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||John Le Carré (1931-2020) - pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell|
English writer known for disillusioned, suspenseful spy novels based on a wide knowledge of international espionage. Le Carré's famous hero is George Smiley, a Chekhovian character and shadowlike member of the British Foreign Service. In his work the author explored the moral problems of patriotism, espionage, and ends versus means. Le Carré's style is precise and elegant, and his novels are noted for skillful plotting and witty dialogue. Familiarity with intelligence agents connects le Carré to the long tradition of spy/writers from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers, such as Graham Greene, John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, Alec Waugh, and Ted Allbeury.
"Beyond the trees, Smiley thought, cars are passing. Beyond the trees lies a whole world, but Lacon has this red castle and a sense of Christian ethic that promises him no reward except a knighthood, the respect of his peers, a fat pension, and a couple of charitable directorships in the City." (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974)
John Le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell. He was born in
Poole, Dorset, the son of Ronnie Cornwell, who engaged in
swindles and was imprisoned for fraud. Though Ronnie Cornwell was
bankrupt, he managed to keep his office going in Jermyn Street, he had
credit and he also participated in politics. According to the author,
this was one of the reasons that themes of secrets and
deceit recur in his work. His father's chameleonic character inspired
the novel A Perfect Spy (1986).
Le Carré's mother, Olive
(Glassy) Cornwell, ran off with another man. At the time he was five
years old. Her
absence was another family secret, which shaped his early years, and
perhaps first thrillers too: le Carré confessed once that he found it
difficult to write about women and understand why they act as they do.
Le Carré did
not meet her until he was 21. "I rediscovered her in Suffolk, the
mother of two other children. She took with her one fine white hide
suitcase by Harrods, silk-lined, which I found in her cottage when she
died. It was the only thing in the whole house that bore witness to her
first marriage, and I have it still." ('In Ronnie's Court: A son's criminal pursuit' by John le Carré, The New Yorker, February 18, 2002)
Dissatisfied with Sherborne School, le Carré persuaded his father to
send him to school in Switzerland. His father boasted that he had never
read a book; he had left school at the age of fifteen. At Sherbone le
Carré's relationship with the rigid housemaster was not good and he
started to view institutions with growing suspicion. Le Carré studied
at Berne University (1948-49), and after military service, which he did
in Austria, le Carré returned to England. In Switzerland le Carré met
an English diplomat, who possibly was attached to intelligence work,
and he become fascinated by espionage – it was the call for le
Carré. He studied modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford,
graduating in 1956.
At Oxford he kept a very low profile. It has
been claimed, that le Carré informed on fellow students for secret
services. He was two years as a
tutor at Eton, teaching French and German, and then joined the Foreign
Service full-time. "I began writing again when I was married and living
in Great Missenden, where I had to spend two hours in the train every
day going to London and used to pass the time in thinking of plots for
stories." ('"Le Carré, John" (pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 841)
In 1959 le Carré became a member of the British Foreign Service in
West Germany, where he made friends of German politicians. Later he was
consul in Hamburg. The most famous double agent of the Cold War, "Kim"
Philby (1912-1988), betrayed le Carré, and gave his name to the
Russians. While visiting Moscow in 1987, Le Carré had an opportunity to
meet Philby, but he decided not to do it. "I couldn't possibly have
shook his hand," he said in an interview. "It was drenched in blood. It
would have been repulsive." (John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman, 2015, p. xviii) Philby died in Moscow, where he read every
During his years at the operational section of MI5 le Carré met John Bingham, who encouraged him to write and read the manuscript of his first novel. Bingham, the pen-name and family name of Lord Clanmorris, was one of the two men who inspired le Carré's famous character, George Smiley: "Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes..." Bingham, who had published crime novels, never accepted the picture of the Intelligence Services that le Carré gave in his books. "As far as John was concerned – and many others too – claims of good intent were guff. I was a shit, consigned to the ranks of other shits like Compton McKenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge and J.C. Masterman, all of whom had betrayed the Service by writing about it." (Le Carré in his introduction to Bingham's Five Roundabouts to Heaven, Pan Classic Crime, 2001)
His first three books le Carré wrote while he was a spy but for decades he denied that his work in Germany had any element of espionage. His employing service had approved his two earlier novels before publication. This was the case also with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), which he wrote under personal stress and in extreme privacy in the British Embassy in Bonn. The story was regarded as fiction and did not constitute a breach of security. But le Carré's life was never the same: he was billed as a spy-turned-writer. Gradually he broke his silence and has talked about this and other sides of his life in the BBC documentary The Secret Service (prod. 2000). Le Carré has insisted that he was never James Bond or anything like that: "I sat behind a desk". However, he was taught how to kill silently, and he recruited and ran low-level agents.
At Lincoln College he apparently kept his eyes open for possible agents recruited by the Soviet Union. Later le Carré moved from MI5 to MI6, and he was in Berlin when the wall was erected – "the fun had started". His own experiences inspired him to compose a novel which became Call for the Dead (1961), le Carré's first spy thriller, which introduced George Smiley. Later the author himself considered it only a so-so book. It was followed by a completely different kind of work, A Murder of Quality (1962), a detective novel set in a boys' school.
After the success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré began to devote himself full-time to writing. His aim was to portray the intelligence world from a new standpoint – "When I first began writing, Ian Fleming was riding high and the picture of the spy was that of a character who could have affairs with women, drive a fast car, who used gadgetry and gimmickry to escape." (Understanding John le Carré by John L. Cobbs, 1998, p. 7) With his breakthrough novel le Carré established an alternative form to the James Bond cult and a new type of hero. Graham Greene praised it the best spy story he had ever read – Greene was one of le Carré's favorite writers – and J.B. Priestley advertised the book as "superbly constructed with an atmosphere of chilly hell." The novel won le Carré the Somerset Maugham Award.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the story of a frustrated British agent, Alec Leamas, whose life is far from the glamour of James Bond's world: he has a love affair with a lonely, unpaid librarian, not with a fashion model. After his sub-agents in East Germany have been killed, Leamas travels behind the Iron Curtain to destroy the head of the East German Intelligence, who has directed the killings. Soon he finds out that his own people had framed him in order to frame Fiedler, an East German. In the world of double-crossing, Leamas has no way out – he is used and destroyed by his superiors. George Smiley is the shadowy mastermind of the operation. "We have to live without sympathy, don't we? That's impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really, I mean... one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold... d'you see what I mean?" (from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) The novel was filmed in 1966. The harshly photographed black and white film was directed by Martin Ritt, starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.
With Looking Glass War (1965) le Carré continued the exploration of
the intrigues of the Intelligence Service. The
story begins with the death of a
courier named Taylor; he is hit by a car and left on the road, "a
stiff, wrecked figure at the fringe of the wilderness." Taylor was sent
to Finland, one of the spy centers of
Europe, to collect films taken by a commercial pilot, who had flown off
course while over East Germany. Orders are given for the planting of an
agent in this territory where, it is suspected, a new type of rocket
site is being set up.Le Carré wrote the book on the island of Crete, where he had escaped the clamor of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and hoping to repair his marriage.
A Small Town in Germany (1968) was set in the same town, Bonn, where le
Carré had worked. In this novel Second Secretary in Chancery, Leo
Harting, has disappeared. The story deals with topical issues, student
riots and rising neo-Fascism, with an ambiguous message about what might
happen in the near future in Federal Germany. In The Naive and Sentimental Lover
(1971) le Carré abandoned the thriller form. It had distressed him when
people referred to his books as 'thrillers', he preferred the word
'story,' but reviewers dismissed the novel as a failure. The New York Times
said, "What's this? John le Carre mounting Parnassus? Leaving Leamas
and Leiser behind in the squalid lowlands so that he can hobnob with
Gide and Joyce and Mann?" (All naked into the world of art' by Geoffrey Wolff, The New York Times, January 9. 1972)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) re-introduced George Smiley. His character was based more or less on two true life persons: Lord Clanmorris, who wrote novels under the name John Bingham and who worked for MI5, and Vivian Green, who was Le Carre's teacher at Oxford. In this story a Soviet double agent has revealed some of the best agents in the English spy network. The mole is one of them – but which one? It was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People (1979), sometimes known as the 'Search for Karla trilogy', because the central theme is the struggle between Smiley and the Soviet spymaster Karla. The first two were made into hugely successful television dramatizations.
The Little Drummer Girl (1983) was narrated in the second person, and was about the cause of Palestinian liberation. The central character is an actress, who is persuaded by an Israeli agent to lose her Arab sympathies and spy for them. The book was made into a film in 1984, losing in the process le Carré's intricate plotting. "Nothing went right", said the author later. One of the actors, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was killed in April 2011 in Jenin's refugee camp, where he ran a theater.
Before the last or latest Smiley novel, The Secret Pilgrim (1991), le Carré published A Perceft Spy (1986), drawing on his own relations with his domineering father, and The Russian House (1989), a response to the end of the Cold War, where a British publisher becomes involved in espionage by a Soviet woman, who acts as emissary for a volatile friend. The novel was adapted for screen, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.
In 1954 le Carré married Ann Martin, the daughter of a Royal Air
Force officer. He lived in the 1960s on various Greek islands, but then
returned to England. With the profits from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
he built a little chalet in the Swiss Alps. After divorce in 1971
he married in 1972 Valérie
Jane Eustace, a book editor. They met when she was working for his
British publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. Le Carré had four
children, three from his first marriage. Because le Carré wrote with
pen and ink, she typed his manuscripts up for him. Suleika Dawson, his
long-time mistress, published her memoir in 2022. They met first in
The fall of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany left spy fiction adrift and le Carre turned his attention to the new roles of cloak and dagger people. The Night Manager (1993) was about drug smuggling and in Our Game (1995) two former spies and a woman find the end of their road in the mountains of the Caucasus, reflecting the new situation and the end of the Cold War. The Tailor of Panama (1996) has as its background the future of the Panama Canal. Single&Single (1999) was a father-and-son story which also dealt with a Russian mafia family.
The Constant Gardener (2000), le Carré's 18th novel, was set in
Africa. Justin Quayle, the middle-aged gardener of the title, is married
to a much younger wife, Tessa, a lawyer and activist. "She was
doing a bloody good job out there in the slums, whatever anybody said
about her up at the Muthaiga Club. She may have got up the noses of Moi's
Boys but Africans who mattered loved her to a man," one of the
characters concludes after she is found brutally killed. Justin is a
disillusioned humanist, who doesn't know much of Tessa's attempts to
reveal an international pharmaceutical intrigue. Justin's passivity
ends after her death but he eventually shares Tessa's fate. Absolute Friends
(2004), accused of anti-American bias, follows the lives of two
man, friends from the radical 1960s, who still try to keep their
anti-establishment idealism in the new millennium. Eventually they are
crushed by international political intrigues. The Mission Song (2006)
takes the reader into the complex relationships between business and
politics in Congo. A Delicate Truth (2013)
warns about the risks of the privatization of intelligence. The story
portrays a hero of the Internet age, who instead of shuttering state
secrets from the public, he leaks at the end information about corrupt
government practices. For the delight of le Carré's readers, George Smiley made a return in A Legacy of Spies (2017).
In January 2003 le Carré published in The Times an essay
entitled 'The United States has gone mad,' joining a number of
European and American writers protesting about war on
Iraq. "How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America's
anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public
relations conjuring tricks of history," argued le Carré.
Richard Cohen answered in the Washington Post, saying that
the essay was "the intellectual collapse of what is called
the anti-war movement." More radical than Mick Jagger,
le Carré has declined all honors offered to him, stating
that he will never be Sir David. In 2005 Britain's crime writers' club
awarded him its Dagger of Daggers for The Spy Who Came in from the
and in 2011 he received the Goethe Medal in honour of his life's
work. When finishing Agent Running in the Field
(2019), a zeitgeist novel which hits the hammer right on the head when
it comes to Brexit, le Carré hinted that it is his final book. Silverview (2021), about a family of spies, was the author's posthumous farewell. Le Carré
died of pneumonia on December 12, 2020.
The American playwright and film director David Mamet has said
that "for the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English
have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick
O'Brian." ('The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genus', New York Times, 17 January 2000)
At an event in aid of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières in September
2017, le Carré argued that there is a parallel between what happening
across Europe in the 1930s and the rise of Donald Trump.
"To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism
and it's contagious, it's infectious. Fascism is up and running in
Poland and Hungary. There's an encouragement about." (The Guardian, 7 September, 2017)
For further reading: The Secret Heart: John le Carré, An Intimate Memoir by Suleika Dawson (2022); Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film by Phyllis Lassner (2016); John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman (2015); Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (2004); The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics by Myron J. Aronoff (2001); Le Carré's Landscape by Tod Hoffman (2001); Wilderness of Mirrors by Peter Bennett (1998); Understanding John Le Carré by John L. Cobbs (1998); John Le Carré by LynnDiane Beene (1992); Spying on Le Carré by Ulrike Holtman (1991); Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré, ed. Clive Bloom (1991); Taking Sides: The Fiction of John Le Carré by Tony Barley (1986); John Le Carré by Peter Lewis (1985)