Portrait of John le Carre looking directly at camera
2017, Hamburg (Photo: Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

BooksDecember 21, 2020

Searching for decency: John le Carré, 1931-2020

Portrait of John le Carre looking directly at camera
2017, Hamburg (Photo: Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

Craig Sisterson pays tribute to a legend.

On December 12, one of the world’s greatest spy masters slipped from this world. Not from an assassin’s bullet in a darkened alley, poisoning from a nerve agent, or a wretched betrayal by someone wrongly trusted; but pneumonia. After a lifetime entwined with spycraft, David John Moore Cornwell, formerly of MI5 and MI6, passed away in his hospital bed, aged 89.

As the news broke the following day, the cover name Cornwell had created 60 years ago – not for a secret assignment, but for an espionage novel he was writing while still working for the British intelligence services during the Cold War – began trending worldwide.

John le Carré.

Tributes flowed. Millions mourned. Fond reminisces were shared by friends and fans alike. Of le Carré’s writing: exquisite tales of espionage doused in nuance and moral complexities. Of a man: witty, intelligent, observant, humane. Of stories and storyteller that changed a genre, elevated a genre, that “transcended the genre” versus epitomised the very best of that genre.

“This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit,” tweeted Stephen King soon after the news broke. “John le Carré was a brilliant man and masterful writer. Like so many around the world, I was a fan,” said Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. “We are all in his debt,” said legendary journalist Carl Bernstein.

Talking to The Guardian last week, Margaret Atwood described le Carré as “a towering writer whose books are a teeming Dickensian guide to the bleak Machiavellian underworld beneath the international power struggles of the last 70 years”. An unabashed fan and self-confessed “Constant Reader” of his spy novels, Atwood noted that le Carré, along with George Orwell and Graham Greene, was so essential, “especially now” – and how fatuously such writers “render the division into ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre’”.

Others shared personal memories of the man behind the extraordinary novels. His ongoing support for learning languages as an act of friendship across nations. A handshake and genuine chat with a waiter pouring drinks at an event. The elderly gent browsing a secondhand bookshop in a small English town who politely asked the staff whether they’d like him to sign copies of his novels, quietly noting “I write under the name John le Carré”.

John le Carré was a man who showed us truth while living a long life entwined with lies.

He used stories about spies as a “metaphor for the human condition”. He explored themes of love and betrayal, of patriotism and crumbling empire, of a search for decency among the chaos, throughout six decades of a shifting world that maybe hasn’t changed all that much.

New guises for old conflicts and cons. Power abused and misused, filtering down from the highest levels. The simmering rage that provoked le Carré to pen his first ground-breaking spy thrillers in the 1960s as a sort of “plague on both your houses” reflection on the escalating Cold War (as le Carré confessed to the BBC in 2000) burned to the end.

Last year, le Carré’s 25th novel was released the day before he celebrated his 88th birthday. An Agent Running in the Field is an intricate and entertaining spy tale that also skewers the political pantomime of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. “It would be impossible to write at the moment without speaking from within the state of the nation,” he told the BBC. “I’m depressed by it. I’m ashamed of it and that I think communicates itself in the book.”

John le Carré asked big questions in his books; he explored moral ambiguities. In a way his work and his characters were the antithesis of the James Bond archetype of British spying. Stripped of the glitz and glamour, the hi-tech gadgets and cartoonish villains.

Yet all the richer in the absence.

Man grins as he hauls on fishing rod
Shark fishing, 1974 (Photo: Ben Martin/Getty Images)

Last week after news of le Carré’s death broke, BBC News television presenter Simon McCoy shared his memories of once asking the boss of the GCHQ, a British intelligence and security organisation, whether he preferred James Bond or Jason Bourne when it came to fictional spies. “Neither,” was the response. “Le Carré every time.”

John le Carré was first seen in 1961; a name on the cover of Call for the Dead, a story about East German spies in Great Britain that introduced his most famous creation, George Smiley.

But it was 30 years before then that David John Moore Cornwell was born in Poole, a harbour town on the southern English coast. The 19th of October, 1931. A few months after the Napier earthquake. When Cornwell was an adolescent, his birthplace became a launching pad for the D-Day landings, though he was no longer living in Poole by then. Instead, boarding school.

Young David Cornwell learned early about deception, betrayal, and people leading lives full of fiction and fantasy. His mother Olive ran off with an estate agent when David was five, though he and his older brother Tony were told she’d died. He wouldn’t see her for another 16 years. His father Ronnie was a noted conman and flamboyant womaniser who veered between the high life and bankruptcies, rubbed shoulders with the notorious Kray twins, and bounced in and out of jail on fraud charges. “When father was flush, the chauffeur-driven Bentley would be parked outside,” said le Carré. “When things were a bit iffy, it was parked in the back garden, and when we were down and out, it disappeared altogether.”

Prep school in Berkshire as the war raged, then boarding at Sherborne (a “public school” originally established in 705 AD), rubbing shoulders with scions of wealth and power but always looking over his shoulder for bailiffs. School fees not always paid. Putting on a persona. “I remember the dissembling as we grew up and the need to cobble together an identity for myself, and how in order to do this I filched from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies,” wrote le Carré in his revealing 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel.

Black and white photograph of family laughing at kitchen table
Goofing with family at the kitchen table, 1974 (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)

He fled to Switzerland at 16, enrolling at the University of Bern to study languages. A life-changing choice. “It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother,” he wrote.

While a teenager in Europe he worked as an interpreter for the Intelligence Corps of the British Army. The next decade included an honours degree at Oxford while working covertly for MI5 as a student, teaching French and German at famed Eton College, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958, beginning to write his first novel, and transferring to MI6 (the foreign intelligence service) in 1960, operating in Bonn then Hamburg as the Cold War intensified.

All these experiences played into le Carré’s incisive, jaded view of the morality of the crumbling British “ruling class” and the operations they waged. Yet as he showed through his long writing career, he did not become bereft of hope. He searched for decency.

His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) changed le Carré’s life – and literature – forever. The tale of worn-down British spy Alec Leamas, who travels into East Germany on a final assignment, and into a maze of deception, betrayals, and tragedy.

A global number one bestseller, it catapulted le Carré from £175 advances to millionaire status and tore him from his now-untenable MI6 role to full-time writing. Graham Greene called it “the best spy story I have ever read”. Richard Burton played Leamas in the hit film.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold remade spy stories. There was no suave and tuxedoed hero, serving Queen and country in glamorous locations between quips and come-ons to beautiful women. Instead, something far grittier, greyer. George Smiley, who played a small role in this book and starred in several of le Carré’s other novels (most notably the 1970s “Karla trilogy” of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) was an intentional antithesis of James Bond: a short, doughy, balding and bespectacled man, polite and modest, who nevertheless was a powerful spy.

Such was the allure and complexity of the world le Carré crafted that Sir Alec Guinness made a rare departure from film and stage to appear on television as Smiley in two mini-series, an award-winning performance considered a landmark in television history. In 2011 Gary Oldman brought the character to the big screen, and a new generation. Last week Oldman reflected on le Carré’s impact and legacy: “He was, of course, a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated spy novel – he actually owned the genre. All who follow are in his debt. His characters were drawn deftly and deeply, nuances too many to count, and for me, inhabiting George Smiley remains one of the high points of my life.”

1983, at home in Hampstead, north London (Photo: Geoff Wilkinson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

For those who haven’t yet read le Carré, a literary treasure trove awaits. His skills went far beyond being the greatest Cold War spy novelist. American author Philip Roth, who had a Pulitzer Prize on his shelf among hordes of awards, called le Carré’s most autobiographical fictional tale, A Perfect Spy (1986) “the best English novel since the war”.

In 2013, novelist Ian McEwan said le Carré was deserving of the Booker Prize. He’d “easily burst out of being a genre writer and will be remembered as perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain”. No one, added McEwan, had “charted our decline and recorded the nature of our bureaucracies” like le Carré.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and end of the Cold War, le Carré turned his keen eye, sharp mind, and lyrical pen to other pressing global issues, from the international arms and drugs trade (The Night Manager, 1993) to the exploitation of Africa by governments and huge corporations (The Constant Gardener, 2001) to the war on terror (A Delicate Truth, 2013). As last year’s An Agent Running in the Field showed, he retained his fierceness deep into his ninth decade. His disdain for rot in those wielding power.

Throughout his life, the man born as David Cornwell and known globally as John le Carré turned down many honours, from a nomination for the Man Booker International prize for lifetime achievement in 2011 to the ongoing possibility of adding Sir before his name.

But on 30 January this year, at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, he did ascend the stage to accept one award. The Olof Palme Prize is made annually in honour of the assassinated Swedish prime minister and recognises “outstanding achievement in any of the areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security”.

Man relaxes in conservatory with view over cliffs and sea.
Cornwall, 1983 (Photo: Jacob Sutton/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The organisers praised him “for his engaging and humanistic opinion-making in literary form regarding the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind”. Past laureates include anti-apartheid activist and negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Holocaust survivor and author Hédi Fried.

The Olof Palme Memorial Fund praised le Carré for bringing global attention to and urging discussion of “the cynical power games of the major powers, the greed of global corporations, the irresponsible play of corrupt politicians with our health and welfare, the growing spread of international crime, the tension in the Middle East and the alarming rise of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and the US”. His career, they said, was “an extraordinary contribution to the necessary fight for freedom, democracy and social justice”.

After accepting the accolade, le Carré donated the £100,000 prize to international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

On 12 December, one of the world’s greatest storytellers slipped from this world. A humane man who chronicled an often-inhumane world. He is survived by his second wife Jane and their son Nicholas, three sons – Simon, Stephen, and Timothy – from his first marriage, his half-sister Charlotte, 14 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and his stories.

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