le Carré, John (1931—)

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le Carré, John (1931—)

In a review of James Fennimore Cooper's The Spy (1823), the critic wrote: "No sympathy can be excited with meanness, and there must be a degree of meanness ever associated with the idea of Spy." Eighty years later the Morning Post entitled its review of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent "The Real Anarchist" and claimed that "it is a study of real value for the student of contemporary politics." This tells us something about the evolving conception of the spy in society, and the novels of John le Carré further explore and develop this image.

John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell, in Poole, Dorset, October 19, 1931. His mother abandoned the family when he was six, and le Carré later learned that his father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a crafty con man who had served a prison term. Betrayal and deception were to become the key themes of his writings. After studying German at Berne University, he completed his National Service with the Intelligence Corps in Austria from 1949 to 1951. It is likely that he was recruited into the British Secret Service in Berne, although le Carré has never actually given the exact date of his enrollment nor has he elaborated upon the exact nature of his work.

In 1952 he returned to England, where he completed his German studies, graduating cum laude in 1956 at Lincoln College, Oxford. After a brief two-year spell of teaching at Eton, he entered the Foreign Office. In 1961 he was posted to the British embassy in Bonn as second secretary and that same year he published his first novel, Call for the Dead, introducing the anti-heroic figure George Smiley of the British security service, the Circus. The critical reception of his debut focuses mainly on the manipulation of the conventional "whodunit" into the spy thriller. This notion of subverting the rules of the genre has become the predominant critical view of le Carré's novels. What has been instrumental in the process of canonization of le Carré is the realization that his novels could be read as political parables—"thrillers that demand a second reading as a treatise on our times."

In 1963, still working as second secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn, at the height of the Cold War, le Carré published The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a grimly realist tale of betrayal and deception, the key theme being that espionage in itself inevitably leads to moral corruption. Its huge success enabled him to resign from the Foreign Office. Graham Greene called it the best spy novel he had ever read. The reactions from the professionals, however, were hostile. "You bastard, you utter bastard," one of his former colleagues yelled at the author at a diplomatic dinner. Richard Helms, sworn in as Director of Intelligence at the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in 1966, resented the climate of despair in le Carré's novel. Thomas Powers writes in his The Man Who Kept the Secrets that "it was not just the violence Helms minded, but the betrayal, the mood of defeat, the meanness, the numb loneliness of a man for whom loyalty has become a joke. Le Carré was undermining the very bedrock of intelligence, the faith of men in the meaning of their work."

In the George Smiley trilogy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1981), also published as The Quest for Karla trilogy, le Carré not only debates the morality of espionage, but explores the theme of love's betrayal: "But who are the foes? Once upon a time it was clear, but now nothing is certain. The enemy in those days was someone we could point at … today all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy," Smiley sighs in The Honourable Schoolboy. It does therefore not come as a surprise that le Carré's only novel with an unambiguously evil villain, the illegal arms dealer Richard 'Dicky' Roper in The Night Manager (1993), is also le Carré's only novel with a "happy ending." In the Cold War novels that deal with the Circus and the KGB, the real and the absolute enemy are frequently not the same person or entity. Often the most intense enemy is to be found in the protagonist's own camp (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Quest for Karla) and sometimes the protagonist turns out to be his own worst enemy (A Perfect Spy, 1986).

As a public figure, the author has had to face the consequences of the strained fact-fiction continuum that characterizes his novels. "My great sin," he said once, "ever since I wrote The Little Drummer Girl " (1983), "was suggesting that the state of Israel—that Pales-tine—was in fact a twice-promised land." A New York Times book review of his novel The Tailor of Panama (1996), suggesting that the main character "was an anti-Semitic Judas" caricature, prompted him to publish his speech to the Anglo-Israel Association in The Guardian, in which he vehemently denied this charge. This in turn prompted a reply from Salman Rushdie who has lived from early 1989 under the Iranian fatwa (death threat; the official government fatwa was lifted in 1998 but extremist groups have reinstated their own fatwa on Rushdie) for his Satanic Verses. He reminded le Carré not only that he suffered from far more rigorous religious intolerance but also that le Carré never spoke out against the fatwa, to which le Carré replied that "there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity." The first and foremost quality of a good intelligence officer, said Allen Dulles—former head of the CIA—is to discern between fact and fiction. Le Carré shows us that it might be far more important to discern between friend and foe.

—Rob van Kranenburg

Further Reading:

Bloom, Clive, editor. Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to le Carré. London, Macmillan Press, 1990.

Bold, Alan Norman. The Quest for le Carré. London, Vision Press Ltd., 1988.

Le Carré, John. The Secret Pilgrim. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.

——. A Perfect Spy. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

——. The Night Manager. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

——. Our Game. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.

Monaghan, David. Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John le Carré. London, Orbis, 1986.

Powers, Thomas. The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA. London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1979.

Stafford, David. The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies. London, Viking, 1988.