cracked over the dancing roof-tops.
killed him, he thought. Give or take a little, it was me who gave him the shove. "It's not just the generals, it's every man who carries a gun."
Quote source and context.
The phone was ringing."
(pp. 286)

This is just fun - reminded me of Jake and Elroy 100 miles from Chicago with $5 and sunglasses:
"Jerry clambered after him and, having settled himself into the co-pilot's seat, silently totted up his blessings: We're about five hundred tons overweight. We're leaking oil. We're carrying an armed bodyguard. We're forbidden to take off. We're forbidden to land, and Phnom Penh airport's probably got a hole in it the size of Buckinghamshire. We have an hour and a half of Khmer Rouge between us and salvation, and if anybody turns sour on us at the other end, ace operator Westerby is caught with his knickers round his ankles and about two hundred gunny bags of opium base in his arms." (pp. 325)
Profile Image for Barbara K..
397 reviews73 followers
August 19, 2020
The second volume in le Carre's fabled Karla spy trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy is a significant departure from the five Smiley books leading up to it. It's the longest of all the Smiley novels, and the only one where the action takes place outside of Europe.

The plot centers on people and events in Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong in particular. In the mid-1970s the area was a cauldron of conflict, pitting East against West, communism (both the Russian and Chinese varieties) against capitalism/democracy, and factions vs factions within individual countries.

Once again the core of the plot is a mole planted, this time in China, decades before by Karla, the Soviet counterpart to Smiley, head of the Circus, the British Secret Service. In the previous volume Smiley had unmasked a Karla mole hidden deep in the Circus, but by then serious damage had been done, and Smiley is now charged with restoring the honor of the organization he has cherished his entire life.

But the effort to identify the mole and leverage his position is only part of the story le Carré wants to tell here. Another is to describe the feel of Southeast Asia at the time, something he does vividly. Although I'd known a fair amount about area, whether from reading current events or history, I found a new appreciation for the day to day existence of the innocent local residents, treated as pawns going back even before French colonization.

The last part is an exploration of the extent to which it is possible for a spy, professional or "semi-pro", to disassociate from normal human connections. This is actually an expansion of an idea le Carré introduced in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. In that case the relationship was more tender, it seems to me, than in this book, where an overwhelming lust seems to be the driving force.

All in all another extremely satisfying offering from the Master of the espionage tale. Three more to go in the Smiley series - I should be able to make my goal of finishing them by year end.
Profile Image for Bradley West.
Author 6 books34 followers
June 19, 2016
After Tinker, Tailor, le Carre's fans waited many years for the follow-up The Honourable Schoolboy. When I first read the book 35 (!) years ago I recall being a little disappointed that the book wasn't more Smiley-centric, but in retrospect le Carre's shift in focus from treachery within the Circus to the exotic East was what the series needed lest it choke on its own incestuous fog.

The Hong Kong of the early 1970s in the book wasn't very different from the Hong Kong I encountered in the early 1980s. Many, many fewer skyscrapers than today and much less prosperity, but the same feverish pace, crowding and squalor (outside Central) persisted. Le Carre's eye for Hong Kong is spot on, while his caricatures of journalist Richard Hughes as Old Craw and the Foreign Correspondents Club are gems. No one does atmosphere like le Carre, and that's further evident when the author takes us to Cambodia-under-fire at the end of the Vietnam war, then up country to northern Thailand where Westerby is on the trail of Ricardo, an absent aviator and romantic rival.

Meanwhile, le Carre unfolds the principal espionage plot beautifully. There's a gold seam out of Indochina, then the whiff of Karla and, perhaps, a mainland KGB spy who is seeking to escape China. Smiley's and Connie's scenes are strongly written, with the gradual unveiling of the mole leaving me whipping through the side stories in order to get back to the latest information on the deep penetration agent.

Jerry's infatuation with Lizzie struck one of the only discordant notes. Le Carre invested a lot of effort fleshing out Jerry's character, and considerable time on Lizzie's, too. Lizzie's actions rang true, while Westerby always seemed a bit off (even the second and third time through the book). So the ending wasn't wholly satisfying, but that mild disappointment wasn't enough to reduce the rating.

* * * * *

I've read two of le Carre's novels three times, Smiley's People for its virtuosity, and The Honourable Schoolboy for setting and plot. So rather than nitpick, I'll conclude by saying that it's a great spy novel, a fantastic tour of Indochina and Hong Kong, and a pretty good character analysis of an unhappy middle-aged spy trying to do the right thing.
Profile Image for Gary.
239 reviews50 followers
September 5, 2021
This is the second in John le Carré’s trilogy starring George Smiley as the most important character although the main protagonist is really the man of the title, The Honourable Gerald Westerby, known as Jerry (shouldn’t that be Gerry?) Chronologically, this book follows Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but is complete in itself and the two stories are only loosely connected, so you can read this quite happily if you haven’t read TTSS. Like its predecessor, this is complicated, exciting, incredibly well thought out, difficult to predict and a joy to read.

The time is 1974/1975, the place, the Far East, mostly Hong Kong, which is still run by the UK. The Americans are losing Vietnam, the war has spilled over into Laos, the Khmer Rouge have almost taken Cambodia, and there is a thriving trade in opium in the region. The People’s Republic of China is known as Red China and is the great power in the region, of course, and is to be feared. Hong Kong itself is a hotbed of money, crime, espionage, fast living and big business.

Jerry Westerby is a British journalist who occasionally works for The Circus, as MI6 is known in these books (because its offices are in Cambridge Circus, London). He is experienced, clever, resourceful and well trained, so an excellent ‘field man’ for the Service. This is not apparent at the beginning of the story because he has been set aside and is kicking his heels in Tuscany with a young woman he picked up along the way.

The plot concerns the following up of a lead by George Smiley and his inner circle. This concerns a financial arrangement that has been noticed in Vientiane, Laos, and because it involves the Russian Embassy is of interest to MI6. The rest of the story describes how this lead is followed up, how it develops into something bigger and what they all do to try to unpick the knot. This encompasses a host of people, places and scenarios, as well as Whitehall infighting and politics. Also in the mix is the relationship between MI6 and the American CIA, which has infinitely more resources at its disposal.

I have not read this one before but I wish I had, it is excellent and I recommend it.

My only criticism is that the book seems to have been edited by an American. There are one or two instances of wording sounding more American than British despite it having been written by a British author and originally published by what I thought was a British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. I believe many publishers are now owned by American ones so perhaps they imposed their ‘house style’ on the book, which I can understand but dislike – but that’s life. I am sure it won’t put anyone off reading the book and it shouldn’t because the book is wonderful.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,427 reviews2,509 followers
October 12, 2019
These people terrify me but I am one of them

This follows pretty much straight on after Tinker, Tailor... Smiley is trying to re-build the Circus after the gross betrayal of the previous book and uncovers a money trail to Hong Kong. He recruits Jerry Westerby, an 'occasional' spy to go out to investigate not expecting Jerry's own romantic 'schoolboy' values to be his nemesis.

This feels like a book of transitions: Smiley, with that picture of Karla hanging over his desk, isn't quite the man he used to be, and the Service itself is changing away from the 'old school' Eton/Cambridge triad. To parallel these internal transformations, we're no longer just in grey London as half the story takes place in Hong Kong under the shadow of China, with Vietnam and Laos in the background, and the increasing presence of the Americans, nominally 'the Cousins' but with their own agendas at play.

Le Carré's plot, as ever, is winding and serpentine with his trademark relentless human betrayal, but I struggled with the slowness in places and especially with many of the scenes set in Hong Kong - the rowdy journalists, especially, who take up far too much page space. I also found Westerby unconvincing as a character, not least his white-knight persona and his romantic naivety which sits somewhat uneasily against his supposed smartness as both a journalist and a part-time spy. I can see where le Carré wanted to go with him: the 'honourable' old boy betrayed by the up-and-coming 'new men' but it's rather crudely done which is rare for le Carré. And the end is still moving as human connections and love are shown to be no match against expedient politics.

Interestingly, the book ends with a letter from Smiley to Guillam letting us into the former's head, a rare thing - and we find that Smiley has himself been touched by the events we've just read. So a much looser, if more politically ambitious, book than Tinker, Tailor... though certainly one which expands its bleak vision of the world. Smiley's People next...
Profile Image for Stuart Ayris.
Author 17 books136 followers
January 3, 2012
This the second in the Smiley/Karla trilogy - the only one (as far as I'm aware) that hasn't been dramatised and as such the least known of the three. Yet it is my favourite by far.

The main character is not George Smiley (although he is present in much of the novel) but Jerry Westerby, one of the Occasionals as they are referred to - foreign correspondents who do a little spying on the side. As such, it is altogether more human than either Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Smiley's People - the reader is engaged on an emotional level even though it is perhaps the most complex of the three books in terms of plot.

There are large passages of inaction throughout. This device serves two functions - one, it exacerbates the impact of the action - and two, it gives time and space for the author to describe in incredible depth every character in the book. It is a masterful exercise in the writing of people. The ending, which had a sad inevitability about it (not in terms of disappointment but in the way the world turns) is almost inconsequential due to the sadness you feel in just not having these characters around any more.

Why this hasn't been made into a dramatisation is beyond me. Perhaps it is the complex nature of the plot, maybe there just isn't enough goodness in the novel - for the novel displays every weakness of the human condition. Who knows?

I love this book and highly recommend it. Top stuff indeed!!
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,227 followers
October 11, 2020
Phew! That was a long one. Lots of players on stage requiring backstory and motivation. It has it's exciting moments, but does feel a bit unwieldy at times. Though there are a number of Chinese and Americans represented, this feels very English in that old school stiff-and-reserved sense. So much of the action is cold and calculated. And yet, love plays a part in the resolution, as it does with so many of John le Carré's spy novels. Good stuff as always. A pleasure to read, exorbitant length and all.
Profile Image for Larou.
330 reviews50 followers
January 28, 2014
Apparently, many people read John Le Carré’s spy novels for a glimpse at what the world of international espionage is really like; in other words, they read them like a kind of journalism about the shady world of Intelligence Services. And there certainly is something to it – we’ve grown used to a more realistic perspective on secret services, but we can still imagine what it must have been like to read a novel like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold for someone whose idea of spy thrillers were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Le Carré profoundly debunked the myths about the spy trade, showing it to be a world not of elegant womanizers lounging in luxurious surroundings, but of middle-aged men holding bureaucratic meetings in dull offices, not of noble deeds and lofty aims but of petty infighting and political maneuvering. The novels of Le Carré were filled with detailed descriptions and precise observations, and had authenticity written all over them and thoroughly destroyed any conception of glamour clinging to the spy profession – today, nobody would consider a James Bond novel anything but fantasy.

The Honourable Schoolboy lends itself with particular ease to such a journalistic reading due to the place and time it is set in: a very large part of the novel takes place in Hong Kong and South-East Asia during the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and a lot of room is given to highly atmospheric descriptions of the situation, of the feelings of uncertainty, unrest and frustration pervading the area during that period – making this by far the longest book of Le Carré’s so far. Even though Le Carré’s account is fictional, he appears to have done an impressive amount of research for it, and I doubt any journalistic, presumably non-fictional report could do a better job at painting a picture that is both authentic and immersive.

Therefore, one might consider The Honourable Schoolboy worth reading on those merits alone. But Le Carré’s ambition for this and his other novels does not extend to merely being reportage, this novel, like his previous ones, aims for something more, and I think that it is this which makes them stand out. And this is not just true for the novels’ content but for their form, too – quite often, the apparently realistic exterior of Le Carré’s spy novels conceals inner mechanisms that do not run by the same rules governing realistic narratives but are structurally quite experimental. The Honourable Schoolboy is another example of this – its main thematic concern is with truth and its uses, and the novel’s forms reflects this, even if it is by adding its own distortions in the process.

Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters quotes from a poem by John Donne:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

This, even if it comes late in the novel, after its plot and its protagonists have taken many turns about and about, constitutes something like the motto for The Honourable Schoolboy. Indeed the whole novel could be taken as a variation on the poem those lines comes from, Donne’s Satire III, to the point where it feels that one might place both works next to each other and draw in the correspondences. Correspondence is part of the novel’s theme, too, as it is set not just in Asia but has London as a major setting too, and the events in both spheres, while never shown to result from each other immediately, do influence each other in oblique ways that had me think more than once of the Renaissance alchemy concept of correspondence, where things not directly connected still work upon each other by way of mystic similarities. Except, of course, that there is nothing mystical at place here, but the driving forces are mostly political in nature – but not really any less obscure for that.

There is a recurring image in the novel of truth as a small circle or kernel, surrounded by layers upon layers of untruth that grow steadily larger, up to the outer ring which is a vast area of rumour and obfuscation. The novel in fact starts with out rumours, and continues to refer to them, in the plot and by way of its anonymous narrator who tries to pierce through the mist of lies and half-truths surrounding “Operation Dolphin” to arrive at its kernel of truth. And both Jerry Westerby and George Smiley, the novel’s main protagonists, are surrounded by rumours, putting the reader in a very similar position of having to cross through obfuscation to arrive at the truth. A truth that becomes ever more elusive the further the novel proceeds, and it eventually becomes clear that for all its descriptive vividness and journalistic authenticity, the novel lets us see its kernel of truth only through a thick haze of distraction and misinformation. In fact, its undoubtedly brilliant journalistic element might constitute precisely that haze – one can hardly consider it accidental that so much of the novel takes place among journalist and that one of its main protagonists is a journalist who has no scruples to manipulate the truth when it serves his purposes and who in turn is manipulated by his employers in London. By the end of The Honourable Schoolboy it is by no means that there every was any kernel of truth at all, and if there was, it might be impossible to find – but not for epistemological reasons but because it has been so distorted and hidden under layers and layers of obfuscation by political power plays that it is simply gone, and the wanderer, when he takes that last turn that last turn that will take him up to the summit of that hill, finds himself on top of a sheer cliff, stepping off into the air.
50 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2020
Bit daunted by how long this was as Le Carre's books can be v confusing, but this is class, couldn't put it down. Also fair play to him for making the head of British intelligence a sympathetic character, because these are all badmen.
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