John le Carré passes away at age 89

This is a hard one. In a year that has seen many, many losses, for lovers of literature, the loss of David Cornwell aka John le Carré is a difficult one to handle. Jonny Geller, his agent and friend, posted this note as well as a note from le Carré’s family.

On a personal note, his work has been a huge part of this website as I’ve delved into subjects as serious as the themes of his novels to as silly as his lips. You can find all of that here.

But I’ll leave you with this look at le Carré and his place in the spy pantheon.

His Secret Sharer: The hidden truths of John le Carré 

World War 2 is raging as a 10 year old boy goes to school in the British countryside. He’s been in and out of boarding schools since he was five years old, the age that his mother left the family without a goodbye, never to return. The sun is high in the sky as he and his older brother make the mile long walk to the end of the school’s drive where his father Ronnie has promised to meet him. Ronnie’s making the trek from London to pick him up and take him to lunch. After awhile he realizes his father is not coming – again. Ignoring the hunger pangs David tell the headmaster that he had a lovely time with his father while explaining to the other boys that father is actually very busy as a secret agent in the war. Invention and fabrication are already becoming ingrained in everything the boy does. 

Espionage has been called the world’s second oldest profession. One of the earliest and most memorable spy stories was when no less than God told Moses to “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan.”

How else can we look at Judas but as a double agent providing precious intelligence and betraying those he’s closest too?

Even St. Vincent de Paul was forced to write his followers about spies in their midst. In a letter to Sister Jeanne Lepeintre in 1650 he said “I do not know anyone who does not have someone watching him. The most influential persons have them even in their bedrooms, and the world is in such a wretched state today that for almost everyone we see, there are as many spies.”

Why do governments spy on other countries and even their own citizens? It’s the same answer as why regular folks peek through the window of the house next door while walking by. Curiosity. The desire to learn something that the other person doesn’t want us to know.

Is it ok to spy? And if you’re committed to spying, how far is too far in pursuit of your goals?

In the past, most would look to the bible or philosophers for guidance. In his book Fair Play former intelligence officer James Olson looks at the morals of spying as well as what history says about it – On the positive end of the spectrum saying spying is fine, there’s the Bible – as I mentioned, we have at least one story giving the thumbs up to spying, the philosopher Cicero, who was also a politician concerned with the realities of rule, and Machiavelli, who never saw an underhanded idea he couldn’t get behind if it put him ahead of the other side. On the flip side. Aristotle would have no patience for modern spying and the same goes for the morality stated by philosopher Immanuel Kant. 

However as the number of people reading the bible or philosophers for moral guidance continues to shrink, where does the modern person turn to for guidance on what is right and wrong in the world of espionage? Books, TV, Movies. 

Although spies have been in existence for thousands of years, spy fiction as we think of it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. Depending on who you talk to the first true spy novel came out in the late 1890’s or in 1903, but the popularity of spy fiction didn’t start to pick up momentum until after World War One continuing through World War Two until it exploded with the building of the Berlin Wall in the early sixties, a tangible example of the escalation of the Cold War and catnip to budding spy writers.

Enter John le Carré. He wrote two modestly successful thrillers featuring spymaster George Smiley, a character that would loom large throughout his decades of writing, before becoming an international sensation with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Spy Who’s plot follows a burned out intelligence officer’s attempt to discredit someone from the other side but it’s larger purpose is to force the reader to confront the idea — just how far should we go in pursuit of destroying our enemies. The book sold millions and suddenly this minor government official working overseas was deemed an expert in espionage.

He was 30 years old and working in the capital of West Germany. World War 2 is still a fresh wound in the city, only 16 years after the war, with former nazis who navigated the end of the war without consequences still in positions of power and wandering around the foggy streets of Bonn. Posted to the Embassy, to the public he’s a minor functionary with the british government. In reality, he’s an agent of MI6 sent to watch for any resurgent Nazi organizations. However he has yet another secret, his first two books have been published under a pseudonym to positive reviews and he has starting on the next. John le Carré was in reality David Cornwell, and although he wouldn’t publicly acknowledge it for nearly 40 years, he had been a spy for MI6. 

Cornwell grew up the son of a Ronnie Cornwell, a slick charmer. And as mentioned in the story I opened with, Ronnie was never someone you could depend on. Perfectly dressed and groomed, he was the man that everyone wanted to be around, until you found out he’d fleeced you out of your life savings and left you somehow thinking it was your fault. Ronnie was a natural con artist, coming from a middle class background, he learned how to talk and act like one of the upper crust, slipping and sliding from one scheme to another, and young David grew up around his amorality. To his later chagrin, Cornwell found that he’d inherited his father’s easy ability to charm others. This, plus his exclusive boarding school education made him a prime candidate for recruitment by the “old boy” network of spies into the world of espionage.

He began his career as a spy during college when MI5 had him spy on his fellow classmates for potential communist leanings. Having married, and after rattling around attempting to find his way as either an artist or teacher, MI6 came calling. His life in Bonn was decidedly unglamorous. No James Bond style action sequences were a part of his undercover life. Instead as le Carré has said – “Spying is waiting, watching, listening and painfully accurate reporting.”

Because le Carré was a member of the Secret Services what he could reveal of the spy world was greatly restricted. It left him with a dilemma. How to talk about spies in fiction when you know the realities? His solution was to create a whole new terminology. And in the same way that many of the words and phrases of Shakespeare have leached into modern language, le Carré has shaped the way both spies and civilians talk about espionage. He coined the term mole for a double agent, pavement artist for someone conducting surveillance, his spies in the field were left “in the cold,” lamplighters, scalphunters and honey pot are all terms he coined that have been adopted by real spies, either because they love his stories or they would like their jobs to sound cooler. Le Carré has stated he’d “rather be credible than authentic” and that credibility has paid off with his imaginary terms becoming the vernacular of spies.

While in public John le Carré was basking in the money and publicity following The Spy Who, even appearing on the game show To Tell the Truth, privately David Cornwell’s world was imploding. He left MI6 after the success of The Spy Who and his eagerness to please, sudden fame along with mixed reviews of his next three novels led to numerous affairs, divorce, and the loss of several close friends. It wasn’t until just before his next success, that his life again found some stability in a new marriage and secluded home in the southwest of England on the cliffs of Cornwall.  The 1974 book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, brought George Smiley back out of moth balls to track down a mole in the service. It became a hit miniseries starring Alec Guiness and proved to cement le Carre’s status as a thinking person’s spy writer. 

Le Carré’s cold war writing was rooted in a abhorrence of communist regimes, anger at the British class system and, as the cold war ended, rich corporations and the governments that help them flourish. A Perfect Spy is his book that comes closest to being autobiographical and has been called by many his greatest novel. It follows a con artist father and spy son and many of the scenes map to real events Cornwell experienced with the patina of fictionalization laid over the top.  

His works have taken on the rise of the Russian oligarchs, foreign interventionism,  corporate greed, illegal drug testing and more.  In 2017 he even brought his most famous character, George Smiley out of a 25 year retirement for one last book to rail against Britain leaving the European Union. All of these stories avoid becoming polemics through sharp writing and conflicted, but relatable characters. As le Carré says, he writes “… about people caught in an endless ideological gridlock.” What draws me to his writing is that while other spy novels tend to rely on plot, le Carré’s books focus on the character’s first, typically men who are caught in the gears of a bureaucracy that cares little for their individual needs in favor of some momentary greater good.

He also places a great deal of importance on research and places his characters in real locations which not only grounds his creations in reality but also means you can create a real map of the fictional. I myself have been able to visit the real life locations of his fictional headquarters of the secret service called “the circus,” now with a McDonald’s on the first floor, George Smiley’s home on a narrow, dead end street, and several other settings that are significant within his novels.  

From a young age Cornwell was a gifted mimic and it comes through in his writing. His dialogue shines and you can hear a different rhythm of speaking from each character. He isn’t as much interested in the logistics of spying as the humans that do that spying. When researching for his novels, he travels to the places his lead characters will inhabit, envisioning how they would react and bringing them along as his so called “secret sharer,” a term he borrowed from a Joseph Conrad story. That type of duality has followed him his entire life. John le Carré or David Cornwell? Rich man’s son or child of a con man? Family man or cad? Civil servant or secret agent?

Cornwell left MI6 in 1963 but didn’t let his past as an intelligence officer begin to slip out until the early 80’s, only fully acknowledging his past in 2000, nearly forty years after he’d walked away from the world of espionage. Adam Sisman recently wrote a biography with le Carré’s permission, but le Carré ended up undercutting his own biographer by announcing he was writing his own memoir just before the “official” biography was released. Just another misdirection in a life filled with them. 

The fall of the Berlin wall and end of the USSR left critics positing the end of his career, but spying and the moral questions it raises are still with us. Le Carré has written an additional 11 books since the end of the Cold War and of the many adaptations of his work for film and television, 4 have appeared in the past five years alone, with more in the pipeline. In October 2019, the same month he turned 88 years old, his latest, Agent Running in the Field was released.

A quick glance at the daily news makes it clear that thinking about the ethics of spying will be one of the most important discussions of the 21st century. Whether countries spying on countries, corporations spying on their customers or regular citizens spying on their neighbors, we could do worse than looking to John le Carré for guidance.

I’ll leave you with a line from The Secret Pilgrim where the retired George Smiley is imparting his hard won knowledge to a new class of up and coming spies –

‘For as long as rogues become leaders, we shall spy. For as long as there are bullies and liars, and madmen in the world we shall spy. For as long as nations compete, and politicians deceive, and tyrants launch conquests, and consumers need resources, and the homeless look for land, and the hungry for food, and the rich for excess, your chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.”

Leave a Reply