The writer John le Carré: “Glimpses of the author over the years, recounted with the storytelling élan of a master raconteur.”

From a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani headlined “Le Carre, the Con Man’s Son: Writer, Liar, Survivor, Spy”:

Years ago, when he was thinking about writing an autobiography, John le Carré recounts, he hired two detectives to research him and his family. As the son of a flamboyant con man, as a spy for Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and as a novelist who spent his days making up things, truth and memory tended to blur together: “I’m a liar, I explained. Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.” He was interested in learning the facts of his life, he told the detectives — since, “as a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists.”

This propensity for what his biographer Adam Sisman calls “false memory” might not make Mr. le Carré (or, rather, David Cornwell, the man behind the pseudonym) the most reliable of memoirists. But it has fueled an extraordinary career as a novelist who’s not only reinvented the espionage thriller but also claimed his rightful place as an heir to Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. And in the case of his new book, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” it fails to diminish our pleasure in reading these stories from his life — stories, he suggests, that might well contain a smidgen of imaginative shaping (“real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance”) — or, perhaps, a dash of self-dramatization.

“The Pigeon Tunnel” is not an autobiography. . . .Rather, it’s a collection of reminiscences (some, familiar from published essays) that provide glimpses of the author over the years, hopping and skipping through time, and recounted with the storytelling élan of a master raconteur — by turns dramatic and funny, charming, tart and melancholy. The book provides insights into the quicksilver transactions between art and life performed by Mr. le Carré in his fiction: how his “wise Oxford mentor” Vivian Green provided him, by example, with “the inner life of George Smiley”; and how his own tortured relationship with his disreputable father, Ronnie (“con man, fantasist, occasional jailbird”), fueled the filial drama in his most psychologically complex novel, “A Perfect Spy.”

Readers of le Carré novels like “The Little Drummer Girl” and “The Tailor of Panama,” on through “The Constant Gardener,” “The Mission Song” and “Our Kind of Traitor,” will also learn how strenuously he researched such later books. . . .Along the way, Mr. le Carré recounts some of his experiences as a spy — without divulging any operational details, and without really grappling with his decision to choose. . . .

What he does nimbly evoke is the huggermugger dampness of the Cold War years, which inspired “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and his incomparable Smiley novels (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”). He takes us to Germany in the early 1960s, where he says former Nazis still loitered throughout the intelligence world, and inside British intelligence’s old headquarters, where he says he once believed that “the nation’s hottest secrets were housed in a chipped green Chubb safe that was tucked away at the end of a labyrinth of dingy corridors.”. . . .

As a spy, Mr. le Carré developed keen journalistic powers of observation that served him well as a novelist, and this volume is filled with wonderfully drawn portraits of writers, spies, politicians, war reporters and actors who possess a palpable physicality and verve. He describes the intelligence officer Nicholas Elliott — the close friend, confidant and, it turns out, dupe of the notorious double agent Kim Philby — as “a sparkling bon vivant of the old school,” who looked like “a P. G. Wodehouse man-about-town, and spoke like one,” except that he was “recklessly disrespectful of authority.”. . .

As for the great Alec Guinness, who indelibly played Smiley in the 1979 BBC production of “Tinker, Tailor,” Mr. le Carré remembers his charm, his “mischievous dolphin smile,” and the way he would study and store away the mannerisms of people he met in preparation for roles, molding “his own face, voice and body into countless versions of us.” He ascribes Guinness’s elusiveness, his love of disciplined work and good manners to the legacy of the “indignity and disorder of his wretched early years.” Guinness, he writes, was “someone all too familiar with chaos,” and even at 80, remained a “watching child,” who had “still found no safe harbors or easy answers.”

The same might be said of Mr. le Carré, now in his 80s himself. The chapter here about his unhappy boyhood (a chapter based on a long article he published in The New Yorker in 2002) is the rawest, most emotional part of this book, and its psychological spine. It is a harrowing, almost Dickensian story: When he was 5, his mother walked out on him and his brother (she was tired of being beaten by their violent father), and he grew up a “frozen child,” used and humiliated by his scam-artist dad — a charming but treacherous man who “saw no paradox between being on the Wanted list for fraud and sporting a gray topper in the Owners’ enclosure at Ascot,” a man who obliviously gambled away his son’s school tuition in Monte Carlo, did jail time around the world (Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Zurich) and later groused over his famous son’s failure to give him a cut of his book royalties.

Learning the arts of “evasion and deception” as survival tools when he was a boy and longing to belong to some legitimate, larger family, the young David Cornwell was a natural recruit as a spy. Joining “the secret world,” he writes, “felt like a coming home.”

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