John Le Carre

The British author John Le Carre (born David Cornwell, 1931) was regarded by many as the foremost spy novelist of his time because his works go beyond being mere thrillers. They recreate the gritty realism of the spy business, exploring relationships among people and between humans and modern institutions—themes which qualify him for consideration as a serious writer.

John Le Carre was born David Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset. His mother abandoned the family when he was six, so he was raised mainly by his father, a charming rogue straight out of Dickens. Cornwell repeatedly made and lost fortunes through elaborate confidence games and spent some time in prison. He sent his son to upper-class preparatory schools, where he was so unhappy that at age 16 he dropped out and went to Switzerland. There he spent nine months (1948-1949) studying German at Berne University and then did his national service with the British Intelligence Corps in Austria. He resumed his education at Oxford in 1952 but had to leave and teach at Millford Junior School when his father went bankrupt in 1954. A year later he returned to Oxford and graduated in 1956 with a first-class degree.

After an unhappy two-year stint teaching German at Eton, he tried a variety of jobs; then in 1960 he joined the Foreign Office. In 1961 he was sent to Bonn as the second secretary to the British embassy. It was during this period that Cornwell published his first two novels, Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1963), taking the pseudonym John Le Carre because members of the Foreign Office did not publish under their own names. In 1963 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold appeared and quickly became a best seller, winning Le Carre the British Crime Novel and Somerset Maugham awards. After this enormous success he was able to resign from his job at the Foreign Office and write full time. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was followed by a series of novels, which, except for his romance, The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), deal with modern spies. Several have been adapted successfully for television or movies.

The first 33 years of his life shaped the vision which informs Le Carre's novels. Though he did admit once in an interview that he was "for a time engaged in that work," he refused to talk about it, and no one is certain of what connection he had to actual spying. His books, however, suggest an insider's view of the mundane details of intelligence, the inefficiency of a bureaucratic institution, and the pettiness, rivalry, and back stabbing among agents, gleaned obviously during his years of government service. His fascination with spying and his mistrust of institutions can also be attributed to his experiences at public schools, where he always felt like an outsider. There he could observe the conduct of the privileged class with its dedication to British tradition and class snobbery, the group raised to protect the status quo and, incidentally, to enter the world of espionage.

Le Carre's response to his irresponsible, manipulative father is explored in the fictional relationship between Magnus Pym and his father, Rick, in A Perfect Spy (1986). Life as a secret agent attracts the eternally immature Magnus because it provides him with family and rituals but demands no enduring connections to others.

The "Circus," Le Carre's name for the Secret Service in his novels, is a metaphor for many of the ills in British Cold War society. A bureaucracy, it has no regard for individuals, often using them for pragmatic ends and destroying them in the process (Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one example). Its agents are men who were recruited before 1945 and continue to hold onto an outmoded belief in the Empire. Bill Haydon, the traitor in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), who is based on a real life double agent, Kim Philby, looks back nostalgically to the simpler ideals— fair play, patriotism, heroism—of his days at school. Loyalty is dead; betrayal is rampant.

On a larger plane, the Circus represents the moral condition of modern human existence: sterile, self-serving, hypocritical, skeptical of all values. Le Carre created a hero for this society, a brilliant, middle-aged spy named George Smiley, who is the central character of Tinker, Tailor and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), as well as Smiley's People (1979). He also has a lesser role in four other novels. Unlike James Bond, Smiley is quite ordinary. He solves cases through painstaking detective work and intelligent deduction. He is married but his wife, Ann, cheats on him. What distinguishes Smiley and endears him to readers is his humanity. Though he functions in the complex shabby world of the Secret Service, he retains his integrity and compassion.

After Smiley's People, Le Carre began to explore new subjects—the Middle East conflict, The Little Drummer Girl (1983); autobiography, A Perfect Spy; and the thawing of the Cold War, The Russia House (1989). He lived into the 1990s with his second wife (he has four sons from his two marriages) in a Cornwall retreat. He continued to write fiction which combined philosophical and psychological elements with the conventions of espionage novels, including The Night Manager (1993) and The Tailor of Panama (1996).

Further Reading on John Le Carre

The appearance of a new John Le Carre novel is a literary event, accompanied in the media not only by reviews but by feature articles. These provide current information about the author's life and career. See, for instance, Newsweek's cover article on John Le Carre and The Russia House (June 5, 1989); Le Carre's own discussion of The Tailor of Panama in New York Times Magazine (October 13, 1996); Joseph Lelyveld on the autobiographical details of A Perfect Spy in The New York Times Magazine (March 16, 1986). A number of books such as David Monaghan's The Novels of John Le Carre (1985) and Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John Le Carre (1986) analyze the novels. Eric Homberger's John Le Carre (1986) also contains a biography and an excellent bibliography, which lists all of Le Carre's publications to 1986, as well as interviews, books and articles about him, and miscellaneous related works about spies and the spy novel genre.