Posts Tagged ‘Rosa Lyster’

George and Ann Smiley: “one of the strangest marriages in fiction”?

Thursday, April 13th, 2023

Spy novelist John le Carré‘s anti-hero George Smiley is “arguably the most memorable character in modern fiction,” writes Rosa Lyster in her article “George and Ann” in the current Gawker, but comparatively little is said about Smiley and his wife Ann, “which plays out over the five novels where George Smiley appears as a central figure and is one of the weirdest portraits of a marriage ever committed to the page.” Lyster adds “it’s nice to think that le Carré’s portrayal of their marriage is not given the attention it is due because it is so strange, to the degree that if you start talking about it you will never stop.” Want to watch it? Just make sure you see the Alec Guinness, Patrick Stewart, and Siân Phillips version! The performances are matchless.


Alec Guinness as Smiley: “everyone in the world has an Ann.”

“Here is George attempting to interrogate Karla [i.e., the KGB agent whose chase is the central plotline of Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People]. “These two geniuses sit across from each other under a broken fan in the Delhi jail where Karla has been briefly detained after ‘the San Francisco operation’ has been blown and another KGB agent (referred to throughout as ‘Brother Rudnev,’ which is not important but still a nice treat for those of us who appreciate le Carré’s high, ridiculous style) is busily denouncing him in Moscow. Smiley tells Karla that he should defect because if he goes back to Moscow he will either be shot or put in jail. He tells him that he should defect because he is ‘an old man,’ and because surely it is evident that his faith in the system has been misplaced. Nothing. Then, who does he start talking to Karla about? Why, Ann! Ann. ‘As it was, the next thing I knew, I was talking about Ann…not about my Ann, not in as many words. About his Ann. I assumed he had one. I had asked myself … what would a man think of in such a situation, what would I? And I came up with a subjective answer: his woman.’

Siân Phillips as an unforgettable Ann

“Still nothing, but as anyone who believes they understand the resolution of these three novels knows, the Ann line of questioning is the one that ultimately leads to Karla’s defeat/defection. Thinking about who Karla loves and why becomes George’s chosen mode of attack and without attempting to paraphrase one of the most complicated plots on earth, this approach works. To George, it is self-evident that everyone in this world has an Ann, someone they love beyond all reason and would do anything for even when the rewards are dubious or non-existent. This belief is repeatedly exposed as false throughout the novels, which are full of people who don’t really love anyone and who are cheating on their pissed-off wives with exhausted violinists, but George sticks to it regardless.”

Lyster concludes: “These are spy novels, but there is a strong case to be made for them being romance novels as well, or at least ones that present a mortifyingly recognizable picture of what it’s like to not be able to live without someone, and to see the world and yourself through their eyes first. There are a lot of books that will confirm your sense that being in love is one of the most embarrassing things that can ever happen to a human being, but I can’t think of that many that go on to persuasively demonstrate that this state of abjection is to be sought out not only because it is exhilarating and consuming and makes you feel like a demon, but because it makes you smarter and better at your job, whether that job is being a spymaster negotiating the end of empires or a woman who has in her time lost her cool over someone to the extent of writing poems about it. This is one of the most comforting things Ican think of.”

Fascinating. Read the whole thing here.

Patrick Stewart as Karla: he loves someone too.