Beautiful brunette spy agent (killer or police) woman in leather jacket and jeans with a gun in her hand running after someone, to catch him on parking

The Elements of Pace in Spy Fiction: A Closer Look at JML 46.2

By Allan Hepburn, author of “‘To Come into the Story as Late as Possible, and To Tell It as Fast as You Can’: Pace in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Journal of Modern Literature (JML) 46.2, available on Project Muse, FREE for a limited time.

Over the years, I have taught various iterations of an undergraduate course on spy fiction. Although some texts come and go on the syllabus, I always include John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of the great novels of the twentieth century because of its intellectual complexity and technical brilliance. George Smiley, formerly a member of the British intelligence service, is brought back from retirement to flush out a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest echelons of that service. The narrative moves at the meditative pace of a chess game—a particularly slow chess game. For the most part, scenes consist of interviews between Smiley and various agents involved in undercover activities around the globe. The slowness with which Smiley pieces together overlapping plots that conceal the mole’s identity puts a brake on forward momentum and alters narrative pace.

What defines pace in fiction? Why do some narratives zip along, while others move with somnolent lethargy? Although all narrative depends on pace, the vocabulary for discussing pace in fiction is quite thin. Gérard Genette speaks of “steadiness of speed” and “rhythm” in narrative; Mieke Bal, who also leans towards musical analogies, describes the “tempo” of narrative, but admits that the exact definition of pace remains imprecise. Brian Gingrich’s recent book, Pace in Fiction (2021), goes some distance to theorizing the conundrum of pace with reference to works by Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and other writers. In my JML 46.2 essay on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I distinguish pace from related terms, such as “speed” and “velocity,” the former too often associated with recklessness and the latter too often attached to specific directions or destinations to convey how pace works in fictional narrative.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré regulates pace by several means. For instance, he inserts intrusive chapter breaks to unsettle the pace of the story. In a burst of short chapters that cover one consecutive scene, George Smiley interviews Ricki Tarr at a country house. Why break up a long scene with short chapters? What effect do chapter divisions have on pace? On other occasions, le Carré controls the pace of his narrative with temporal loops: he moves backwards in time to fill in blanks about the story, such as what happened one wintry night in a forest near Brno. These analepses decelerate the narrative while intentionally frustrating the reader’s desire for forward momentum.

Pace, a temporal effect, refers to a relation between speed, distance, and manner of movement. In an interview published in the Paris Review in 1997, le Carré talks about starting his stories late in the action in order to induce as much pressure on the story as possible: “It’s a principle of mine to come into the story as late as possible, and to tell it as fast as you can. The later you join the story, the more quickly you draw the audience into the middle. But beginning late requires a lot of retrospective stuff, and that’s a problem that I think I will always be dealing with” (69). Instead of being a problem, this technique of starting late in the story, whatever the story may be, pushes the narrative into temporal loops where “retrospective stuff” is explained and readers are baffled by what they do not know but have to master in order to follow the plot. Pace, by this definition, is at least partly an effect of readers’ expectations as it is an aspect of form.

Some years ago, I looked at le Carré’s drafts for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. To my surprise, le Carré did not write this novel, or any other for that matter, according to a plan. Instead of setting down plot-points, reversals, and a structure from beginning to end, he improvised his way through draft after draft until the story revealed itself. He let characters’ voices emerge by cutting bits of dialogue from one sheet and stapling or taping them to another sheet. In drafts, dialogue sometimes migrates from one character to another. Le Carré’s working drafts indicate, to my mind, an understanding of pace as property of dialogue: what characters say, as much as how they say it, creates adjustments to the momentum of narrative. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the pace of narrative is regulated by what information is known when, as well as such formal properties as dialogue, chapter breaks, and the scrambling of temporal order.

Works Cited

  • Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd ed. U of Toronto P, 1997.
  • Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Cornell UP, 1980.
  • Gingrich, Brian. Pace in Fiction: Narrative Movement in the Novel. Oxford UP, 2021.
  • le Carré, John. “The Art of Fiction 169.” Interview with George Plimpton. Paris Review, vol. 39, no. 143, 1997, pp. 50-74.

Allan Hepburn ([email protected]) is James McGill Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature at McGill University. He is the author of Intrigue: Espionage and Culture (2005), Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Literature (2010), and A Grain of Faith: Religion in Mid-Century British Literature (2018). He has published approximately forty essays and edited seven books, the most recent of which is Diplomacy and the Modern Novel: France, Britain, and the Mission of Literature (2020). He co-edits the “Oxford Mid-Century Series” at Oxford University Press.

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