George Smiley and libraries

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2010-04-05

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Year 1986 is special since it is the year I spent as a PosDoc in London. During that year I ran into John le Carré's books. Some of my spare time, quite a few weekends actually, I spent as a literary tourist in London.

I bought and read a handful of le Carré's books. In particular, those about the old spy master George Smiley and of those, it is in particular the The Karla Trilogy I like the most. George Smiley is an academic, germanist and a spy. During the thirties he had operated under cover in Germany and during the World War II he ran networks in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. If you are to believe the Wikipedia article about him. I've just recently had a very nice time enjoying BBC's Smiley Season and rereading The Secret Pilgrim.

The trilogy consists of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) which tells the story on how Smiley tracks down a Soviet mole inside British intelligence, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) on how he restores the "Circus" to something that looks like an intelligence service and finally Smiley's People (1979) on how he finally forces his old Soviet adversary with code name Karla to defect.

The reading room at the London Library
The reading room at the London Library

The reading room at the London Library. It is hard to tell whether the window is a sash-window, or if there are trees outside.

The first and the last of the three books have in common that George is called in from his retirement. An important part of Smiley's character is his involvement in various scholarly pursuits, like the writing of a monograph about the bard Opitz. In Smiley's people George

[...] was toiling obliviously, with whatever conviction he could muster, at his habitual desk in the London Library in St James's Square, with two spindly trees to look at through the sash-window of the reading room [...] for at the time he was writing a monograph on the bard Opitz and trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the literary convention of the period.1

Passion is not a characteristic of George, but his work requires not only borrowed books, but also scholarly journals, and the library reminds him of expired loans:

What was due? German Life and Letters? Philology? Philology he decided; it was already overdue. Putting on the hall light he stooped and peered through his post.2

From what I can tell from the London Library's catalogue, it has German Life and Letters in its holdings since 1936, but I didn't find any not any journal called Philology there.

The London Library is an UK Registered Charity and a membership lending library. The staff were at the time not particularly interested in showing the reading room for literary tourists. I think that this may have changed somewhat. Some day I will go to London visit the London Library and look through the window in the reading room. Maybe there are still two trees outside the sash-window. I suppose that they must have grown since the seventies, though.


  1. le Carré, John, 1979. Smiley's People Google Books
  2. le Carré, John, 1974. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Google Books


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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries. I have been that at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university library (Sweden).

The content here does not reflect the views of my employers. They are now all past employers, since I retired 1 May 2023.

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