Monday, December 14, 2020

The Spy Who Came to Write

Although I was an early watcher of spy movies, thanks to my father’s fondness for the James Bond flicks, I did not become a reader of espionage novels until much later. My youthful bent was more toward private-eye tales than espionage yarns, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that I finally discovered John le Carré. Unfortunately, my introduction to his best-selling work came with 1979’s Smiley’s People, the concluding installment in his “Karla Trilogy” ... and no place to begin an exploration of his oeuvre if you wish to understand the complex world of fictional British intelligence agent George Smiley.

Perhaps my not-inconsiderable confusion over that novel and its back-story was what led to my continuing preference for le Carré’s standalones, rather than his nine-novel Smiley series. Just in the last few years, I’ve read a number of le Carré’s one-offs, including A Small Town in Germany (1968), The Night Manager (1993), The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Mission Song (2006), A Delicate Truth (2013), and Agent Running in the Field (2019). And it was only a few weeks ago that I polished off his semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy, which the author claimed was his favorite among the lot.

When I heard last night that le Carré had passed away, at age 89, I immediately visited my bookcases for reassurance that I had more of his fiction at hand yet to enjoy.

Better obituarists than I have weighed in on the long and eventful life of le Carré. The New York Times, for instance, observes that
John le Carré knew deception intimately because he was born into it. (For one thing, “John le Carré” was not his real name.) Born David John Moore Cornwell in Poole, Dorset, on Oct. 19, 1931, he had a ragged, destabilizing childhood dominated by his father, Ronald, an amoral, flamboyant, silver-tongued con man who palled around with celebrities and crooks, left trails of unpaid bills wherever he went, and was forever on the verge of carrying out a huge scam or going to jail. (He was in and out of prison for fraud.)

“Manipulative, powerful, charismatic, clever, untrustworthy,” Mr. Le Carré once described him.

The family lurched between extremes. “When father was flush, the chauffeur-driven Bentley would be parked outside,” he said. “When things were a bit iffy, it was parked in the back garden, and when we were down and out, it disappeared altogether.” Often, debts would be called in.

“You have no idea how humiliating it was, as a boy, to suddenly have all your clothes, your toys, snatched by the bailiff,” Mr. le Carré told an interviewer.
The Guardian notes that Cornwall “began working for the secret services while studying German in Switzerland at the end of the 1940s. After teaching at Eton he joined the British Foreign Service as an intelligence officer, recruiting, running and looking after spies behind the Iron Curtain from a back office at the MI5 building on London’s Curzon Street. Inspired by his MI5 colleague, the novelist John Bingham, he began publishing thrillers under the pseudonym of John le Carré—despite his publisher’s advice that he opt for two Anglo-Saxon monosyllables such as ‘Chunk-Smith.’”

And National Public Radio recalls:
He wrote his first three books while working for Britain’s MI5 and MI6, and became a full-time author after catapulting onto the global scene with the publication of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in 1963.

“From the day my novel was published, I realised that now and for ever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it,” le Carré wrote in a postscript to the 50th anniversary edition of the book. “The novel’s merit, then—or its offence, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible.”

Le Carré himself seemed shocked by how credible people found the book. Writing in
The Guardian in 2013, he recalled that the British government had vetted the book and approved it as “sheer fiction from start to finish,” and therefore not a security breach.

“This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press,” he wrote, “which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.” One of those was another novelist, Graham Greene, who called it “the best spy story I have ever read.”
While The Spy Who Came in from the Cold didn’t exactly launch his career (he had previously penned two other books), it did give him the critical attention he so needed to turn his interest in writing fiction into a lifelong occupation. Again from The New York Times:
In a career spanning more than a half-century, Mr. le Carré wrote more than two-dozen books and set them as far afield as Rwanda, Chechnya, Turkey, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. He addressed topics as diverse as the power of pharmaceutical companies, the Arab-Israeli conflict and—after the Berlin Wall fell and his novels became more polemical, and he became more politicized—American and British human-rights excesses in countering terrorism.

If he had political points to make, and he increasingly did, he still gift-wrapped them with elegant, complicated plots and dead-on descriptions; he could paint a whole character in a single sentence. He was a best seller many times over, and at least a half dozen of his novels—including “A Perfect Spy” (1986), which Philip Roth pronounced “the best English novel since the war”—can be considered classics. But he will always be best known for his Cold War novels, a perfect match of author and subject.
In addition to reader acclaim, le Carré’s fiction brought him more than a few commendations, among them the 1963 Gold Dagger award for Best Crime Novel from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) and the 1965 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), both given for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the MWA’s 1984 Grand Master award and the CWA’s 1988 Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement; and the $100,000 Olof Palme Prize, given to him last January and honoring “outstanding achievement in any of the areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security.” Even in his early years, le Carré was a favorite radio and TV guest, appearing on the U.S. game show To Tell the Truth in 1964, being interviewed on the BBC in 1965 by British spy-turned-talk-show host Malcolm Muggeridge, and conversing with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air show back in 2017.

Further, his high profile gave him the soapbox he needed in his later years to criticize politicians. Prominent among his targets were Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, the last of whom he denigrated as “[Vladimir] Putin’s s**thouse cleaner,” in Agent Running in the Field, adding that Trump “does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO. Assures us that Crimea and Ukraine belong to the Holy Russian Empire, the Middle East belongs to the Jews and the Saudis, and to hell with the world order.”

By the time he died from pneumonia this last Saturday, December 12, le Carré was, to quote his agent, Jonny Geller, an “undisputed giant of English literature” who “defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power.” Thank goodness I still have some le Carré novels to crack open for the first time, including all those Smileys.

(All three covers in this post were created by Matthew Taylor.)

READ MORE:John le Carré Missed Nothing,” by Anthony Lane (The New Yorker); “John Le Carré Didn’t Just Invent the Characters in the Foreground of the Spy World. He Designed the Entire Set,” by David Ignatius (The Washington Post); “The Double Life of John le Carré” and “The Singular Achievement of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” by James Parker (The Atlantic); “The Essential John le Carré,” by Joumana Khatib (The New York Times); “John le Carré’s Call for the Dead” (Vintage Pop Fictions); “Why John le Carré Is More Than a Spy Novelist,” by William Boyd (New Statesman); “John le Carré: Writer, Spy, Neighbor, Friend,” by Philippe Sands (The New York Times); “Searching for Decency: John le Carré, 1931-2020,” by Craig Sisterson (The Spinoff).

1 comment:

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