This is not, like I have seen claimed in several places, le Carré’s first novel that is not a spy thriller (there is also A Murder of Quality, which although it features George Smiley as its protagonist is not about espionage at all, but is a murder mystery) but his first (and possibly only, I have not read them all yet) non-genre novel. It also seems the least liked of his novels, and while it would be easy to dismiss that as fans complaining that they are not getting their customary fare, I think there might be rather more to it in this case.
The basic story of The Naive and Sentimental Lover is a familiar one – it’s about a bourgeois male who is successful in his life but still suffers from its essential emptiness and finds himself seduced by the bohemian lifestyle (represented here by a married couple rather than the more customary single femme fatale) to which he eventually falls victim. And in the beginning, Le Carré’s novel does indeed look like a British retelling of Professor Unrat (by Heinrich Mann, most famous in its movie version, Der Blaue Engel, with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings). Things, and the reader’s assessment of them, start to change, though; and while Aldo Cassidy, the novel’s protagonist, appears to be the most unlikable of Le Carré’s characters so far (and that is saying something), by the end of The Naive and Sentimental Lover we might still not like him much but do feel some sympathy for him, while his Bohemian temptation, the writer Shamus and his wife Helen, has been thoroughly demystified and it is not all clear who in the course of events has fallen victim to who.
In fact, very few things are clear by the end of The Naive and Sentimental Lover, and it appears that the world of everyday life, of pram fastening design and business, of married life and extra-marital affairs, of bourgeoisie and bohemia is coloured in just as many shades of grey and possibly even murkier than the world of international espionage. With spy novels, there at least is some basic conflict and some sense that things matter – even if both should get debunked in the course of the narrative, they do give it some shape. And while it is perhaps unfair to compare The Naive and Sentimental Lover to something the novel does not at all aspire to be, to me it seems that shape is precisely what is missing from it. Shape, not structure – that the novel has, Le Carré is too good (and too controlled) a writer to just go rambling, and so we get a novel that is basically divided into three parts, each of them with the emphasis of another of its three protagonists (although Aldo’s remains the central consciousness throughout). But the novel’s events, the descriptions and character portraits hang slack on that framework, like clothes several sizes too big for their wearer.
The novel just seems to lack a purpose, a sense of going anywhere – it might have been a better book if Le Carré had gone all the way and let Aldo descent into ruin and madness, but in the end, stodgy English middle-class hypocrisy wins out and Aldo basically gets on with his life much like he did before – which is in all likelihood a point Le Carré wanted to make, probably even a valid point, but not one that makes for a good novel, at least not if one stays mainly with a realistic approach.
That is not to say that The Naive and Sentimental Lover does not have its flashes of brilliance, like Aldo’s business dealings which range from the satirical to the absurd, or the half-hallucinatory excesses of Aldo’s and Shamus’ trip to Paris – indeed the novel seems to be best where Le Carré not only leaves the spy thriller genre but goes a step farther and leaves the accustomed ground of realistic fiction altogether. He always returns to the solid ground of realism soon, though, and as a result the novel becomes dreary again; I for one wish it had stayed in the exotic climates of a somewhat more modernist approach for fiction longer, I probably would have enjoyed it more then.