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14 December 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 10:03am

The lying life of John le Carré

It wasn't only in his pseudonymous spy fiction that the late novelist practised the art of invention – from childhood, David Cornwell's life was defined by deception.

By Gavin Jacobson

How do you assess the life of a liar? Someone who, by their own admission, was “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist”. John le Carré, who died on 12 December at the age of 89, hadn’t worked as a spy since leaving British intelligence in 1964. But as a writer, as “a maker of fictions”, he once wrote that “I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists”.

Born David Cornwell in October 1931, the pseudonym “Le Carré” was his most enigmatic creation. The origins of the name remain a mystery. Le Carré’s first three novels – Call for the Dead (1961), A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) – were written while he was still serving as an intelligence officer for MI6. The cover name was a condition of his spymasters, who were happy for him to present the secret world as long as it was in fiction. As Le Carré put it in 2016: “How much our poor beleaguered spies must be wishing that Edward Snowden had done the novel instead”.

Le Carré has offered several explanations as to the name’s provenance. He said it could have been taken from a tailor’s shop near Battersea Bridge in London, though whether this was from memory or from the writer’s imagination is unclear. “The truth is, I don’t know,” he claimed in an interview with The Paris Review.

“The truth is” are also the opening words to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Le Carré’s master-novel about the hunt for a Soviet double agent inside MI6. But in the mouths of spies and novelists, the truth turns to quicksilver. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, notes that in the narrative of Le Carré’s life, “fact and fiction have become intertwined”. And so, like the central character of Absolute Friends (2003), Ted Mundy, a German-speaking, former public school teacher who becomes a spy, Le Carré lived perhaps no longer knowing “which parts of him are pretending”.

[See also: The Secret Life: John le Carré]

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If the authenticity of Le Carré’s fictional characters is always in doubt — after all, they deal in subterfuge, role-play and disloyalty — their credibility is not. We believe in the fierce intelligence, and heavy contrition, of George Smiley, Le Carré’s “podgy” anti-Bond and greatest literary creation. On every page of Tinker, Tailor we taste the stink of whisky, cigarettes and paranoia that consumes its cast of embittered romantics. We experience the moral agony of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy (1986), who is torn between personal and institutional loyalties. And in The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), the abandonment felt by Aldo Cassidy, whose mother leaves him as a child, is so genuine that it can only have come from Le Carré’s own boyhood experiences.

Le Carré honed his genius for character – both his own and that of his literary inventions – from childhood. People with absent mothers and crooked fathers are, he wrote in his memoirs, “pretty good at inventing themselves”. Cornwell was five when his mother Olive snuck out on the family. What followed were the “hugless years”. As a child he never knew her—“I can’t describe her well”—and in his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel she is pieced together from the elegiac fragments of mis-memory. Like the female characters in his novels, Olive is rendered in soft focus, a faint spectral presence set behind the bold figures of men.

In fiction and in memoir, Le Carré was always more confident with his own kind: men from broken homes who have advanced through the grand chambers of Britain’s establishment—public school, Oxbridge, the army, and the Foreign Office. The great lodestone of Le Carré’s entire life and oeuvre was his father, Ronnie Cornwell. Le Carré saved discussing his “wayward father” until the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, since he didn’t want him “elbowing his way to the top of the bill”. But surely Le Carré knew that headliners — the most prominent names on the ticket — are saved for last?

[See also: Unmasking Graham Greene]

Ronnie was a conman, and a careless one. Numerous scams landed him in debt and jail. He possessed an irrepressible spirit, beneath which lurked a base villainy. He was an adulterer, a wife beater and a sexual tyrant. After drunken nights out, Ronnie would come home and clamber into the young Le Carré’s bed and fondle him. He beat him up, too, “but only a few times,” said Le Carré, “and not with much conviction”. But there’s no doubt that Ronnie — a sociopath who swung between cruelty and tearful affection — devoured Le Carré’s childhood and pushed him into the secret world. “By the age of eight I was already a well-trained spy”.

Like so many of his literary creations, such as “Jumbo” Roach, the unhappy public schoolboy in Tinker, Tailor, Le Carré became a natural watcher. Tactics of evasion and deception were the “necessary weapons” of childhood, as was the need to rob the manners and lifestyles of his peers, “even to the extent of pretending…. All this no doubt made me an ideal recruit to the secret flag”.

Le Carré provided a recognisable portrait of himself in A Perfect Spy, his most autobiographical novel. The plot centres on Magnus Pym, a motherless spook, with a corrupt father called Rick. He also shares Le Carré’s contempt for American foreign policy and Britain’s fatal reverence for Washington. In A Perfect Spy, as well as Tinker, Tailor, it is the imperious designs of the United States, as opposed to Soviet communism, that represents the true threat to the world.

But if Pym’s backstory belongs to Le Carré, his career as a spy, and a novelist, owes everything to Kim Philby, the high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent and defected to the Soviet Union in 1963. Though they never met, Le Carré disliked Philby because they were so similar. Philby was public school educated, had a tyrannical father, and disguised his feelings well, especially, as Le Carré put it, “his seething distaste for the bigotries and prejudices of the English ruling classes. I’m afraid that all of these characteristics have at one time or another been mine”. Philby is the traitor Le Carré might so easily have become.

[See also: The many lives of Jacqueline Wilson]​

Indeed, Le Carré’s novels are about the moral price Britain has paid for its deference to its institutions and the elite who manage them. In The Secret Pilgrim (1990), Smiley gives a speech to young recruits to MI6 in which he reminds them that “the privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on earth….Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.” The comparison to Boris Johnson and his circle seems almost too easy to make, but it is the ruthless exposure of English cynicism, of the passionless and flippant, that will make Le Carré an enduring force in modern literature.

It is an unhappy coincidence that Le Carre died in the same year as the Welsh historian Jan Morris and editor Harold Evans, two other writers who chronicled, in unique ways, the rise and fall of Pax Britannica. But as “the laureate of Britain’s post-imperial sleepwalk,” as the poet Blake Morrison described him, Le Carré’s work stands tallest as a warning about the costs of national self-deception; about a society adrift in the moral and spiritual netherworld, guided by the privileged and unserious, desperately searching for some kind of redemption.

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