It’s always been my contention that when someone very old passes, even someone that matters a good deal to us, it’s not quite as sad as the death of a younger person, and if we can’t quite argue the grief out of our hearts, at least we can take solace in the fact of a long life. And yet, David Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré, has passed at age 89 in England, and his age is no solace. I think I believed that he would live another decade, writing all the while, and possibly he occupied such an enormous place in my illogical subconscious that I didn’t believe in his death at all.
John le Carré was, and is, my favorite writer. He wrote spy fiction, which is a little like saying Stradivarius worked in the violin genre. It would be a shame to rekindle the endless and insufferable genre debate, so suffice it to say that in my opinion he was a literary giant, a man so virtuosic at both the art of prose and the intricacies of plotting that he could not be contained or defined by a single label. He wrote exactly one literary-and-literary-only novel in 1971, called The Naive and Sentimental Lover, and then returned immediately and permanently to the terrain he liked best. His next book was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a masterful work juggling themes of love and betrayal, and the start of what might be considered his magnum opus, the Karla Trilogy.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s unfortunate to write this next sentence, but you cannot discuss David Cornwell without discussing his father Ronnie. Here was someone described as “unpredictable, a conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird and crisis addict, who spent his life walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine,” and that description comes from his own son. He was a Trump figure before Trump, with the same immorality but without the millionaire father to ensure a smooth path, and he drove his wife Olive away when their son David was just five. Raising David on his own, with the help of a series of women, he consorted with crooks, spent time in jail for insurance fraud, and lived perpetually under the weight of serious debt. According to Adam Sisman, le Carré’s biographer, he also sexually abused his children. When David Cornwell found out his sister Charlotte was suffering from depression years later, he asked her, “did he touch you up? It’s all right, sis, he did it to me too.”
He reunited with his mother at age 21, but there was no catharsis. “From the day of our reunion until she died, the frozen child in me showed not the smallest sign of thawing out,” he wrote in his own near-memoir The Pigeon Tunnel. When his father died in 1975, Cornwell paid for a funeral service but did not attend. The legacy of that man was to turn the young boy into a master of subterfuge as an act of forging an identity. “I knew that in order to do this,” he wrote, “I had to filch from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies.”
Hence the central metaphor of the man’s life—a child forced into his own private espionage becomes a gifted mimic, a talented raconteur and self-inventor, and finally a master novelist in the only genre that ever made sense. He studied in Switzerland, fell in love with the German language and Goethe especially, interrogated defectors crossing the Iron Curtain for the British Secret Service, spied on far-left groups while at Oxford, taught for a short stint, became a full-fledged MI5 officer in 1958, and switched to MI6 two years later. To supplement his income, he began to write, and for his first novel, Call for the Dead, he chose the pseudonym John le Carré.
For years, he told everyone that he had simply seen it on a London shopfront, but admitted later he was lying, and could not seem to remember in later life how it had all started, other than his belief that a vaguely foreign sounding surname with a space would “have the effect of printing it on people’s memories.” His publishers hated it—they suggested the American-sounding alternatives of “Chuck Smith” and “Hank Brown,” which he rejected.
It was his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, that turned him into an international literary star and a wealthy man. It was written amidst the dissolution of his job and his first marriage, and reflected his own misery and disenfranchisement as much as his cynicism on Cold War geopolitical affairs. He claimed in the aftermath that he wrote it in a “fugue” state in five weeks, but in fact it seems to have taken him at least eight months. In some ways, it’s the classic story of the double- or triple-cross, but is imbued with such grim realism that it struck the western world as unlike anything that had been written in the spy genre before. At that point, he wanted out of MI6, and before he had a chance to leave on his own, the traitor Kim Philby—later the inspiration for the mole in Tinker, Tailor—blew Le Carre’s cover along with dozens of others when Philby defected.
From then on, he was simply a great writer. There is so much to say about his work—I keep thinking, for instance, about how good, how riveting, how incisive he was when depicting the subtle drama in the most soul-sucking of bureaucratic meetings—and so little time to say it. His books are a thrill, as any good spy book should be, but they are heart-wrenching and tragic and will make you ache for the tragedy and beauty and complication of human life. The Cold War was his backdrop, and later the war on terror and any other number of conflicts, but his books were about the romantic surge of the defiant human—the man and woman trying not to be crushed by the grinding systems above them, or else participating in those systems and wondering what they’ve lost amid the small victories. With time, if anything, he became more cynical. You could tell in later days that he hated America, or the part that shouldered its cruel way through the world, bludgeoning the little people in its path. If The Spy Who Came in From the Cold depicts a staggering gasp of humanity in the face of the literal and proverbial wall that symbolizes our pain and separation, in later days there was less room than ever for this rare spark.
And yet he never stopped loving people, American or otherwise. For those who want just a small taste of his virtuosity, this requiem for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who he met during the filming of A Most Wanted Man, is a stunning example of enduring his affection for characters whose flames burn brighter than the institutions around them. He recognized in Seymour Hoffman something of his own capacity for transformation amid unthinkable mental hardship, I think, and though the writer was destined to outlive the actor, they were both spies making the best of things in a cold world.