THE GREATEST SPY novel ever written was hailed by critics and the reading public as authentic, true to the Cold War world of espionage, when it came out in 1963. The man the book made the greatest spy novelist worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) till his cover was blown, with more than a little help from Kim Philby. The irony of it all was lost on the critics and the reading public that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was 100 per cent an invention, fiction as fiction is. It would not have been cleared by the SIS otherwise.
David John Moore Cornwell aka John le Carré, who died at 89 on December 12th in Cornwall, eluded the biographer because his life was as much an invention as the books he wrote. The dichotomy was summed up by Adam Sisman, the author of John le Carré: The Biography (2015): ‘In the narrative of his life, fact and fiction have become intertwined. One suspects that le Carré enjoys teasing his readers, like a fan dancer, offering tantalising glimpses but never a clear view of the figure beneath.’ Le Carré had already declared: ‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods…are pretty good at inventing themselves.’
Abandoned by his mother when he was five and blackmailed as an adult by his conman father, le Carré would take revenge on one of them by creating Magnus Pym’s father in A Perfect Spy (1986). The mother had a different consequence—le Carré’s female characters left a lot wanting, a fact pointed out by his first wife. He would never be comfortable with women. He would never be comfortable with people. He would decline invitations to dinner from the high and mighty. He would stay away from literary festivals although he was fitter than most till a few years ago.
The writing mattered to le Carré. And that alone, once his “very limited and unspectacular career in intelligence”, as he had called it, was over. His MI5 colleague John Bingham, a novelist in the thriller and espionage genres, was an inspiration who morphed into George Smiley, in Call for the Dead (1961), le Carré’s first novel. Smiley would become the most endearing spymaster in the genre, le Carré showing the reader what a ‘real spy’ could look and talk (or not) like, but then what did we know then and what do we know now? Smiley, battling many odds, not least his advancing years, would reach his apogee in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and the trilogy completed by The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’sPeople (1979).
Near the end, le Carré’s politics seemed to be entrenching itself in ways that made him sound like an angry old man whose anti-establishment persona was eclipsing the creative genius. His hostility to New Labour’s voluntary participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had made news and in subsequent years the instinctive anti-Americanism became uglier. The pontificator damaged a book like A Most Wanted Man (2008) but then Our Kind of Traitor (2010) restored to us intimations of vintage le Carré. After all, he was not Harold Pinter. The questioning, seeking, peeling of layers, counterpointing of narratives, and then leaving it all with more questions that cannot be answered are to be found in A Delicate Truth (2013) too, which nevertheless couldn’t preclude the foregrounding of le Carré’s politics.
Le Carré left us with Agent Running in the Field (2019), the spy novel of the times: Brexit, Trump, the ‘German bug’, and everywhere an ‘unmitigated clusterfuck’. It is angry, but it’s le Carré of old all the way. A poignant swansong. Clive James and Anthony Burgess didn’t believe in le Carré’s literary merit. Other critics, many academics and most of the reading public argued Alec Leamas is the protagonist of a classic. Then Philip Roth and Ian McEwan declared le Carré a literary giant. His memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016), was in part an attempt at pre-empting Sisman whom he had already granted access to his archives but hardly allowed to grasp the Cornwell behind le Carré (it’s another matter the book was published after Sisman’s). That was the man and the mask. Only, it remains debatable which was which. He never liked opening up to the world. But like every great genre-writer, he transcended it by demolishing it. For, he was the master.