John le Carre – The Spy (Writer) Who Came In From The Cold


He is famously prickly about granting personal interviews, and has consistently shunned appearances at literary events. This is a stand he has maintained since bursting upon the spy novel world in 1964, with his third novel “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.”

But all this seems to have changed. After more than 50 years, John le Carre, real name David Cornwell, seems to be pulling back the curtains. He seems to have decided to come out of the shadows, or in from the cold, so to speak. Maybe it’s something to do with his advancing age and increasing realisation of his own advancing mortality – he’s 86 this year.

First came a biography issued last year. For all intents and purposes it was an “authorised” biography; it had David Cornwell‘s approval, and he did cooperate with the biographer, Adam Sisman, to the extent of spending 50 hours of interview time with him, and granting him full access to his files.

Then, oddly, he’s quickly followed it up a year later by publishing The Pigeon Tunnel, a memoir of sorts. This raises the question of why this memoir so soon after the biography? Some people think he might not have been fully satisfied with the biography, even though he did approve it. As le Carre puts it himself, in the introduction of the book, “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, and tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.”

For a person who doesn’t give much interviews, he’s very recently sat down for a lengthy conversation with Ben Macintyre, an esteemed writer of non-fiction spy literature at a boutique hotel in Bristol. The conversation was moderated and written up by Sarah Lyall, and published in the New York Times just this past Sunday.

Then, for the first time ever, he is going to appear at a public speaking event. Scheduled for September 7, the unprecedented event billed as “An Evening With George Smiley” will be held at the London Festival Hall. As le Carre fans will know, George Smiley is the lugubrious spymaster, who has appeared in 8 of his novels, starting with his very first, “Call For The Dead” in 1961, through to the third in 1964, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” his breakthrough novel, and continuing through to “Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy”, “The Honourable Schoolboy”, and “Smiley’s People”. And many would have come to consider George Smiley as the alter ego of his creator, John le Carre. Hence an evening with George Smiley is as good as an evening with le Carre. The same event will be broadcast live in cinemas in Britain and Europe. When le Carre goes public, he really goes public in a big way.

Concurrently, rather than coincidentally, le Carre has staged a comeback for his old cold war warrior on September 7, the date on which his new novel, “A Legacy of Spies” will be launched. His last appearance was in “The Secret Pilgrim“, 25 years ago. Seen together with him will be Smiley’s old colleagues from the British Secret service – aka the Circus – all, perhaps taking one last bow together.

Being conveniently in London through the month of September, I was looking with eager anticipation to my evening date with both Messrs le Carre and Smiley. Imagine my disappointment when I realise that due to some planning error, I found myself indisposed to attend this literary event of the year. The reasons are too many and complicated, all worthy of a le Carre plot twist, and I don’t have le Carre’s skills to unravel them. So all I can do is try to kick myself since I found out.

Trying to salvage whatever I can out of a bad situation, I decided either to go read the Sisman’s biography, or le Carre’s memoir of sorts, or wait for le Carre’s forthcoming new novel – or all of the above. I opted for the latter two. No offence to Mr Sisman, I prefer to hear Mr Carre’s stories in his own voice. So for me, the choices are obvious – “The Pigeon Tunnel” and “The Legacy of Spies.”

The Pigeon Tunnel” is more a collection of charming and occasionally insightful tales, narrated in le Carre’s inimitable voice. It contains revelations about real-life people, some of whom were the basis of some of le Carre’s best fictional characters, others of name-dropping value to juice up the story-telling.

There is mention of lunch with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thacher who was trying to force some kind of medal of recognition on him, which he rejected; also dinner with Joseph Brodsky during which the latter received news of his being awarded the Nobel Prize; and a face-to-face meeting with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat when he was conducting research for his book “The Little Drummer Girl”.

We read about how Richard Burton was cast as Alex Leamas in the film version of “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”, and by sheer association, Elizabeth Taylor, almost as the female lead, except, perhaps, for the coincidence of both their names being Liz. We read about his fondness for Alec Guiness, and admiration for his professionalism and artistry in his memorable portrayal of George Smiley in the BBC adaptations of “Tinker,Tailor,Soldier, Spy.”, “The Honourable Schoolboy”, and “Smiley’s People”. We learn that Jerry Westerby, the British journalist-spy in “The Honourable Schoolboy” is loosely descended from a person named Gordon who was “an upper class drifter of vaguely aristocratic origin who my father had relieved of his family fortune.” He is also based on a journalist named Peter Simms, whom le Carre first met at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Le Carre mentioned that there were one or two thumbnail versions of the stories in his biography that he would like to reclaim. I suspect one of them has something to do with the double-agent Kim Philby (I declare that I have not read the biography, so I’m only speculating here.) Over 13 pages, in a chapter entitled “His Brother’s Keeper”, le Carre left no doubts as to his feelings about Philby’s betrayal. “In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot. Those who had not been betrayed by Philby were betrayed by George Blake, another MI6 double agent.”

“Has my animosity towards Philby mellowed over the years? Not that I’m aware of. There is a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.” While at a reception given by the Union of Soviet Writers, on his first to Moscow in 1987, he was invited by a part-time journalist with KGB connections to his house to meet an old friend and an admirer of his work; after confirming it was Philby, he declined the invitation.

In what is the longest, and the most poignant chapter, entitled “Son of the Writer’s Father” le Carre shed more light on his habitual con-man, perpetual fantasist, and occasional jailbird of a father. Ronnie Cornwell had been the model for the character Rick Pym in an earlier book, “The Perfect Spy”. At once charming and repulsive as the character might have been portrayed in “The Perfect Spy”, le Carre felt that he was unable to do justice to the true person. “My earliest drafts of what eventually became “A Perfect Spy” dripped with self-pity: cast your eye, gentle reader upon this emotionally crippled boy, crushed underfoot by his tyrannical father. It was only when he was safely dead and I took up the novel again that I did what I should have done at the beginning, and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father. With that settled, I was able to honour the legacy of his tempestuous life.”

I think this is a chapter that David Cornwell needed to write. It is needed to expunge the ghost of his father that was still haunting him. I hope that writing of this chapter has been the catharsis that he apparently needed.

Having read “The Perfect Spy” before, the current revelations about the father are not entirely new to me. I had suspected then that a lot of the book was autobiographical. What I found revelatory, and of special interest, are the occasions where Cornwell Senior attempted to “con the prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia into a dubious football-pools operation and came within a whisker of bringing it off. But it was the same whisker that always let him down.”

Fact or Fiction ? I’ll let you the reader decide. Don’t forget that the man claiming this is himself a master story-teller.