John Le Carré


Title:                      John Le Carré

Author:                Adam Sisman

Sisman, Adam (2015). John Le Carré: The Biography. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

LCCN:    2015298854

PR6062.E33 Z87 2015b

Summary

  • “In this definitive biography Adam Sisman reveals the man behind the bestselling persona. In John le Carré, Sisman shines a spotlight on David Cornwell, an expert at hiding in plain sight. Of course, the pseudonym John le Carré has helped to keep the public at a distance. Sisman probes Cornwell’s unusual upbringing, abandoned by his mother at the age of only five and raised by his con man father (when not in prison), and explores his background in British intelligence, as well as his struggle to become a writer, and his personal life. Sisman has benefited from unfettered access to le Carré’s private archive, talked to the most important people in his life, and interviewed the man himself at length”– provided by publisher.

Contents

  • Millionaire paupers — ‘We seek higher things’ — God and Mammon — Wandering in the fog — Serving your country — ‘That little college in Turl’ — ‘This really is the end’ — Poor but happy — ‘Milk in first and then Indian’ — ‘A dead-end sort of place’ — A small town in Germany — Becoming John le Carré — Naïve and sentimental love — Caught in the machine — Rich but restless — Keeping the bitterness at bay — ‘You treated your father very badly’ — ‘Does anyone know what’s going on?’ — ‘The love thief’ — Moscow rules — ‘Whatever are you going to write now?’ — ‘He makes us look so good’ — The secret centre — ‘Mr angry’ — Beating the system.

Subjects

Notes

  • First published in the United Kingdom in 2015 by Bloomsbury

Date Updated:  August 31, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

The word “literature,” when not referring to the enduring quality of the narrative, denotes the books, writings, and media presentations devoted to a particular subject. In the case of espionage, the literature is of singular importance since, for most, knowledge of the subject is acquired vicariously through reading or viewing stories. Serious espionage literature leaves the reader feeling the story is closer to reality than fantasy. John le Carré is a master of this genre, and Adam Sisman’s biography of David Cornwell, le Carre’s birth name, conveys an elegant portrait of the author and his creations.[2]

Sisman was not the first to consider writing a biography of le Carré. Robert Harris, author of Enigma[3], had been commissioned to do so some 20 years earlier but for various reasons did not and encouraged Sisman to undertake the task. Sisman, already an accomplished biographer of historians A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper[4] among others, wrote to Cornwell suggesting that Cornwell be his next subject. After reading the Trevor-Roper book, Cornwell met with Sisman to discuss details.

Writing a biography of a living subject, especially one who has worked to “keep the public at a distance” (p. xiv) presents unusual challenges. Foremost among them is securing the subject’s cooperation, under conditions imposed by the biographer. Sisman asked for unrestricted access to Cornwell’s papers; interviews with him, his friends and colleagues; and freedom to write without censorship from the subject. Cornwell agreed, “without restraints” (p. xv), though he proved reluctant to discuss his service with MI5 and MI6 since he was “bound, legally and morally, not to reveal the nature of my work” in these areas. (p. xvii) Sisman includes these topics using other sources. This qualification aside, one might reasonably ask, why an already-famous author would consent to such scrutiny of his life? Sisman doesn’t answer that question directly, but he does imply Cornwell may have been motivated by concern that a fair hearing be accorded his views on the controversial matters which others have written about him over the course of his 50-year writing career.

While John le Carré: The Biography addresses the usual topics about David Cornwell’s life—family origins, education, military service, marriage, and career—Sisman shows how each influenced his writing and the le Carré image. Surprises emerge throughout. For example, Cornwell’s first book, Call For The Dead[5], was originally titled A Clear Case of Suicide. And since he was serving in MI6 at the time, it was submitted under the pseudonym “Jean Sanglas.” The publisher—less than enthusiastic—suggested instead either “Chuck Smith” or “Hank Brown,” (p. 217) but Cornwell settled on le Carré (literally, “the square”). Over the years, Cornwell would offer a variety of reasons for his choice but ultimately admitted to Sisman that “none of them was true.” (p. xiv) Call ForThe Dead also introduced Cornwell’s most famous character, George Smiley, based on his MI5 superior, John Bingham, according to Bingham’s wife and others.[6] “She was mistaken,” says Cornwell, as were the others. Like many of his characters, “he was no more than a component.” (p. 208)

Sisman’s account of Cornwell’s path to le Cane reveals many attributes ofa well-to-do young English man in search of a calling. Public school, study in Europe, national service, Oxford, and his recruitments, first by MI5 and then MI6, are the principal milestones. But this period of his life was anything but normal, and Sisman’s telling is at once stimulating and gloomily captivating. Cornwell’s mother deserted the family when he was five. During “the sixteen hugless years that followed” (p. 25) he and his brother Anthony endured life with his outrageously flamboyant, scheming, unashamed, and charming con man father, Ronnie. Sisman examines the curious relationship Cornwell worked to maintain with his parents even after both remarried. But it was his unrepentant father who would appear frequently in his life, unexpectedly asking for help, that created a constant dissonance. Ronnie pursued his investment schemes during trips to Ascot, dinners at the Savoy, gatherings at the home he couldn’t afford but somehow did, and unsuccessful attempts to become a member of Parliament. He associated with the aristocracy and those of potential influence in the business world, interrupted only by frequent arrests and occasional time in prison for fraud. An embarrassed Cornwell often encountered traces of his father’s unpaid obligations in Britain and Europe. Ronnie would become the central figure in le Carré’s autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy[7].

Despite his stressful home life, Cornwell did well at prep school and then public school at Sherborne. Sisman notes that he was “successful in his academic work and on the sports field (he was captain of the junior cricket team), witty, popular with his schoolmates, a charismatic individual.” (p. 50) He also wrote poetry, acted in school plays, was an accomplished cartoonist, and made many friends he encountered later in life who would become models for characters in his novels (Sisman provides many examples). At the same time, his tutor realized at the end of the 1948 term that Cornwell was unhappy. Sisman mentions several reasons Cornwell gave. Corporeal punishment and daily regimentation were factors, but his home life, Sisman concludes with ample justification, was the major contributor: in addition to his father’s other parenting shortcomings, Ronnie enlisted his son’s help in schemes “to diddle widows out of their pensions.” (p. 66) Cornwell dropped out of Sherborne after his third year and went to Switzerland to improve his German, though the move didn’t entirely free him from his father’s schemes. Here and throughout the book, Sisman interrupts the fascinating chronology of Cornwell’s emerging talents with Ronnie’s escapades and the toxic influence they had on his son’s life.

Cornwell’s arrival in Switzerland began a seminal period in his life. It was while studying and skiing in Bern that Cornwell had his first contact with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). When asked by a diplomat from the embassy, he willingly agreed to report on any student or other contact who had communist views.

This was also the time when Cornwell began to write. On a visit home recuperating from the mumps, he showed a short story to a German friend who commented, “Promise me you will never write a book.” (p. 80) And it was in Bern that Cornwell met Ann. They would marry after Cornwell returned to do his military service. With his fluency in German and French, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and served in Germany, getting his first taste of clandestine operations. While there, he was again approached by an MI6 officer, who expressed interest in him, but only after he had obtained a degree.

Intrigued by the prospect, Cornwell entered Lincoln College, Oxford, in October 1952, reading modern languages—not law, as his father had wished. He was a popular student and made friends easily. One of them arranged an interview with George Leggett, a German linguist and senior MI5 counterespionage officer. Leggett recruited Cornwell to “adopt a left-wing persona … [and] infiltrate left-wing groups” and report back on the members’ activities. (p. 126) The recent defection of Burgess and Maclean had contributed to an increase in surveillance of communist organizations and Cornwell undertook his tasking with gusto, joining the Socialist Club at Oxford. Sisman notes the moral paradox associated with choosing “loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends. The dilemma continued to trouble him; it was a theme that would recur repeatedly in his fiction.” (p. 135)

After two years at Oxford, his father’s behavior once again became too much of a burden, and Cornwell left to teach at a public school. But he was soon unhappy there and returned to Oxford, where he completed his degree and married Ann. When no offer from MI5 or MI6 materialized, Cornwell accepted a teaching position at Eton College in 1956. While there, latent thoughts of becoming a writer surfaced, but his first book submission was rejected. Once again, the Eton life proved unsatisfying and Cornwell wrote to MI5 about his desire “to come inside.” (p. 184) Officially, he left Eton in 1958 for the Foreign Office, though the rumor among the boys was that “Corny is going to be a spy.” (p. 185)

Cornwell’s MI5 service was transformative. Sisman reviews Cornwell’s training and early agent handling assignments, giving readers a glimpse into the professional background Cornwell used to convey the sense of reality common to the le Carré books. On one point, however, Sisman is mistaken: after noting Cornwell’s transfer to the MI5 section “responsible for agent-running,” he adds the clarification that the term “agent” as used in Britain differs from its use in the United States, where “in America an ‘agent’ is used to mean an intelligence officer,” (p. 199) while in Britain it refers to someone recruited to provide information. Of course, the terms are used in the same sense in both Britain and the United States, and most intelligence services use the term in that sense, as well.

During Cornwell’s two years in MI5, day-to-day challenges were less stimulating than anticipated. Originally tasked with vetting former communists, Cornwell eventually characterized MI5 as “a dead-end sort of place” (p. 209), and in the spring of 1960 he applied for a transfer to MI6. But his MI5 time had not been wasted and, in fact, launched his writing career. Sisman hints that his motivation may have come in part from one of his bosses, John Bingham, a superb case officer who also wrote espionage novels (though in his case, under his own name). By mid-year when he joined the sister service, Cornwell had completed his first two novels and begun his third, provisionally titled The Carcass of the Lion, which was published as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.[8]

After an account of Cornwell’s MI6 training and his assignment in Germany, the focus of John le Carré: The Biography shifts to Cornwell’s writings and the consequences of his rapid rise to fame, and its accompanying financial security. Foremost among these consequences—after the demands of Inland Revenue and the Foreign Office’s reluctant approval to publish—was the revelation in the Sunday Times of le Carré’s true identity, followed shortly by the MI6 decision that he must resign. (p. 254) Sisman describes how Cornwell’s newfound celebrity required dealing with literary agents and editors and meeting the publisher’s demands for more books. These topics become major issues in the book. Cornwell would ultimately write 23 novels. Sisman discusses the origins of each novel, its plot evolution, and the writing techniques Cornwell developed, all while he attempted to cope with persistent complications imposed on his life by extended family and by the self-inflicted difficulties that arose from repeated extramarital liaisons, which ultimately contributed to his divorce.

Sisman’s account of the events surrounding the publishing of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963 illustrates how Cornwell achieved financial security. His parsimonious publisher, Victor Gollancz, paid an advance of £150, as he had for his two previous books. Public interest was spurred by the imprisonment of MI6 officer and KGB spy George Blake (1962), the Profumo Affair in London (1963), and the recent defection of Kim Philby (1963), and the book quickly became the most widely read and “most talked about book of the season.” (p. 248) By 1964, it had reached its 20th impression. Then an American publisher, Coward-McCann offered $4,500 for the US rights and Paramount Pictures bought the film rights for £7,500. Cornwell’s financial future was secured and he bought a new car. Paramount wanted Burt Lancaster to play Alec Leamas as a Canadian protagonist of the story. Cornwell preferred keeping it British with Trevor Howard or Peter Finch in the role. Richard Burton got the part.

Cornwell’s approach to writing began with research and handwritten drafts on legal pads. An example is Sisman’s account of one of le Carré’s best espionage books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[9]—originally entitled The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley. It explores the moral ambiguities of counterespionage, and Cornwell considered it “the most difficult book I ever wrote.” (p. 315) And due to a contract stipulation that allowed Paramount to control use of the Smiley character, the first draft did not include Smiley at all. Legal action corrected the problem.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was originally conceived as the first of up to 15 books about the struggle between “the Circus (Cornwell’s term for MI6 London headquarters] and the KGB,” (p. 352) between Smiley and his KGB nemesis, Karla. Ultimately, Cornwell would settle for three rather than 15: two became TV miniseries (Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People), and Sisman tells how Alec Guinness became the epitome of Smiley and Cornwell’s friend. It was in these works that terms like “honeytrap” and “mole” became household words and were even “adopted by intelligence professionals.” (p. 357)

As befitting bestselling books—and le Carré novels met that test—reviewers found them fair game. Sis man includes illustrative quotes as he comments on the reviews of each book. Most were positive, but even The Spy Who Came in from the Cold had its negative critics. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote, “The spy thriller in this case just does not seem the right vehicle for him, and his prose style is too thin as fuel.” (p. 294) “David was very hurt by the criticism,” writes Sisman. (p. 295) Even though positive reviews far outnumbered the negative, “they failed to soothe the wounds he received from the bad.” (p. 295) The wounds deepened when he moved from the espionage genre as in the semi-autobiographical The Naive and Sentimental Lover[10], which engendered comments like “a disastrous failure,” “the narrative limps along,” “sporadically dazzling, but running to fat.” American David Remnick found The Night Manager[11] “a Goldfinger[12] for grownups.” (496) Some who fancied themselves guardians of “authentic literature” were even more vindictive and suggested he “stick to the ‘genre’ novel and not aspire to ‘real’ literature,” a topic Sisman explores at some length. (p. 345)

Professional reviewers were not the only ones to comment on the le Carré novels. Some of his former intelligence service colleagues also expressed disparaging views, though not publicly. (p. 296) Official Soviet criticism, writes Sisman, with its distinctive political aroma, publicly “demonized him for ‘elevating the spy to the status of a hero in the Cold War.’“ (p. 452) The unofficial reality was selectively different. On a research trip to the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, in preparation for his next book—tentatively entitled The Biggest Toys in the World and then Thinking Like a Hero, ultimately published as Russia House[13]—Cornwell attended a reception arranged by Sir Bryan Cartledge, the British ambassador to Moscow with whom Cornwell had once served as an officer cadet. Numerous KGB officers were invited and “they all came … (and] were all le Carré fans despite the difficulty of obtaining his books in Russia.” (p. 455) Years later Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov would admit he was also an admirer, adding that he identified “with George Smiley,” not Karla. (p. 505) It was during this trip that Cornwell pointedly declined an invitation to meet Kim Philby.

Sisman’s analysis of the evolution of Russia House further illuminates Cornwell’s writing techniques. On his return from Moscow, Cornwell tore up his first draft and began again to produce the final version. It resulted in a first printing of 350,000 copies. (Initial printings of his first books had been only 3,000 copies.)

Despite a bout with prostate cancer, David Cornwell would go on to write 14 books after Russian House. The latest le Carré book, The Pigeon Tunnel[14]—a memoir with a title he had contemplated for Smiley’s People among others—was published in September 2016. Several novels were made into films in which Cornwell plays cameo roles. The stories they tell reflect Cornwell’s attempts to comment on the topics of the day—terrorism, corporate greed, the Mafia—though several have espionage-related themes. Sisman discusses them all, adding many anecdotes about the famous people with whom Cornwell came into contact.

By the 1980s Cornwell was one of Britain’s premier authors with comfortable homes in Cornwall and London, though still something of an iconoclast. He declined a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and a knighthood with the comment, “Titles do disagreeable things to people… I prefer to stay outside the tent.” (p. 587) He also asked that his name be withdrawn from the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for fiction, noting, “I do not compete for literary prizes.” (p. 588) He did accept an honorary doctorate from Oxford.

Cornwell, who turns 85 in October [2016], is still writing, and Sisman asks, rhetorically, why he perseveres; John le Carré: The Biography itself strongly suggests the writing continues because of the personal satisfaction it provides. Thus, Sisman considers his book a work-in-progress, to be updated in future editions. For now, readers can enjoy his stimulating biography of an author with a gift for creating haunting phrases and enduring characters, whose subtle pen has contributed so much to literary world.

More about Le Carré[15]

Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John le Carré and Ben Macintyre[16]

BRISTOL, England—Their subject is spying. Their obsessions are secrecy and betrayal. They are Englishmen of a certain background, old friends and admirers of each other’s work. One writes novels; the other, nonfiction. They speak in practically perfect sentences.

Conversations between John le Carré and Ben Macintyre[17] are inevitably warm, interesting, witty, discursive, conspiratorial and gossipy, although their gossip is often espionage-related and more rarefied than yours or mine. They met for lunch recently, on a desultorily sunny weekday in a private dining room at a boutique hotel in Bristol. Le Carré, 85, had been driven from his home in Cornwall (he also lives in London) by his family’s “outdoor man,” responsible for yardwork and other outside-the-house tasks; Macintyre, 53, had come by train from Winchester, where he had been speaking at a literary festival.

As usual, they were in the midst of a flurry of projects, finishing things up and starting new ones. Le Carré, who over a 56-year career has virtually single-handedly elevated spy novels from genre fiction into works of high literature, has a new book, A Legacy of Spies,” coming out in September. Thrillingly for his admirers, it is a coda of sorts to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), the third of his two dozen novels and the one that for many readers serves as the gateway drug to full-blown le Carré addiction.

Macintyre, meanwhile, is a longtime columnist for The Times of London and the author of 11 elegant, authoritative and dryly humorous nonfiction works, focusing most recently on 20th-century British espionage. He has a deep appreciation for the amusing and the absurd. His most recent book is Rogue Heroes, about the origins of the British special forces unit; he is working on a new one, about a Cold War spy case.

Early in his writing, le Carré introduced the subversive hypothesis that the spies of East and West were two sides of the same tarnished coin, each as bad as the other. It was a stunning idea, espionage painted not in black and white but in shades of gray. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author lost the scaffolding for his fiction. His later books are angrier, more polemical, their worldview darker, reflecting the chaotic morality of the post-Soviet era and often presenting the United States—with its exceptionalism, its flouting of international norms, as he sees it—as the villain in the post-Cold War era.

A Legacy of Spies returns to the past from the vantage point of the present. Elderly and retired to France, the ex-spy Peter Guillam, an old acquaintance of the attentive le Carré reader, is made to answer for long-buried sins when the adult children of the two principal casualties in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold suddenly bring a lawsuit against the security services. Guillam is forced to revisit the dubious setup and muddy justification for that operation, answering awkward questions from humorless young officials who have no patience for or understanding of how the agency operated in the old days. Even George Smiley himself makes an appearance.

The publication of the new work is being treated as a major literary occasion in Britain. A reading and Q. and A. at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sept. 7 will be broadcast live in theaters in Britain and Europe.

In real life, le Carré is known as David Cornwell. He took his pen name to keep his day job—spying for Britain, which he did in the 1950s and early ‘60s—separate from his writing identity. Over a bottle of white wine and, among other things, smoked salmon served under a glass from which clouds of smoke actually billowed out, he and Macintyre needed little prompting to speak. They all but interviewed themselves.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

S.L. Let’s talk about the new book, David. It’s been a long time since you wrote about the Cold War. Why did you want to revisit it now?

J.L.C. Because it seems to me, as Smiley says at the end of the book, that what happened then turns out to have been futile. Spies did not win the Cold War. They made absolutely no difference in the long run.

I wanted to take the characters and apply the experience of my own life, and examine what happened to them from a human, humanitarian dimension. And then place the whole story in this vacuum in which we live at the moment, which is occupied by really threatening forces. What marks the Cold War period is that at least we had a defining mission. At the moment our mission is survival. The thing that joins the West is fear. And everything else is up for grabs.

S.L. Ben, you have said that David’s work had a big influence in your becoming interested in the world of espionage. Which of his novels did you read first?

B.M. Oh, I think it was The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. It had a profound impact on me. I always felt that the books were deeply based in experience. It’s no accident that some of our greatest writers have been spooks—Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, Priestley and you, David.

Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it. These are characters who make up their past, who make up their present and who try to imagine a future.

J.L.C. And you must also contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him or her into that other person? All of those are actually the serious preoccupations of a novelist. One of the fascinations of the intelligence world is that it’s such a reflection of the society it serves. If you really want to examine the national psychology, it’s locked in the secret world.

As it turns out, both le Carré and Macintyre were recruited by Britain’s intelligence services as young men. Their experiences were starkly different. Le Carré, whose childhood was awful and whose father was a notorious con man, signed up. Macintyre, approached by a professor in his final year at Cambridge and interviewed by someone called “Major Halliday,” demurred.

J.L.C. Ben came from a secure family, nice background, interesting father, all of that. [Macintyre’s father was a history professor at Oxford.] But I felt in a curious way that I needed a stable institution, and more than that, a kind of paternalistic institution. I mean, I was brought up middle class, but I came from the criminal class. And that made me enormously attractive to the spies, because larceny was built in.

B.M. It was the typical sort of tap on the shoulder. It was quite amusing, really. A don that I didn’t know terribly well came barreling up and he said, “What are you doing after university?” I said, “I don’t really know.” And he said, “Well, there are some parts of the Foreign Office that are different from other parts of the Foreign Office. In a sense, they are different from the Foreign Office itself.” He went on for about five minutes. Of course, I knew exactly what he was saying, although he never actually said it.

So I went along to Carlton House Terrace [where MI6 had an office]. And there was very clearly more than one Major Halliday, because other people I know were recruited by a completely different Major Halliday. Mine had on socks and sandals, which was quite upsetting at the time.

I was flattered and interested, and David was probably responsible for my interest. I just thought that the characters seemed so complicated and fascinating and corrupted. I mean, there’s something very louche about British intelligence, something very unmoored. I don’t know whether it creates people who go off the rails, or whether you have to be slightly off the rails to want to do it.

S.L. What happened then?

B.M. I had one other meeting.

J.L.C. And no lunch?

B.M. No, it never got to lunch. I was headed off to America, and it wasn’t going to be my scene. But I was very fascinated by it, for nonfiction purposes. There’s something about writing about this world that enables you to write about the sort of things that novelists usually write about—loyalty and love and betrayal and romance and adventure. And because spies invent their world, and often invent their pasts, they’re tremendously unreliable narrators. You have a wonderful backdrop of truth and nontruth to work against.

David’s novels are so brilliant because they’re emotionally and psychologically absolutely true, but of course they’re novels. And what I try to do in mine is write something that truly reads like a novel but nonetheless cleaves closely and absolutely to what happened.

S.L. Is there something about the British psyche that makes spying, or at least duplicity, an enticing prospect?

B.M. We Brits are particularly susceptible to the double life, aren’t we? Is it because we are a sort of theatrical, and sort of unfaithful, culture?

J.L.C. I think it’s because hypocrisy is the national sport. For our class in my era, public school was a deliberately brutalizing process that separated you from your parents, and your parents were parties to that. They integrated you with imperial ambitions and then let you loose into the world with a sense of elitism—but with your heart frozen.

B.M. There is no deceiver more effective than a public-school-educated Brit. He could be standing next to you in the bus queue, having a Force 12 nervous breakdown, and you’d never be any the wiser.

J.L.C. When you’ve become that frozen child, but you’re an outwardly functioning, charming chap, there is a lot of wasteland inside you that is waiting to be cultivated.

S.L. David, you’ve spoken about your childhood, your outrageously criminal father, how you were sent to boarding school when you were 5, the lies that permeated everything. How did all this come to play when you were recruited by MI5?

J.L.C. The truth, in my childhood, didn’t really exist. That is to say, we shared the lies. To run the household with no money required a lot of serious lying to the local garage man, the local butcher, the local everybody. And then there was the extra element of class. All my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles were entirely working class—laborers, builders, that sort of thing. One of them worked up telegraph poles. And so out of that to invent, as my father did, this socially adept, well-spoken, charming chap—that was an operation of great complicity. And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school. I only mention these things because they’re the extremes of what can warp an Englishman.

B.M. What you’ve just described—is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?

J.L.C. Absolutely. I mean childhood, at my age, is no excuse for anything. But it is a fact that my childhood was aberrant and peculiar and nomadic and absolutely unpredictable. So if I was in boarding school, I didn’t know where I would be spending the holidays. If my father said he was going to come and take me out, it was as likely as not that he wouldn’t show up. I would say to the other boys, I had a wonderful day out, when I had really been sitting in a field somewhere.

The mixture of solitude and uncertainty fertilized the situation enormously. To which you must add the amazing cast of crooked characters who passed through my father’s life. Inevitably I was making up stories to myself, retreating into myself. And then there was the genetic inheritance I got from my father. This was a man who, while still being pursued by the police, or bankrupt, or Christ knows what, who had done prison time, then boldly stands as a parliamentary candidate. He had a huge capacity for invention. He had absolutely no relationship to the truth. He would come talk to me in the morning and I would challenge him, and in the evening he would say, “That’s not what I said to you.”

S.L. Do you see parallels with President Trump’s view of the truth?

J.L.C. Exactly that. He is the most recent model. Before that it was Robert Maxwell. The parallels are extraordinary. My sister, too, we absolutely recognize the same syndrome. There is not a grain of truth there.

S.L. Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

B.M. I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

J.L.C. The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War. It worked then, it works now. As far as Trump, I would suspect they have it, because they’ve denied it. If they have it and they’ve set Trump up, they’d say, “Oh no, we haven’t got anything.” But to Trump they’re saying, “Aren’t we being kind to you?”

B.M. And today you get this wonderful Russian lawyer woman [Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was in the pre-election meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr.] who is straight out of one of our books, a character that is possibly connected to the Russian state. Who knows? They exist somewhere in that foggy, deniable hinterland. It’s called maskirovka—little masquerade—where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.

J.L.C. For Putin, it’s a kind of little piece of background music to keep things going. The smoking gun might or might not be the documents exchanged about the Trump Tower in Moscow [which Trump is said to have been planning to build]. Then there’s the really seedy stuff in the Caucasus. There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.

Throughout the lunch, le Carré and Macintyre discussed spies they knew personally, or knew of: Russian spies, MI6 spies, double agents and old retired spies who have a habit of looking up le Carré when they visit Britain. Macintyre brought up Kim Philby, the subject of his 2014 book, A Spy Among Friends, and one of the notorious group of double agents in the 1950s known as the Cambridge Five. On his first trip to Russia, in the late 1980s, le Carré was told he could meet with Philby, who had defected and was living in Moscow. (Philby died in 1988.)

J.L.C. It was before the wall came down and our ambassador had interceded with Raisa Gorbachev. I met a lot of people like Kim Philby’s Russian minder and other spies. That was when I was offered the chance to go and meet Philby.

And I refused to do so. I felt a spurt of hatred. I felt, “If he wants me he can’t have me.” I didn’t want to give him comfort.

B.M. Do you regret it now, David? Do you wish you had?

J.L.C. Out of human curiosity. But I feel now, as I expect you do, that I have a very clear portrait of him. He was much more intelligent and charming than was reasonable, and also wicked. He loved what he was doing. Betrayal was his element.

S.L. And now, David, have you said goodbye to Smiley?

J.L.C. He’s steadied me through my writing life. He’s been a kindly hand and a wonderful writing companion. I think he holds the conventional key to me. I think all of us, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, have to identify with our central character, but with Smiley it seems like a dialogue. But he’s said all he has to say. Also, he’s about 120.

B.M. He’s earned his retirement.

S.L. You’re doing an interview with the German news media after the Royal Festival Hall event. What will you do after that?

J.L.C. I really think that it will be my last performance in public. And I will be 86 by that time, so I should look at reality. I may have one more novel in me. And if it’s not good, I have a whole team of unkind selectors who will tell me. I always thought that Graham Greene, for instance, went on for too long.

S.L. But it’s hard not to write, if you’re a writer, isn’t it?

J.L.C. It’s the only thing you can do, in a way. I cannot stand idleness. I cannot stand not writing.

S.L. Do you feel you’ve come full circle or closed the door on a part of your life?

J.L.C. I guess this is, for me, some sort of celebration. I feel that I’m just about grown up enough to face the truth about myself.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 113-116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[2] For another consideration of Le Carré, see James Burridge, “SIGINT in the Novels of John le Carré,” in Studies in Intelligence (1994), pp. 125-132. This article has a list of references to le Carré’s books and articles about his writing.

[3] Harris, Robert (1995). Enigma. New York: Random House

[4] Sisman, Adam (1994). A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson

[5] Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books

[6] Jago, Michael (2013). The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham. London : Biteback Publishing

[7] Le Carrè, John (1986). A Perfect Spy. New York: Knopf

[8] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[9] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[10] Le Carré, John (1971, 1972). The Naive And Sentimental Lover. New York: Knopf [LCCN: 78163133]

[11] Le Carré, John (1993). The Night Manager. New York: Knopf

[12] Fleming, Ian (1981). Goldfinger. Geneva: Edito-Service

[13] Le Carré, John(1989).The Russia House. New York: Knopf

[14] Le Carré, John (2016). The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life. New York, New York: Viking

[15] John le Carré has a new novel, A Legacy of Spies, to be published in September, 2017. Le Carré, John (2017). A Legacy of Spies: A Novel. New York, New York: Viking [LOC 2017032695]. “The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book—his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carré has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carré and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new”– Provided by publisher.

[16] Sarah Lyall, “Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John le Carré and Ben Macintyre,” New York Times Book Review (August. 25, 2017) Sarah Lyall is a writer at large for The Times. A version of this article appears in print on August 27, 2017, on Page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Spies Like Us”.

[17] Ben Macintyre. (born 25 December 1963) is a British author, historian, reviewer and columnist writing for The Times newspaper. His columns range from current affairs to historical controversies.

 

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