John le Carré 1931-2020
John le Carré, who died on the 13th of December aged 89, was one of the towering figures of post-war British fiction. In this piece, we look back on the impeccable literary career of a writer who elevated the humble spy story into a work of art.
Like Raymond Chandler or Ursula K. le Guin, John le Carré was an author whose literary merits and psychological insight transcended the stylistic straitjackets of the genre he worked within. For nearly sixty years he reigned supreme as the ultimate literary spymaster, crafting a thoroughly immersive shadow world of Cold War espionage and creating one of twentieth-century fiction’s most unlikely heroes.
Le Carré knew, of course, of what he wrote. Born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset in 1931, his introduction to the murky business of intelligence gathering came in 1950 when he worked in Austria as a German-language interrogator of defectors to the West. Le Carré had ‘bolted’ to Switzerland two years previously to study foreign languages at the University of Bern. After further clandestine work keeping an eye on suspiciously left-wing students at Lincoln College, Oxford upon his return to Britain, he took up a post with MI6 in 1960. Moving between London and Bonn, he wrote a novel entitled Call for the Dead, which featured a fastidious, sage government spook named George Smiley as it’s principle character.
Smiley also played a central role in A Murder of Quality, which was published in 1962, but the character who was to become such an icon of spy fiction took a back seat for le Carré’s breakout bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which arrived the following year. Ironically, given the novel’s reputation for authenticity, the Foreign Office only allowed its publication as it bore so little relation to genuine intelligence operations; they did, however, insist that David Cornwell employ a pseudonym and thus John le Carré was born.
A short, utterly compelling blast of Cold War amorality and thrilling political cynicism, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold chimed with millions of readers for whom the contemporaneous work of Ian ‘James Bond’ Fleming felt too slick and superficial. Its huge success prompted both a taut 1965 movie adaptation starring Richard Burton and le Carré’s forced resignation from the secret service, whose spymasters were somewhat displeased at the level of attention the book’s narrative was receiving (either that or because le Carré was outed as a secret agent by notorious Cambridge spy Kim Philby, depending on which version you believe).
Now a full-time writer, the next few years saw the collapse of le Carré’s first marriage and the commencement of his second (detailed in the highly atypical A Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)) as well as continued literary success with the Smiley-centred The Looking Glass War (1965) and standalone novel A Small Town in Germany (1968). George Smiley would really come into his own, however, in the staggeringly accomplished Karla trilogy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979).
Based around an extended, cerebral game of cat-and-mouse between the lugubrious British agent and his Soviet nemesis, Karla, the books are responsible for creating arguably the definitive impression of British intelligence during the Cold War; the smoky, paranoid labyrinth of the ‘Circus’ where national security is constantly at risk and every operative could be a treacherous ‘mole.’ Inspired by the unmasking of the Cambridge Spies as well as other high profile revelations of state betrayal, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People were the subjects of a stately BBC adaptation that managed to capture this singular atmosphere brilliantly, and featured an iconic turn from Alec Guinness as Smiley.
The 1980s saw a string of critically acclaimed novels such as the pulsating Israel-Palestine thriller The Little Drummer Girl (1983), the measured The Russia House (1989) and, best of all, the semi-autobiographical A Perfect Spy (1986). Drawing on le Carré’s childhood memories of his charming but feckless conman father and a youth spent covering and dissembling for him, A Perfect Spy raised the espionage novel to a level of sophistication that outstripped the work of the award-winning critical darlings of the era. A peerless psychological study of how pivotal life experiences can build the duplicity and multiple personas required of a successful secret agent, Philip Roth hailed it as ‘the best English novel since the war.’ It remains le Carré’s masterpiece.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism did nothing to dampen le Carré’s extraordinary talent. New arenas were found for the moral and political games his characters continued to play; the arms trade in 1993’s The Night Manager, the pharmaceutical industry in The Constant Gardener (2001), Brexit and the emergence of a violent nationalism in his final novel Agent Running in the Field (2019). Yet Smiley was always lurking in the background, whether in the reflective The Secret Pilgrim (1990) or the rueful A Legacy of Spies (2017), the quintessential British spymaster just too intriguing to retire.
A writer whose style was at once highly distinctive and endlessly adaptable, who managed to encapsulate the unglamorous bureaucracy of the Cold War alongside its suspicion, fear and sudden violence, who painted characters with compromised morals and sinister agendas that the reader cared passionately for, a chronicler of our post-war world; John le Carré and his page-turning genius will be desperately missed.
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