Review | Needy, defensive, kind: The John le Carré revealed in his letters



If it’s the unbuttoned occasions that we approach a writer’s letters for, there’s a startling example in “A Private Spy,” with the young John le Carré writing to the Scottish author James Kennaway in 1964 about Kennaway’s novel “The Bells of Shoreditch.” “You’re God,” le Carré tells Kennaway. But, “there were two scenes I didn’t dig.” Proving that the ’60s vibe was as pernicious as any virus, le Carré, if not growing his hair long and wearing flowers in it, was at least letting it down and finding things to dig. Or, in this case, not.

The great spy novelist was an inveterate letter-writer, and the correspondence gathered here covers his entire life, from the private pains of his school days through his courtship of his first wife, Ann — including letters to her from the Swiss Alps, where, as a member of the Downhill Only Ski Club, he trained British ski racers — to the occasional public fulmination in later life against Big Pharma or disrespectful critics. There are cartoons, too: Le Carré was once a professional illustrator, one of several surprises this volume holds.

But it’s glimpses of the master novelist most readers will be eager for, and they’ll find them in his letters to family and avid readers (including a sweet note to an 11-year-old: “I shall not write to you again, but I wish you luck if you ever take up writing”); in appreciative notes to Graham Greene (about whom he was rather less complimentary in correspondence with others) and avuncular advice to younger writers like Ben Macintyre; in his thanks to those who helped him with his research, smoothing his path as he traveled in search of honorable schoolboys and little drummer girls; and, just occasionally, in the flashes of the difficult man he was reputed to be, though these — understandably enough, in a volume intended to burnish his legacy rather than expose any dark side — are thin on the ground.

As is inevitably the case with a lifetime’s correspondence, there’s a shadow autobiography peeping through “A Private Spy.” The letter to Kennaway citing what le Carré “didn’t dig” shows the author, a new-minted celebrity following publication of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” in unexpected guise, that of fanboy, a relationship that became more complex after he began an affair with his idol’s wife. When le Carré’s fictional account of this turmoil, “The Naïve and Sentimental Lover” (1971), received a critical mauling, he retired to rural Cornwall to lick his wounds. From there, anxious to be taken seriously as a novelist and having doubts about the kind of book he was expected to write, he hints at a current project in a letter to his stepmother: It was “just a thriller to mark time.” We should all write mere thrillers like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” It’s rare enough that we get to read one.

While “Tinker Tailor” was the first in a string of novels that would bring le Carré the critical acclaim he’d long wanted to accompany the fame and money he’d grown comfortable with, he never took for granted this acceptance. Frequently asserting the folly of responding to critics, his letters nevertheless include touchy defenses against the occasional poor review. And when the American novelist Philip Roth declared “A Perfect Spy” to be “the best English novel since the war,” le Carré offered him “thanks from the heart for the best quote at the best time from the best source, ever.” It’s hard not to see neediness in this, the source of which might be traced to his relationship with his father, Ronnie Cornwell.

It was the portrayal of Ronnie in “A Perfect Spy” that helped make the novel a huge success, fiction transforming him into a larger-than-life ringmaster, orchestrating long cons and holding court with a collection of spivs and chancers — never short of a rousing speech, sometimes going to prison, always bouncing back. The letters here paint a bleaker picture. His father had “revealed himself” to be “an infinite, darkest swindler,” le Carré wrote to a Swiss friend in 1955: “The clothes I wore, the food I ate and the books I read were bought with the money this [swindling] had provided.” Much later, he told his brother Tony that “our father was a mad genes-bank, a truly wild card, and in my memory disgusting — still. I never mourned him, never missed him, I rejoiced at his death. Is that so awful? I don’t think so. Writing about him, I tried to make him sweeter, but it didn’t work.”

It worked in the fiction. And elsewhere between fiction and reality lay le Carré’s own career as a spy, over by the early ’60s but touched upon throughout his life. In the mid-’90s, he wrote effusively to Anatoly Adamashin, the Russian ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, inviting him to the horse races near his home in almost painful detail: “I could recommend the night sleeper to Penzance, which leaves around midnight and arrives at Penzance at half-past eight in the morning or so. We would collect you from the train.” He goes on: “So there is another possibility, which is this: that you catch a Saturday morning train that will take you to Bodmin…” And on and on. At the same time, le Carré was writing to his friend (and mine) the spy novelist Alan Judd, informing him that Adamashin, whom he had never met, “has invited himself down here … I don’t know whether there is some other angle to this. But if there’s anything I can usefully do, let me know.” In a report to Judd after the event, it’s clear that le Carré’s spydey senses were tingling: “Now and then, I had the feeling he wanted to approach me in some other matter and either didn’t dare or changed his mind.”

Obituary of John le Carré

Or perhaps le Carré simply wished that were so. In 2019, he wrote to Judd that “I miss the Office, always have done — both Offices — in their way. In a sense they are the only places, apart from writing.” Those Offices were MI5 and MI6, the domestic and foreign intelligence services, and it could be argued that he never really left them. His was certainly the voice that seemed most authentically to be calling to readers from inside that hall of mirrors, though there were former colleagues who felt that he spent the bulk of his career on the outside pissing in.

“So how was it all, this 80-year-old-life?” he asks himself in a letter to his brother, toward the end of the book. “A total porridge really, with love of family the one abiding, triumphant discovery.” Genuine as it evidently was, that love of family masks a jumble of paradoxes. Declarations of enduring love for his wife, Jane, stand alongside confessions of multiple infidelities. But nobody would expect the creator of George Smiley — the master spy in the body of a bank manager — to be straightforward. Indeed, those of us for whom his work has been a lifelong source of complicated pleasure wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A Private Spy,” edited and with illuminating notes by le Carré’s son Tim Cornwell, who sadly died before its publication, addresses both intimate and public themes, and in its closing pages offers a hint of future treasures. There’s a play about his father — “Ronnie Boy” — that I hope we’ll see in due course; and the news that, at the time of his death, le Carré was writing “The George Smiley Years,” which includes a scene, as he writes in a letter to the playwright Tom Stoppard, “when Smiley finally decides he is ready to meet his old nemesis, Karla, settled under another name with his mentally sick daughter in a village not far from yours.” I’ve long felt there are few things less worth reading than an unfinished novel. I’ll make an exception for this.

Mick Herron is a British novelist. He is the author of the Slough House series of thrillers, including “Slow Horses,” which was adapted for television.

The Letters of John le Carré

By John le Carré, edited by Tim Cornwell

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