BY HELEN CURRIE FOSTER
What’s your favorite place to read? A certain chair? The one with a lamp that shines on your book, not in your eyes? Perhaps a ferryboat seat, where you glance up at the horizon, then down at your book? On a plane, or train?
When I was young our house had an elm tree in the back yard which was not only climbable, but offered two branches that stuck out at the perfect angle for a lounging pre-adolescent. Even better—the lounger was invisible from the house. I could scramble up, arrange myself, open my book—and be left unfound, undisturbed, for some time.
A later joy was climbing on the New Haven RR in Boston after final exams (Chaucer, Shakespeare), armed with the latest James Bond and the very biggest Hershey bar with almonds, and being rocked south for miles along the coastline. Uninterrupted.
And I confess to rereading books. I further confess to rereading children’s books. Maybe a more accurate word is: revisiting. At least every two years, I pick up Kipling’s Kim, finding my way to the part where Kim guides his Tibetan lama, who seeks a sacred river, on a pilgrimage into the high deodar forests of the Himalayas. I can almost smell the trees. There Kim steals the Russian spies’ notes––his own initiation into the Great Game. Even more satisfying? The long afternoon where, exhausted, he is “taken apart” by Eastern massage and finally stumbles out, recovered, to find his lama at the brink of—well, no spoilers.
Why this gravitational pull of favorite children’s books?
Maybe because the best children’s books feature enterprise, surprise, disguise. And—most important––the discovery of identity.
Consider The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin transforms Wart into various animals (badger, owl, fish) who teach him survival techniques (“put your back into it!”). And magic! Giants! Griffins! The Queen of Air and Darkness! (See volume below–griffin looming behind tree.) One favorite moment? When Merlin transforms Wart to a raptor—a small merlin––who must sit for desperate minutes during his formal initiation, near the maddened and perilous Peregrine. Why does Wart need Merlin’s special tutelage? Because of his identity, which he and we will finally discover.
Others I still pull off the shelf: The Wind in the Willows, especially Mole’s tearful return home, where he recognizes his true self.
Also Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library – memorizing all the poems. I sneak back to Harry Potter—a feast of enterprise, surprise, disguise, and Harry’s search for his own identity. Occasionally I return to Lord of the Rings––especially the battle for Gondor. You’ll note I missed out on Jack London and many others. But there’s always The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—remember that wondrous moment when Lucy slips through the back of the wardrobe, past all the mothballed coats…into magic? Into the snowy landscape where she meets Mr. Tumnus the faun? Into the realm where––as Lucy later discovers––she is Queen Lucy?
You have your favorites. So do our collective children and grandchildren. Bookstore shelves still offer children tales of enterprise, surprise, disguise—and characters discovering their own identities.
And fortunately, children’s books needn’t follow the 1930 Detection Club’s 10 Rules for Writing a Mystery. Rule #2: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” Following Rule #2 would let out magic, of course, and its enormous space for imagination. (If you, like me, crave an occasional touch of magic for grown-ups, try Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. amzn.to/44iIoVj)
As a mystery writer/reader I usually write about mystery. But thinking lately about the bibliophile’s favorites—favorite reading spots, favorite chairs, favorite characters––has sent me down a different path. Why reread? Wait––why revisit?
What is it about the end of Kim, or the plight of Frodo and Samwise in Shelob’s lair, or Harry Potter’s first moment on his broom, learning how good he is at Quidditch––that whispers, “read it again!”
I reread mysteries too. Have you reread a Dorothy Sayers, a Ngaio Marsh, a Sherlock Holmes? Or John le Carré? How many times have you read Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, or Smiley’s People? (Come on, spy thrillers are part of the mystery-thriller-spy novel genre.) And why do we reread le Carré? One character in particular: George Smiley.
Smiley first appears on page 1 of chapter 1, titled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” in Call for the Dead, le Carré’s first book, published in 1961. Smiley’s marriage to the aristocratic Lady Ann Sercomb has ended when she abandoned him, and he’s described as follows: “Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”
We learn of his deep love of 17th century German literature, his success at Oxford, his recruitment by MI-6, his dangerous service abroad as a spy in WWII. Not a commanding figure, no. But le Carré allows us to glimpse his sharp mind, his penetration, his ability to absorb all he hears. Smiley’s work as an intelligence officer provides him “with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.”
Smiley appears next in A Murder of Quality (1962), where Smiley’s solution to the murder rests on a scathing critique of the snobbishness of British public schools (le Carré despised his own experience at such a school).
By the time we reach Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley has been put out to grass at MI-6 under the new regime headed by Bill Haydon, who has seduced Smiley’s wife Ann and taken over London Station after causing the bitter dismissal of Control as its head.
In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley is plucked out of retirement to interview a somewhat dubious British agent who claims the Russians may have placed a mole inside MI-6. Here’s Smiley, listening to the agent’s tale:
“He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this, his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it.”
Smiley’s investigation marches ahead. The BBC wants to make a series of Tinker, Tailor. And John le Carré has an actor in mind: Alec Guinness. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/sep/05/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-40-years-on-alec-guinness
Le Carré’s letter to Sir Alec Guinness (3 March 1978) appears in A Private Spy / The Letters of John le Carré, at 213. He tells Sir Alec:
“Apart from plumpness, you have all the other physical qualities: a mildness of manner, stretched taut, when you wish it, by an unearthly stillness and an electrifying watchfulness. In the best sense, you are uncomfortable company, as I suspect Smiley is. An audience wishes––when you wish it––to take you into its protection. It feels responsible for you, it worries about you. I don’t know what you call that kind of empathy, but it is very rare, & Smiley and Guinness have it: when either of you gets his feet wet, I can’t help shivering.”
I love that “as I suspect Smiley is.” Does the author’s own speculation about George Smiley explain, in part, why we readers become so attached to this character? What drives us to Smiley’s side? Is it his apparent ineffectualness, his vulnerability, his stillness, his watchfulness, entwined with our certainty that he will somehow keep going?
Not until 1979 in Smiley’s People does Smiley achieve final vindication, catching the Russian master-spy who conceived the long set of steps that led to Haydon’s seduction and Control’s fall. At the climax, we (along with Smiley and his fellow spy Peter Guillam) await the possible arrival of the Russian in cold war Berlin, at the crossing point from East Germany. Will the spy make it across the bridge? Guillam asks what cover the Russian will use:
Smiley sat opposite him across the little plastic table, a cup of cold coffee at his elbow. He looked somehow very small inside his overcoat.
“’Something humble,” Smiley said. “Something that fits in. Those who cross here are mostly old-age pensioners, I gather.’ He was smoking one of Guillam’s cigarettes and it seemed to take all his attention.”
At book’s end, we are waiting with Smiley. It’s cold there by the Berlin bridge. I expect Smiley’s feet are wet. Like the author, “I can’t help shivering.” When we know a character’s vulnerabilities, we begin to perceive true identity.
For Smiley, for all the characters created by their authors with such vividness and such vulnerability that we seem to feel what they feel, for such characters–I reread. Yes, the better word is revisit: I go back just to be sure the characters are still there, still available, still waiting quietly on the shelf. And, yes, just as good as I thought they were.
I’d love to hear your favorites (reading spots, children’s books) and the favorite characters you…revisit.