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Among reasons we’ll remember 2020, not least is that it’s the year John le Carré came in from the cold. David Cornwell, the British writer who for more than 50 years wielded the le Carré nom de plume, died of pneumonia on December 12. He was 89 and had published 25 novels.
Among reasons we’ll remember le Carré, not least is his 1963 breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Set in Cold War Berlin, it’s a classic story of love and espionage centered on the Berlin Wall, both as physical reality and symbol of separation between people — a wall that resonates with 21st-century politics.
Following from Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and others, le Carré extended a rich tradition of British spy fiction. In mind-bending plots and elegant, understated prose, he spun tales of international intrigue inseparably interwoven with personal love and heartbreak. With a poetic knack for titles — The Looking Glass War, The Secret Pilgrim, The Night Manager — he explored morally-charged questions of loyalty, betrayal and identity that transcend genre.
Has there ever been a better-named spy than George Smiley? “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” From the first page of le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), this sentence introduces one of the more enduring characters of 20th-century fiction.
The inspiration, ironically, was James Bond. To Cornwell, Bond-ism — wielding imaginary gadgets in jet-powered cars, bedding beautiful women while predictably overcoming dastardly villains bent on destroying the world — fed a morally suspect, escapist myth. In response, he created a new brand of British spy — anti-heroic, circumspect, cuckolded in marriage, unabashedly intellectual, understatedly competent, capable of failure.
Lastingly imprinted in cultural consciousness with Mr. Magoo-esque physicality by Alec Guinness — in the 1979 BBC-TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Smiley was a brooding, unglamorous Bond antidote. Guinness’s characterization brought dimension and credibility to Smiley that Cornwell hadn’t imagined. The writer and actor became lasting friends.
How much of Smiley was non-fiction? For years, Cornwell denied having worked in intelligence. We know differently now, since Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography and Cornwell’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, extensive obituaries, and a raft of previously unavailable interviews set free, since Cornwell’s death, on YouTube.
After excellence in modern languages at Oxford (native proficiency and wide reading in German, good Dutch, competent French), he took a foreign-service job and was recruited, first by MI5, subsequently MI6, for whom he served in Bonn. In this position, he often visited Berlin and — among the more fortuitous synchronicities of modern literature — was in Germany in August 1961 when, almost overnight and as a complete surprise to western intelligence, the Berlin Wall appeared.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Whether or not Cornwell knew Frost’s poem (first published in England in 1914), he shared its speaker’s sentiment. In what Cornwell described as a white-hot rage, coinciding with emotional turmoil in his first marriage, he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in five weeks. His third novel, The Spy was a publishing sensation, selling worldwide in the tens of millions, making Le Carré famous and Cornwell rich.
In a 1965 TV interview (with Merv Griffin), Cornwell — in his early 30s — comes across at first as a shy schoolboy, with a touch of George Smiley, in a suit that makes him uncomfortable, embarrassed by success. When Griffin mentions that Bertrand Russell (British philosopher, pacifist and Nobel laureate) felt the Berlin Wall hadn’t caused “any great grief to people,” it struck a nerve.
“I think that’s nonsense,” said Cornwell, with dignified self-assurance. “I think it’s caused an appalling amount of human suffering. In the short term, families were divided — father from child, and mother from daughter.”
More importantly, he continued, “it caused a deep psychological shock for all of us . . . . You take a living city . . . and truncate its existence, divorce people from one another and prevent the warmth of human contact between . . . two kinds of people — which is the only thing that could ever save us.”
The thought trails off. Cornwell’s early life was emotionally deprived, as he has acknowledged — his mother having left the family when he was five, his father a con-man charmer who served prison time and sent David to boarding school. In his most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy, Cornwell replays these deprivations.
For psychologically-oriented readers it’s not hard to appreciate espionage fiction — keeping secrets, living a false identity — as a stage on which to play-out inner drama. Le Carré protagonists, inevitably, as the writer has acknowledged, seek a surrogate family — in institutions such as British intelligence, which he termed “the circus,” and in western ideology, which, at least ideally, protects individual liberty.
His fiction has a still blooming life in film and television, in which it’s often been adapted with distinction. The 1965 film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, won many awards and holds, in austere black-and-white, a sense of period authenticity. The much-lauded BBC mini-series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyshowcases, along with Guinness, a gallery of renowned British actors.
The 2011 film version with Gary Oldman admirably compresses the same complicated story of the search for a “mole” in British intelligence. The burrowing rodent metaphor, which has entered popular lexicon, is le Carré’s invention. The story itself is a cover for the real-life Cold War story of Kim Philby, for years a high-placed Soviet agent in MI6.
With a touch of irony, more obvious now than at the time, The Russia House cast Sean Connery (classic James Bond) as the protagonist, a British book publisher, with Michelle Pfeiffer as a Russian woman who becomes his romantic interest. Scripted by Tom Stoppard, the film follows le Carré’s 1989 novel in foreshadowing, several years before it happened, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Against the cliché dynamic of how time alters us, Cornwell — as represented by his fiction — became more radical, his biographer Sisman has argued, not necessarily to the benefit of his writing. The work and interviews, in some cases, manifest opposition to rising American hegemony and global corporate capitalism. He vociferously opposed invasion of Iraq, including taking to London streets in public demonstration, and staunchly opposed Brexit.
Post-Cold War le Carré novels project authority (and deep research) on various international subjects. The Night Manager(1993), dramatized in a BBC mini-series with Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, among others, delves into the international arms trade. It outs the duplicity of a luridly wealthy, anything-for-profit arms merchant who lives large in British society armed with irresistible charm and a sterling reputation for charity work.
More recent BBC dramatizations include The Little Drummer Girl mini-series with Florence Pugh (not the movie with Diane Keaton) about a Mossad undercover operation. Memorably seedy in his last role, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a German detective tracking Chechen terrorism in A Most Wanted Man.
With Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Wiesz, The Constant Gardener depicts pharmaceutical industry abuse of drug testing practices in Africa. It won the 2005 Best British Film of the Year award from the London Film Critics Circle, and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Weisz. This intense film likely took some inspiration from le Carré’s “Author’s Note” afterword to the 2001 novel.
“Nobody in this story,” he wrote, “and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world . . . . But I can tell you this, as my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
There is, in short, no lack of le Carré adaptations worth watching during a pandemic — not to mention 25 novels, a biography and a memoir, with no doubt more to come from biographers and scholars. In a time of official social-distancing, it seems fitting to sink into the prose of a writer who, having in effect lived as an orphan, believed in human connection across boundaries as the not-so-secret, best weapon for peace.
Copyright 2021 Mike Schneider
Mike Schneider is a poet and critic who lives in Pittsburgh.