About John le Carré: “If He Had Not Become a Writer, He Might Have Become a Criminal, Like His Father”

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 8.13.55 PMHaving edited for 50 years, I always looked forward to good books about editors. Many have been written about Harold Ross and the New Yorker—one favorite is Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel. Also a good subject was Harold Hayes of Esquire—try It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun: Surviving the ‘60s With Esquire’s Harold Hayes, by Carol Polsgrove, or the long Vanity Fair piece about Hayes and Esquire by Frank Digiacomo.

For a book about a book editor, nothing beats Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. My favorite about legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman.

I worked with and tried to understand lots of writers but can’t remember reading a good biography of a writer until I picked up John le Carré: The Biography, by Adam Sisman. At 600 pages, it’s a long read, but if you’ve enjoyed some of le Carré’s 21 novels, it’s worth it.

A few glimpses from Sisman’s book:

John le Carré actually is David Cornwell, who worked for MI6, the British spy agency, before he began writing novels. Why the pen name John le Carré?

Sisman writes: “The origin of this name remains obscure. For years he would claim to have spotted it on a London shopfront as he rode past in a bus, but more recently he has admitted this was a fabrication….In 1980 he explained his choice thus: ‘I thought to break up a name and give it a slightly foreign look would have the effect of printing it on people’s memories.’…The publishers were not enthusiastic about the pseudonym David had chosen, and proposed that instead he should adopt one made up of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables suggesting an American provenance, such as Chuck Smith or Hank Brown; but David resisted this advice.”

“David is at his best in the morning. He rises early, working through until lunchtime. In the afternoon he sets out on a walk on the Heath or along the cliff-top paths, carrying a notepad to jot down sentences as they occur to him. These often are snatches of dialogue, which he perfects by speaking them aloud; locals have become used to hearing him apparently talking to himself in a variety of accents, and have learned not to interrupt him as he passes. Back at the house, he pours himself a Scotch, takes a look at what his wife has typed out and fiddles with it further. When he is working, he retires early, at eight-thirty or so. He tries to go to bed while there is still something unresolved, so that he knows roughly, though not exactly, where to start the next morning; and sleeping on the problem always seems to deliver the answer. He had learned to recognize the ‘black’ days, because they usually are n indication something is wrong which he hasn’t yet recognized.”

“Over the years interviewers had often quizzed him about whether he had been a spy, but he had either denied it or deflected the inquiry. In his James Tait Black Memorial Lecture in 1978, he had raised the question himself—without answering it.

“When people ask me whether I am a spy—‘are you now, or have you ever been?’—I am tempted to reply with a hearty —’Yes, and since the age of five.’ For a state of watchfulness must surely be the first requisite of a writer, as it is of a secret agent. A writer, like a spy, must prey upon his neighbors; like a spy, he is dependent on those who he deceives; like a spy he must somehow contrive to keep a distance from his own feelings and by doing so conjure up a package that will meet with the approval of his masters. Like a spy, he is not merely an outsider, but implicitly a subversive…”

The novelist William Boyd talking about le Carré’s first best-seller, The Spy who Came in from the Cold:

“I think what I relish about it—and this is maybe how le Carré transformed the genre—is the implicit respect that he gives the reader. It is a very exciting read but it’s also highly complicated. There is a lot of challenging subtext, a lot is implicit, a lot seems initially confusing. In other words, it’s very sophisticated and one of the appeals of sophistication in art is the understanding that such precision, such tastes, such values, such understatements are shared. Le Carré’s novel says, as it were, I know this appears unduly complex and obfuscated but you, the reader, are an intelligent person; you will follow this—you will understand what is going on, I don’t need to spell it out or join the dots. The sheer aesthetic please of reading is massively enhanced, thereby…”

And finally:

“David himself has suggested that, if he had not become a writer, he might have become a criminal, like his father. One could conclude that writing was David’s version of the psychoanalyst’s couch. Perhaps his books are his way of ordering an untidy life.”

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