When John le Carré died in December 2020, columnist Ben McIntyre, writing in The Times, recalled an interview with le Carré ten years before, in which he had described the author as Britain’s greatest living novelist. At the time, McIntyre’s comment aroused some controversy because among the literati the belief persists that espionage novels – le Carré’s chosen genre – are not serious literature. To my mind, this is utterly mistaken: serious English literature is much the poorer for le Carré’s passing.
The name John le Carré was a pseudonym. The real man underneath was David Cornwell, born in 1931 to parents whose talents for bringing up children were, to say the least, questionable. When young David was five, his mother ran off with an estate agent, and he didn’t see her again “for sixteen hugless years”, as he put it in interview. Achieving the reunion involved some subterfuge on the part of his uncle but it eventually took place, awkwardly, on Ipswich railway station (“the up platform” – same interview). David’s father, Ronnie, took on the upbringing of his two boys (there was an elder brother, Anthony) but as an accomplished conman and womaniser, and occasional guest of Her Majesty, he was an egregiously unsuitable father. “To run the household with no money,” said David later, “required a lot of serious lying, to the local garage man, the local butcher, the local everybody.” In fact, Ronnie’s deceptions ran on a far larger scale than locally. The Times records that Ronnie left behind “a trail of unpaid debts, false names, bogus letterheads, perplexed women, unsuccessful racehorses, luxurious motor cars and dubious financial schemes”. Nevertheless, Ronnie got David and his brother into Sherborne, one of the better English public schools, which, unfortunately, young Cornwell came to hate. So, at the age of sixteen he absconded to Switzerland, where he had previously enjoyed (probably unpaid-for) holidays, and there completed his schooling by somehow enrolling at the University of Berne. At eighteen, he was called up for National Service, serving throughout in the Intelligence Corps, with postings to Vienna and Graz. Fluent in German, he then went up to Oxford to read Modern Languages, and on graduating taught for two years at Eton. Then in 1958, aged twenty-seven, he entered, or rather re-entered, British intelligence, employed first by MI5 and subsequently by what we now know as MI6 (back in 1958 HMG did not formally admit to the existence of MI6).
On his daily commute into London, Cornwell began to write. His formative experiences under Ronnie, coupled with the below-the-radar practices and ethos of secret service employers, fed his writing for the rest of his life. His first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961. It is a spy story featuring the first appearance of a character who looms large in le Carré’s later writing – George Smiley. His second novel, A Murder of Quality, more detective fiction than espionage, was published in 1962 and also featured George Smiley. For both books Cornwell was required by his employer to use a pseudonym, and that is how the name John le Carré came into existence. Le Carré claims to have forgotten how he chose it, though he once suggested (then later denied) that he had seen it on a bus.
It was his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963) that catapulted le Carré to fame. The leading character is Alec Leamas, a disillusioned British agent who sets out to avenge the death of one of his agents in East Germany, only to find himself betrayed by his own side. It ends badly, for Leamas as well as for the lonely lady librarian, Liz, with whom he has begun an affair. Leamas’ disillusion is said to mirror le Carré’s own at the time. “Spies?” says Leamas. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” In embarking on a lifetime of writing spy fiction, le Carré acknowledged his debt to Ian Fleming for James Bond, whose escapades, suffused as they were with colourful places, plots and sex, had long since whetted readers’ appetites for spies. (The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, had appeared in 1953, a full ten years before The Spy Who Came in from The Cold.) For le Carré The Spy Who Came in from The Cold was decisively important because it garnered such financial success as to enable le Carré to leave the service and write full time.
Curiously, his next three novels – The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, and The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – achieved nothing like the success of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold. The last of these three, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, is an oddity among le Carré’s works. Neither spy nor crime fiction, it concerns dysfunctional relationships among odd people in Ireland, and is said to have elements of autobiography in it. As an aside, I must admit that I simply don’t get it: for all my admiration of le Carré, I have twice abandoned it.
During the 1970s le Carré hit his stride with the three great – indeed, incomparable – Smiley novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979). These, his crowning achievement in my view, are sometimes known as the Karla trilogy, Karla being Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and arch-opponent (and a man, despite the female name). The theme that runs through all three books is betrayal. Smiley is seeking to discover who has betrayed the Circus – le Carré’s fictional version of MI6 – and is himself betrayed by his wife, whose lover turns out to be none other than the Circus traitor. I won’t name names for fear of spoiling it. Le Carré’s skills with character serve, I think, to place him firmly in the pantheon of great English novelists. His characters drive the situations and the situations drive the plot; and with his mastery of these techniques le Carré is easily the equal of Graham Greene. George Smiley is not your regular spook: he is officially retired, getting on in years, overweight, worn down with care, meticulous in his habits (he writes notes on a single sheet of paper which rests on glass so that no impression marks are left behind), and unhappy in his marriage. Smiley’s colleagues in the Circus are a characterful lot too. As for situation, over and over again le Carré contrives to be mesmerising. The scene that sticks most in my mind (and probably in the minds of many other le Carré fans) is Smiley’s encounter with Karla in a Delhi jail. Despite Smiley’s expert cajoling, Karla says not a word – an unpromising situation, you might think – yet in le Carré’s hands, and because of what we know about the two characters, the meeting is heart-stopping. Furthermore, le Carré has an enviable gift for creating the subtlest of atmosphere with the plainest of words. You know what it feels like to be in the Circus; and le Carré’s description of Hong Kong under a leaden sky in the opening pages of The Honourable Schoolboy still rings big bells with me, thirty-plus years on, because I was standing in Hong Kong under a leaden sky when I first read it.
After the Karla trilogy le Carré began to turn his attention away from the Cold War and towards international terrorism – which is no less fertile ground for espionage. The Little Drummer Girl, on Palestine-Israeli hostilities, emerged in 1983, and The Night Manager on the international arms trade, in 1993. Terrorism of a different kind – the hidden practices of the pharmaceutical giants feature in The Constant Gardener (2001), where anger is palpable. Le Carré was seventy when he wrote it, and he went on writing in anger until the year before his death, at the age of eighty-nine. It is, again, anger with people and the situations they create: see, for example, the despicable high-ranking British diplomat, Pellegrin, in The Constant Gardener and the arms dealer Dickie Roper (“the worst man in the world”) in The Night Manager.
Even after the end of the Cold Warm, spying kept recurring throughout le Carré’s writing. A Perfect Spy (1986) comes as close as we are likely to get to le Carré’s autobiography, as we see the lead character, Magnus Pym, drawn along by his father from a boyhood of minor deceptions and falsehoods into the adult world of spying. The Russia House (1989), Our Game (1995), The Tailor of Panama (1996), and Absolute Friends (2003) all involve secrecy, deception, and betrayal, and the immorality of the government organisations that trade on them.
The wheel almost turned full circle late in le Carré’ life, when he returned to George Smile with Agent Running in the Field (2019), which looks back on Smiley’s career and methods. This proved to be his last book, written at the age of 88.
Le Carré was much fêted as a writer: both his old universities, Berne and Oxford, awarded him honorary doctorates, and during his writing career he received no fewer than thirteen awards from literary prize-givers at home and abroad. He is the only Brit to have been awarded the Swedish Olaf Palme prize, in recognition of his contribution to international security (and he gave the $100,000 prize money to Médecins sans Frontières). Yet he would have no truck with literary competitions, refusing, for example, to allow any of his books to be considered for the (Man) Booker prize.
Happily, le Carré has been very well served by tv and film adaptations of his work, so if you are unsure about reading your way into his murky world, try getting into it via the small screen.
Easily the best place to start is with the BBC-published DVD box set of most of the Karla trilogy, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. Le Carré himself greatly admired Alec Guinness’s performance, but the rest of the cast is outstanding too. The 1979 recording lacks modern HD picture quality, but nevertheless it is one of the best dramatisations the BBC has ever done. The set is available from Amazon as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though no doubt other retailers will supply it.
The Karla trilogy has also been condensed into a single feature-length film (dating from 2011 and running for just over two hours) starring Gary Oldman as Smiley. The adaptation is not quite in the same league as the BBC’s, but it is still very good, and if you are tight for time and/or want HD video, the film is a worthwhile buy. It is available on DVD from Amazon, though at the time I wrote this article, Amazon’s stocks were low.
The Constant Gardener is available on DVD (produced in 2005). Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy, it is commendably faithful to le Carré. The Night Manager is likewise available on a BBC DVD (produced in 2016), with memorable performances from Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. If you watch carefully, you will see le Carré himself in a cameo role in the restaurant scene. Both DVDs are well worth buying.
The Spy Who Came in from The Cold has been filmed, though the DVD is hard to find. But the search is worthwhile: Richard Burton stars as Leamas and Claire Bloom as Liz, and it is shot in black and white, which heightens the atmosphere.
And to end, let me mention that you can get a good look at le Carré in the interview he did with Mark Lawson in 2008. The interview runs for an hour and reveals both le Carré’s complicated childhood and the evolution of his writing career. The interview can be seen on iPlayer at:
For a near-postscript I will add that this week the BBC is showing a number of le Carré works, including the Mark Lawson interview. So, if you have a moment, get out your Radio Times, and either set your recorder or hook up your iPlayer. There are treats in store!
Bob Young, January 2021