John le Carré: The Novelist Who Demystified Chilly Warfare Spying
Many Le Carré novels were shaped by real events; Smiley’s hunt for a mole that infiltrated British intelligence was inspired by the story of the infamous Soviet double agent Kim Philby. And the author did extensive research in the background of his books and traveled to dangerous parts of the world such as Beirut and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which was then occupied by the Khmer Rouge, to get a feel for the local conditions and to look for people who could work their way out Characters begin to sprout in his head.
Le Carré, however, was less interested in the protocols and pyrotechnics of the espionage genre than in the psychological dynamics that initially led his characters into the spy game: childlike feelings of love and resentment, the need for consent, the inability to rely on one to oblige individual identities or what the author once called a longing to be “everything for all people and nothing for oneself”.
These emotions were rooted in David Cornwell’s own life. As he recalled in his 2016 memory book, The Pigeon Tunnel, he grew up a “frozen child” abandoned by his mother and repeatedly humiliated and manipulated by his flamboyant Conman father Ronnie, who, as Le Carré wrote, “Saw no paradox between being listed for fraud on the wanted list and wearing a gray topper in the owners’ enclosure in Ascot” – an unsuspecting narcissist who mocked his son’s school lessons in Monte Carlo and served prison terms in Hong Kong, Singapore and Zurich around the world.
As a result, when he was a child, Cornwell learned the art of “evading and deceiving” as a survival tool and honed his storytelling skills early on to “craft an identity for me,” he wrote in the Pigeon Tunnel. Longing to belong to a legitimate, larger family, he became a natural recruit as a spy. Joining the “secret world”, as he later said, “felt like coming home”. After writing short stories and poetry in his youth, Cornwell began working on a novel while working at MI5 because he was “going mad with boredom.” According to Le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman, he wrote in small notebooks in his spare time – on the train, during lunch, the morning before work.
The themes of betrayal and competing loyalty – between friends and country, family and ideals – that fuel Le Carré’s novels are not limited to espionage. They define relationships between colleagues and family members, fathers and sons in works like A Perfect Spy (arguably the most autobiographical novel by Le Carré) and Single & Single.
Incidentally, the author’s spies are often the embodiment of the weaknesses of the human condition – given by duplicity, manipulation and hypocrisy, as well as by feelings of isolation and loss. “What do you think are spies: priests, saints, martyrs?” asks a character in The Spy who came in from the cold. “They are a filthy procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; Pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten up their depraved lives. “
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Le Carré began to put his characters in new situations – in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Middle East. The threat of communism gave way to international arms and drug deals as greed replaced ideology as the motivating force. But if some of his later novels, like Absolute Friends and The Mission Song, feel overly schematic, they can’t detract from the galvanic performance of Le Carré’s great Cold War novels – novels that have thriller conventions with the social details of Charles Dickens and Honoré de married Balzac and the moral concerns of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. These books not only transcended the espionage genre and redesigned it; in retrospect, they will take their place among the emblematic novels of the late 20th century.