During an interview with Andrew Ross, (1996) the British writer David Cornwell, better known by him pen name John Le Carré was asked about the secret behind his prolific product – he had run out of a book every two years since the 1960s. The then 65-year-old Le Carré replied, “When you’re my age and you see a story, you better go for it fast enough. I’d just like to get a few more novels under my belt.” It was typically the man’s mild response, which would end with 28 books in a 60-year writing career.
Le Carré was generally regarded as the masterpiece of the spy thriller, and among the greatest British novelists after World War II. His third novel The Spy That Came In From The Cold (1963) put Le Carré on the literary map, becoming his first-ever international bestseller. For the next five decades, books were like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Night Manager (1993), The Tailor of Panama (1996) and The Constant Gardener (2001) achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success, not to mention memorable film and television adaptations with protagonists such as Alec Guinness, Rachel Weisz, Gary Oldman and Hugh Laurie.
Le Carré’s most famous character, the British Cold War spy master George Smiley, was developed as an “antidote to James Bond” by the author’s own acceptance. He felt that the reading public’s ideas about the ethics and everyday realities of espionage were distorted by the superior aesthetics of the James Bond stories.
If James Bond was supposed to be the pinnacle of British manhood (though he was now canonically reconnected into Scottish descent), George Smiley was a deliberate conversation – bespectacled, round, submissive and seemingly frozen in stasis in his mid-60s, all of which served to cover his “inner cunning,” encyclopedic knowledge and an excellent talent for espionage. To dispel this point, most of the “action” (running, hunting, shooting, killing) in Le Carré’s novels took place “off-screen”. Instead, Smiley and company were left to ponder the political and moral consequences of these actions along with the reader.
Emoticon, like Le Carré’s other British spies, was patriotic, but also possessed a sense of just anger about the insignificance of governments and bureaucrats everywhere. (According to the author, Smiley hoped to see a truly united Europe throughout his life, which is why we see him confused, alienated and struggling to make sense of Brexit in the 2017 novel Foreign Location.) By a combination of geopolitical rhetoric and a bit of dry British humor, they clearly showed this opposing stance, unlike Bond and company, who continued to pledge their non-ironic allegiance to a queen and a country.
A returning dialogue from the film franchise Jason Bourne, arguably the most popular American spy series of all time, says, “Look at us, look at what they (in relation to the CIA) are making you give.” Bourne could have paraphrased George Smiley. Although Smiley continued to appear in several books by Le Carré until 2017 Legacy of Spies, his pinnacle as a protagonist was the so-called “Charles Trilogy” – which includes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honorary Student (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979) – named after the enemy of Smiley, the eponymous KGB leader.
Le Carré’s most famous character, the British Cold War spy master George Smiley, was developed as an “antidote to James Bond” by the author’s own acceptance.
Karla was also the source of a rare Indian connection for Le Carré fans: according to the internal chronology of the Smiley books, Karla was arrested in Delhi in 1951 and interrogated by Indian authorities for a few months before he devised to transport himself back. to Moscow. As the Indian government more often listened to a request from the Soviet Union in those days (unlike Smiley’s leaders in the UK, the colonial power ruling India until literally four years ago at the time), Karla successfully avoids Smiley here.
Le Carré did not lack childish inspiration when it comes to sketching his supervillains. While he never knew his mother (she left him when he was five), his father Ronald “Ronnie” Cornwell was an incorrigible, superficially charming con artist who later exploited his son’s fame for his confidence tricks. Pretending to be her son’s business manager, Ronnie would drive people out of their money.
At one point, Le Carré was confronted by a woman who claimed the perpetrator slept with her and then exhausted her; Le Carré finally realized that Ronnie was parodying him. Outside of Le Carré’s own experience as a British spy (1958-1964), Ronnie was the main role model for many of his villains, such as the gentle arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper in The Night Manager (played by Hugh Laurie in the BBC miniseries), described as “the worst man in the world”.
In the introduction to a 1991 edition Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carré wrote: “I knew what it was like (…) to be educated by a man so great that your only means was because his child was a pretext and a deception. And I knew, or thought to know, how easily the anger thus born and inwardness can transform itself into a love-hate relationship with the father images of society, and ultimately with society itself. “
It is a common mistake to look at Le Carré as a spy novelist alone – as journalist and writer Ian Buruma wrote in The Nation in 2016, his books were also part of another genre “in which British writers tend to excel: the comedy of manners”. So much of a spy’s success depends, ultimately, on the details of what people of various classes wear, how they talk, what they eat, and so on. Good spies are not just chameleons, they are people who feel completely at ease in a wide range of socioeconomic settings.
Le Carré himself, during his time at Oxford, regularly dined and dined with his upper-class friends – and also infiltrated left-wing student organizations, which he thought were a potential threat to national security (he later expressed regret over his actions, but maintained that he acted to protect British interests).
Le Carré did not lack childish inspiration when it comes to sketching his supervillains.
On the first page of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for example, we meet a character named Thursdaygood who is quite rich but not very well read. As he pronounces the name “Prideaux”, he therefore pronounces it correctly, understanding that it is French. But as Le Carré shows us, he is forced to consult the piece of paper again while pronouncing the eaux.
Le Carré’s descriptive phrases explode with kinetic energy while never compromising on elegance or visual details. As a result, very few writers have better communicated a sense of place and time. Here is for example another sentence from the mentioned home page of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “The rain rolled like gun smoke down the brown combs of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling facades.”
In the last twenty years of his life, Le Carré became increasingly disappointed both with his own country and with the United States. In January 2003, months before the start of the Iraq war, he denounced the United States’ decision to wage war with uncertain expressions in “The United States Furious,” a fiery essay published by The Times. He called the planned invasion of Iraq “worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Gulf of Pigs and in the long run possibly more catastrophic than the Vietnam War.” By 2017, he was among those who showed the parallels between current authoritarian governments (Trump, Bolsonaro,et al) and 1930s Europe.
It would be fascinating to see how Le Carré negotiated the realities of this broken new world. But then, reading his novels isn’t always about finding the right answers. In fact, a typical Le Carré novel was much more likely to be about the right questions. At least for this reader such an approach feels as worthy in life as in literature. As the man himself wrote in Perfect Spy, “Sometimes we have to do something to find out the reason for that. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”