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13 December 2020updated 14 Dec 2020 8:32am

The Secret Life: John le Carré

In the end, one suspects, John le Carré remained an enigma even to himself.

By Jason Cowley

The novelist John le Carré has died at the age of 89. In this 2015 essay taken from Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval, New Statesman editor Jason Cowley explored why le Carré remains an enigma even to himself”. 

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) George Smiley is recalled from retirement to investigate whether there is a double agent, or “mole”, operating at the highest level of the intelligence service, which John le Carré calls the Circus. Melancholy and introspective –  le Carré writes of the aged spymaster’s “spiritual exhaustion” – Smiley is drawn back reluctantly into a crepuscular world of secrets and subterfuge, where even long-time friends and associates cannot be trusted. Smiley, le Carré writes, “had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection”. 

Making slow progress in his investigation, Smiley returns to Oxford — his “spiritual home” — to see a former colleague, Connie Sachs, who is an expert in Soviet counter-intelligence and renowned for her exceptional memory. In the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor, the first episode of which was broadcast in 1979, a few months after the election as prime minister of Margaret Thatcher, Connie is played by Beryl Reid and Smiley with fastidious, low-toned deliberation by Alec Guinness, in one of his most celebrated roles. Their conversation takes place in near darkness, in a room lit as if only by candles, like the setting for some venerable college feast. 

Connie has experienced the post-war decline of Britain, which Mrs Thatcher came to power determined to arrest. She tells Smiley that her “boys”, as she calls the largely public school, Oxbridge-educated group with whom she used to work at the Circus, have lost their purpose: “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” 

In many ways, le Carré is an elegist, and the major espionage novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s have a peculiarly sad English music — all long shadows and recessionals. Themes of conflicted loyalty and spoiled idealism recur again and again in the novels and contribute to their ambiguity and fascination. His protagonists seem ambivalent about what they are doing. They have been prepared for a world that no longer exists, and many of them are stumbling. They remain loyal to their school, college, class and, ultimately, their Queen (if seldom their wives), yet the country they serve has ceased to be a great power. 

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Le Carre dramatizes the loneliness of the double agent: duplicitous and loyal only to himself, he lives in a condition of acute watchfulness. His fiction, especially his espionage fiction, with its suspensions, narrative absences and aporias, leaves much unsaid and unexplained. Even when his novels reach their inevitable resolution, as the genre demands, there is nevertheless a sense of incompleteness, of uncertainty and confusion, as though the agents themselves are unable fully to comprehend the events that have passed, or indeed the value of what they are working for or against. Demystification leads to a greater mystification. 

Inside the Circus, there is a feeling among the best that the institutions they are fighting to preserve might not be worth the struggle. And there are traitors in their ranks; reading le Carré’s spy novels one is reminded of the shabby final years of the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, who continued to wear his Eton tie long after defecting to the Soviet Union. 

If le Carré is to be believed, he did not have to search long to find his subject; the secret condition, as he has pointed out, “was imposed on me by birth, under the influence of that monstrous father. Then that brief passage through the secret world sort of institutionalised it.” 

That monstrous father was Ronnie Cornwell, an inveterate conman and recidivist whom le Carré fictionalised so memorably in his 1986 A Perfect Spy.  A wonderfully labyrinthine novel, it can be read as a complex family history, as a study in the unreliability of memory, as an anguished confession, and as a quasi-detective story. Le Carré uses abrupt shifts in time and perspective, as Conrad did in The Secret Agent (1907), to tell the story of Magnus Pym, an English double agent who has gone on the run after betraying secrets to the Czechs. British intelligence officers are searching for Pym, who, in turn, is hiding out in Cornwall where he has embarked on a quest to understand fundamental questions about his father and about what let him to betray his country. Writing in the late 1980s, Philip Roth called A Perfect Spy the finest English novel to be published since the war. 


On first impressions David Cornwell (le Carré was a pseudonym to preserve his diplomatic cover) seems like a typical member of the English establishment. Tall, patrician and well spoken, he was educated at Sherborne and Oxford, and taught as a young man at Eton, which he called the “spiritual home” (that phrase again) of the English upper classes. 

After leaving Eton, he worked for MI5 and MI6 and, because he spoke fluent German, was posted to the British embassy in Bonn. One learns from Adam Sisman in his authorised biography that Cornwell is a brilliant raconteur and mimic, and has been fabulously wealthy for decades because of the bestselling success and film and television adaptations of the novels. But first impressions are never reliable, as any spy would know. 

As Sisman tells it, David Cornwell nurtures deep resentments and class insecurities, going back to childhood. Ronnie Cornwell (1906-75) was a freewheeling chancer and conman who went to prison on several occasions. Ann, David’s first wife, called Ronnie “the only really evil person I ever met”. He had monstrous appetites — for money, women, cars, houses, always living beyond his means, never settling in one job or house for long. He hosted extravagant parties, stayed at the finest hotels (bills were mostly left unpaid), and socialised with sports stars, actors, politicians, gangsters and aristocrats. He moved from one hare-brained scheme to another, sometimes lucking out, before the inevitable fall. 

One morning, when David was only five, his mother left the family home and never returned. He did not see her again until he was an adult and remained distant from her until her death. “We were frozen children, & will always remain so,” he wrote to his elder brother decades later. 

At his prep school, where he boarded and encountered the usual sadistic and perverted masters, David was still wearing a nappy at the age of seven because of an inability to control his bladder. “He became especially sensitive to social nuance, noticing details to which boys from more secure backgrounds might be oblivious,” Sisman writes. 

As a boarder at Sherborne David felt awkward and isolated. He was embarrassed by Ronnie, who inevitably defaulted on the fees, and by his humble relatives. He has since complained about “the indelible scars that a neo-fascist regime of corporal punishment and single-sex confinement inflicts upon its wards”. Yet, when the time came, he chose to send his sons away to boarding schools, a decision he regards now as a “tragic mistake”. 

After leaving Sherborne prematurely (he was 16), David went to live in Bern, Switzerland. There he read Goethe, studied German and was in tentative contact with the British security services. He completed his national service and, assisted by a contact from Sherborne (the old boy network doing its thing), won a place to study modern languages at Oxford, where he socialised with the privileged sons of inherited wealth without being one of them. 

Before long he was also serving as an informer for MI5, betraying the confidences of many left-wing university friends and acquaintances. “He had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends,” his biographer writes. 

Adam Sisman has written an admirable but curious biography. It’s at its best when recounting the grotesque behaviour of Ronnie Cornwell and his son David’s struggles to escape from his monstrous father’s malign influence and find purpose in life, which he did when the worldwide success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), enabled him to write full-time. 

As the author of distinguished biographies of historians AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sisman is familiar with the mores and machinations of the high English establishment. He understands the interconnections that existed (and still exist) between the great schools, Oxbridge, Whitehall, Westminster, the Inns of Court, the BBC and Fleet Street, the gentlemen’s clubs and the City. He knows the codes and can speak the language — all of which has helped in his appreciation of the textures and intricacies of what le Carré calls the “clandestine world”. 

There is, however, something missing. It’s as if Sisman is, or feels, constrained: he seems unwilling to pass judgment on le Carré as he follows him on his journey through life or properly evaluate the novels. When his research contradicts something le Carré has written or told him, he simply puts it down to an instance of “false memory” and moves on. In his introduction Sisman says that his subject read the manuscript in advance of publication and that it will be revised, presumably when he is dead. 

But in the book we have now, as it stands, Sisman does not really come close to capturing the inner life of the man we know as John le Carré, always the hardest task for any biographer, especially when his subject is alive. Le Carré is a man and writer of multiple contradictions. He is of and for the establishment but simultaneously estranged from it. A patriot who at university put country before friends, he has refused all official honours, including a knighthood. He has had close friendships with strident rightwingers such as Alan Clark, the late Conservative MP and diarist, and William Shawcross but claims to have been a long-time Labour voter (though he loathed Tony Blair). He has certainly become angrier with age, raging against the Iraq War and condemning the iniquities of “extraordinary rendition” and the rapacity of multinational pharmaceutical companies. 

Le Carré has been accused of being anti-American and anti-Israeli, and has feuded publicly with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown (when she was editor of the New Yorker). He frequently changes agent, as if always restlessly seeking self-validation and a better deal (“how much am I worth?”) He refuses to allow his novels to be entered for literary prizes such as the Man Booker, perhaps because he fears the humiliation of rejection by the London literati. 

Sisman hints that le Carré has considered suicide but does not elaborate or explain how close he came. Similarly, we know that his marriage to Ann was destroyed by his long absences and affairs, and that his second wife has tolerated his adulteries. In particular, Ann, who had literary ambitions, emerges from the book as a wounded, pleading woman. What does David think about her hurt and failures and what does Sisman think about how she was treated? We are not told. 

An outstanding absence — especially curious in a book about a major writer — is literary criticism. Sisman writes at length about the business of books: about the rights deals, agents, royalty cheques, publishers, reviews and so on. But when it comes to the novels he offers little beyond perfunctory plot summaries. He tells us repeatedly that le Carré is a great novelist but does not attempt to explain how he achieves his effects. Who are le Carré’s precursors? What are his stylistic and technical innovations? Is he a conventional realist or a more experimental novelist? How did the spy genre evolve? What of the influence of Graham Greene or novels such as Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911)? Sisman has nothing to say. 

In the end, one suspects, John le Carré remains an enigma even to himself. But whatever his private turmoil, his considerable public achievement has been to chronicle and interrogate the history of our times. More than this, he invented his own lexicon of espionage — the Circus, tradecraft, lamplighters, moles, scalphunters, pavement artists, the honey trap — that will surely endure as a permanent part of the language. 

Conrad said he wrote Under Western Eyes (1911), his great novel of espionage and revolutionaries in pre-First World War Europe, “to render not so much the political style as the psychology of Russia itself”. Conrad’s Russia is a “monstrous blank page awaiting the record of an inconceivable history”. It’s a country on the edge of complete moral breakdown. In his different way, Le Carre has provided a valuable psychological portrait of the relationship between Russia and the West during the decades of the cold war. And through reading his books we can better understand something of the failure and complacency of an English ruling class that was once trained for empire and to rule the waves, as Connie Sachs said, but has ended up struggling even to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom itself. (2015) 


In 2017, at the age of 85, John le Carré published A Legacy of Spies, returning to the period of the Cold War and some of his most enduring characters, including Smiley and the spymaster’s former colleague and ally Peter Guillam. The book is a prequel as well as a coda to the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s also a political book about current events – notably Britain’s unhappy relationship with Europe. 

In the penultimate chapter, Guillam visits Smiley, who is now an old man and living in exile in Freiburg. They reflect on what they got right and wrong when they worked together in the secret world. Guillam asks whether it had been worth the struggle and sacrifice. What was it all for, he asks, was it for England?  

Smiley considers the question and then replies: 

“There was a time, of course there was. But whose England [le Carré’s italics]? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.” 

Smiley – whose allusion to Theresa May’s 2016 Conservative party conference speech will be noted by the alert reader – is not alone in yearning for a new age of reason. But these are unreasonable times. Darkness is visible wherever one looks: Trump’s United States, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the former eastern bloc states of Poland and Hungary, the Middle East… 

“It was terribly hard to write A Legacy of Spies during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump,” le Carré told the BBC, adding that he “detested” Trump and Brexit.  “And I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear.” 

He continued, “Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.” 

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