We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A PRIVATE SPY – The Letters of John le Carre” edited by Tim Cornwell (Penguin – Viking; distributed by Penguin/ Random House, $NZ40)
How do we remember John le Carre (1931-2020) who died of cancer shortly before his ninetieth birthday? Born David Cornwell, he never explained why he had adopted the particular le Carre pseudonym, although he did at first need some cover to disguise his connections with espionage. Following in the footsteps of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, le Carre was the novelist who definitively punctured the idea that espionage was glamorous - a great antidote to the James Bond fantasies of Ian Fleming. In his breakthrough novel (his third) The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he gave a very disillusioned view of the Cold War and the sordid deals spying involved on both sides of the Iron Curtain, even while being aware of the malign nature of the USSR. His Smiley books created the same mood. In later life, however, he became annoyed that people still referred to him as a Cold War writer when his writing career continued for forty years after the USSR had collapsed. He protested that, in many of the 27 novels he wrote, he had moved on to writing about other things in other locations, even if they still involved spying and treachery, as in The Little Drummer Girl (Israeli and Palestinian tensions in the Middle East), The Tailor of Panama (set in Central America) and The Constant Gardiner (set in Africa and concerning the negative influence of “big pharma” [pharmaceutical corporations]). Even so, he will be remembered mainly for sophisticated spy plots, many of which are as well known for the films and television serials that were made of them as for the original novels.
A Private Spy – The Letters of John le Carre was researched, selected and edited by le Carre’s son Tim Cornwell, but Tim died just before the book was published, leaving his three brothers to write a tribute to him, which appears as a sort of preface. It is, to say the least, a very bulky book – 632 pages of letters followed by over 70 pages of index, notes and chronology. And of course, although David Cornwell was known to friends and family as David Cornwell, his son deliberately calls him John le Carre throughout so as not to confuse readers. In his Introduction, Tim Cornwell tactfully notes what sort of letters will not be found here – “it contains only a smattering of letters to his lovers, of whom there were quite a few throughout his life” (p.xvi)
To put it bluntly, it requires stamina to work one’s way through a large collection of letters like this. There are very many letters about and to people he met or befriended in countries where he researched material for his novels (Middle East, Germany, Russia, Panama, South-East Asia). There are many bland, polite missives going into detail with publishers, literary agents and film producers which are really in the nature of business letters. Sometimes he takes to flattering people (especially fellow writers who have written positively about his work) as when, in 1986, he effusively thanks American novelist Philip Roth for calling his novel A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war” (pp.267-268) There is also the occasional annoyance when we hear only le Carre’s side of an argument or discussion. Le Carre might have been a formidable stylist in his novels, but there is very little humour in his correspondence. Perhaps the funniest things in the book are his uproarious account of his dinner with Margaret and Dennis Thatcher (pp.283-284); and a rare example of raucous wit when he was cheering up the actor Stephen Fry, who had had what amounted to a nervous breakdown (pp.407-409).
One thing hangs heavily over his life, and which is featured in many letters to friends and family members. It is the unhappy childhood he and his siblings endured. Their father was, quite simply, both a bully and a criminal. Ronald (“Ronnie”) Cornwell was a confidence trickster (jailed a number of times) who had even done deals with the likes of the Krays and Rachmann as well as being involved in arms dealing (see pp.598-600). Tired of being beaten up by him, and perhaps having passed onto to her a sexually-transmitted disease, Ronnie’s wife walked out on him when le Carre was only five. Only much later in adult life did le Carre re-connect with his birth mother. The one consolation in the Cornwell children’s lives was that Ronnie then married Jean, who proved to be a good and caring stepmother and with whom le Carre kept in touch for the rest of his life. In his last years, le Carre wrote a heartfelt letter to his brother Tony on the childhood that had traumatised both of them (pp.482-484).
Yet, while rebelling from his father, le Carre had some of Ronnie’s traits, including a disorderly sex life. Le Carre married Ann in 1953 when he was 22. They had three sons and stayed married for 27 years until they divorced in 1971. In the early sections of this collection, there are many love letters that were sent to Ann when they were courting. In 1972, le Carre married Jane. They had one son and stayed married for over 40 years, until le Carre’s death in 2020. Jane died two months after him. But, especially in his middle years, le Carre was a philanderer. It is awkward to read in this collection, sitting side-by-side, first a letter le Carre wrote to the Scottish novelist James Kennaway, offering him sober advice on writing; and then the same week sending a love letter to Kennaway’s wife, with whom he was having an affair. (The affair was fictionalised in le Carre’s novel The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which is often regarded as his worst)
Then, of course, there was le Carre’s own experience of espionage. While a student at Oxford, he was recruited by MI5 to spy on, and pass on details about, Communist students. Nearly 60 years later, in 2006, he had a lively correspondence (pp.445-446 and pp. 475-476) with Stanley Mitchell, one of the Communist students upon whom he had reported. Mitchell was still angry about this betrayal, with le Carre replying that Mitchell had been a naïve young man who should have seen what a negative force Communism was.
Le Carre went from Oxford to the Foreign Office in 1958, acting as a diplomat but in fact being an agent of MI5. Later he switched to MI6, but he stopped working there, and became a full-time writer in 1963 when his cover was blown during the publicity his first bestseller The Spy Who Came in From the Cold attracted. For a man who had such a detailed and intimate understanding of how espionage worked, and whose literary reputation was built on that knowledge, he had in fact a very short career in the security services – a mere five years. In one of his many editorial notes, Tim Cornwell says that when le Carre joined the Foreign Office and spy system “Le Carre served at a time of dark betrayals with the public exposure of Foreign Office spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, and the Soviet double agents George Blake and Kim Philby, spanning his years of intelligence from 1948 to 1963… The problem with le Carre, one MI6 colleague observed, was that he had never experienced a successful operation in the service.” (p.87) Hence, perhaps, his depressing view of espionage. In 1966, le Carre he wrote an open letter (pp.152-155) to the editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Soviet literary journal, after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was criticised by the Soviet publication (and of course banned in the USSR), pointing out that his books revealed moral bankruptcy on both sides of the Cold War.
Also made clear as one reads these letters, one understands how many of le Carre’s fictitious characters were based closely on real people. Vivian Green was an Anglican parson who had taught him at school, mentored him at Oxford and officiated at le Carre’s first wedding. His manners, demeanour, coolness, relatability and logic were, as le Carre openly told people, the basis for Smiley in four of his novels. Even as a young man, le Carre could be very frank with Green. When, after Oxford, he spent five terms teaching at Eton, he wrote to Green about the flaws of the ruling classes and their sons. At Eton “the thing that sticks in my throat more and more… is the ‘Herrenvolk’ doctrine that is encouraged in the boys by the ruling body of masters, the free use of comparisons with the ‘oik’ classes etc., and the 19th century conviction of the efficacy in every sense of the ‘gunboat doctrine’…” (p.75) Another real person turned into a fictitious character was le Carre’s actress sister Charlotte, who had the habit of taking up radical causes. She became the main character of his novel The Little Drummer Girl, which centred on a woman who got out of her depth in pursuing some of her causes (see p.283). The novel later had the misfortune to be made into an appallingly mis-cast film. Then there were two or three of his nastier minor characters who were based on his father (who once threatened le Carre with a suit for defamation).
It is interesting to learn that for somebody who wrote prolifically (27 novels and a mountain of letters) le Carre never used a typewriter or word-processor and wrote everything by hand – with a secretary to neatly type up all his novels. (Eventually this task fell to his second wife). Letters were sent hand-written but they were always first drafted. Le Carre was also a very good caricaturist and many of his satirical drawings were appended to his letters. Some are reproduced in this collection. Even more interestingly, le Carre claimed that he himself was a very slow reader – and not just in old age. Writing to Al Alvarez in 2009, he admits “I read extremely slowly and am probably a late onset dyslexic. Over a single year, I complete the reading of very few books, most of them either classics or non-fiction. I haven’t read a thriller for decades, and know next to nothing of my contemporary writers, or their work. I have a distaste for the ‘literary scene’ ”(p.506) Much later, to the American activist Daniel Ellsberg he writes. “When will I read your books? Slowly and carefully over time. I read at a snail’s pace, am absurdly dyslexic; probably I read at speaking speed, which is how I try to write…” (p.609) Despite this, he was still able in very old age to hand out good advice to aspiring novelists. Take these very wise words he wrote to a correspondent about writing in 2020, the last year of his life “… about finishing. It’s everything. If you can’t see the final frame of your novel when you enter it, don’t go there is my experience. How many first chapters have I not been sent, with the question ‘can I write?’ Answer, show me you last chapter & maybe you can.” (p.630)
Clearly le Carre had some favourite correspondents outside his family. They included the actor Alec Guinness, the critic Al Alvarez, his mentor Vivian Green, his long-time friend John Calley, the playwright Tom Stoppard and the intelligence agent Dick Franks. Many times he wrote to Alec Guinness saying he was the best embodiment of his master spy Smiley in the long television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (pp.213-214 and 217-218), although later he thought Gary Oldman made a better Smiley in the film version.
One important correspondent, but not a person to whom he wrote regularly, was Graham Greene. Le Carre was fully aware that Greene was one of his main inspirations as a writer, a man with a similar disillusioned attitude towards spying and a strong nose for sites of political conflict. In 1963, le Carre wrote to a friend that his The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was “a sort of Quiet American story set in Berlin” (p.123) Graham Greene boosted le Carre’s novel by providing a blurb in which he called the novel “the best spy story I have ever read”. In 1966 le Carre wrote letters to Greene praising his novel The Comedians (p.158). While researching South-East Asia to provide background to a novel, le Carre wrote to Greene praising the accuracy of his South-East Asia setting in The Quiet American (pp.191-192)… but the editor notes that Graham Greene privately said that le Carre’s novels were increasingly becoming too long for the stories they told (p.192). Le Carre wrote (p.219 ff.) to the Observer, objecting stridently to Clive James’ reviews of his novels because James had said in public what Graham Greene said only in private – that le Carre’s novels were unnecessarily drawn out.
Le Carre admitted that his novel The Tailor of Panama was in part inspired by Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, as both books turned in part on agents building careers by producing for their employers fabricated information. In 1991, he wrote a generous obituary on Greene and wrote a letter to Nicholas Shakespeare (pp.302-304) expressing similar respect. But later (quoted p.304) he wrote more frankly to the same correspondent “As a young writer, I looked up at Greene as a role model, and nothing in my writing life has made me happier than the supremely generous support he gave to my early work. As a diplomat in Bonn, I blushed for him when he stood on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall and made some unhappy comment about preferring it there. I thought his anti-Americanism too much. I thought him daft about the possible marriage of Communism and Christianity, and dafter still in his defence of Kim Philby” (p.304). Years later (in 2010) he wrote a similar critique of Greene in a letter to a history professor: “I knew Greene a bit & was in awe of him, but I never really believed in his Catholic convictions. As a literary tool, they work to a point, but God is best denied in fiction – Camus & Co – and morality left to struggle without him. Does anyone remember that Greene stood the wrong side of the Berlin Wall & said he’d rather be there than here? He who lived in Antibes and fell in love with Central American dictators? Novelists on the whole make pretty daft politicians, but Greene was in a class of his own…”(p.519)
How do I personally judge this contest? I think Greene’s novels will last longer than le Carre’s, if only because they are more various in subject matter. I also agree (with both Greene and Clive James) that some of le Carre’s novels wear out their welcome by sheer length. On the other hand, I agree with le Carre that some of Greene’s political judgements were naïve and foolish. He did have a utopian view of the good Communism could achieve, he did have the habit of lauding left-wing dictators and he refused to see the harm Kim Philby had done. (Like le Carre, Greene had served in Britain’s spy service and knew Philby personally.) My impression is that, seeing the many flaws of Britain and America, Greene over-reacted and thought there was a brilliantly better society existing elsewhere. There wasn’t. [For the record, you can find elsewhere on this blog a number of critiques of Greene if you look up Graham Greene in the index at right. Also, in my account of Greene’s early 1930s travel book Journey Without Maps you will find an early warning of Greene’s proclivity to praise mercenaries and dictators whom he wrongly thought were doing some good.]
If le Carre didn’t do humour very well, he could certainly do anger and scorn, especially on political matters. A Private Spy – The Letters of John le Carre charts such anger.
In 1977, le Carre wrote a rather tart response to a Swedish correspondent who asked his opinion of the Nobel Prize. Le Carre replied “It is very kind of you to seek my opinion on the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I must tell you honestly that I have never given the subject a moment’s thought, except perhaps to reflect that, like the Olympic Games, a great concept has been ruined by political greed.” (p.202)
Le Carre could be very contentious – when Salman Rushdie was under threat of fatwa because of his book The Satanic Verses, le Carre criticised Rushdie for allowing a reprint of the book to be released when, in some countries, people who had read and/or published it been murdered by Islamacist fanatics (pp.295-297). Possibly the angriest letter he ever wrote concerned his novel The Constant Gardiner. In that novel he criticised pharmaceutical corporations which used people in Third World countries as unsuspecting guinea pigs in trials of some drugs. A member of the pharmaceutical giant Novartis wrote to him wanting him to debate him under their rules. He roundly (and angrily) both decline their challenge and called them out. (pp.452-454) In 2002, he joined protesters in a march condemning Tony Blair for committing Britain to the USA’s invasion of Iraq (p.459) and later wrote to Nicholas Shakespeare, describing Blair thus : “Look at Blair! How did we spawn the mendacious little show-off? This child, playing grown-up games, & fucking up the world in his Noddy car….” (p.480). Later he wrote to a German journalist “My response to the political scene is vehement: I hate Brexit, hate Trump, fear the rise of white fascism everywhere and take the threat seriously indeed; the craving for conflict is everywhere among our pseudo dictators.” (p.572). In 2020 wrote to Swedish author Pierre Schori “ Britain is again in the hands of far-right Trumpists, as every small new event indicates. Journalists suspected of unsound sympathies are excluded from official press briefings, which now take place, not in the people’s parliament, but at No. 10 on Johnson’s home ground. Cowardice & bullying go hand-in-hand, & Johnson is a practitioner of both. The Democrats in America are making prize asses of themselves, Putin is appointing himself Ruler for Life, so we look like having a pretty awful decade…” (p.607)
Despite his very Englishness, and his love of the Cornwall where he settled for much of his writing life, le Carre dreaded becoming identified too intimately with the “Establishment”. His son Tim says in his introduction (p.xxviii) “My father accepted major awards from France, Germany and Sweden, but declined any honour from the British state.” In 1981 he declined a C.B.E. which had been offered to him by Margaret Thatcher, writing to an official friend “I didn’t feel I could take it. I don’t quite know why: the guilts, a peculiar modesty, a feeling I wanted to stay out of the citadel. Certainly not pique or false pride so far as I know. Secretly, I think, a feeling I hadn’t earned it.” (p.239) He later turned down a knighthood. Finally, in the last year of his life, he was so angry about Brexit, and the new form of English chauvinism, that he cancelled his British passport and took out Irish citizenship (to which he was entitled because one of his grandmothers was Irish). In this book’s section of photographs, there’s a shot of the elderly writer cheerfully wrapping himself in the Irish tricolour.
I finished reading this long collection of letters with
very contradictory feelings about le Carre. A very good novelist for sure, but
sometimes overshooting the mark and spinning out his stories too long. A master
at debunking the world of espionage while at the same time understanding that
there were rights and wrongs in the Cold War. Sometimes a cranky man, but
usually in good causes. Sometimes fickle in his married life, but striking gold
with his second wife who was as devoted to literature as he was. As to whether
his novels will stand the test of time – I’m not sure. Possibly the very
topicality of them will make them of more interest to historians than to
general readers of the future. For the moment, however, they are still worth