Literature Was John le Carré’s Great Cause—He Considered Being a Writer of Spy Fiction a Serious Responsibility

From a story in the New Yorker by Jennifer Wilson headlined “John le Carré’s Search For a Vocation”:

The summer I finished writing my dissertation, the C.I.A. tried to recruit me—as a spy. The call came in the middle of the afternoon, as I was working on a chapter about Tolstoy and midwifery. An older woman with an eerily friendly voice started going over what the training for a job in clandestine affairs would entail. I stifled a laugh. I didn’t know what was harder to believe: that anyone thought I could keep a secret or that a degree in Russian literature would qualify me to parachute out of a plane. Was I interested in learning more? O.K., I said, mostly out of nosiness, or at least that’s what I told myself. They would be in touch, she said.

I was not in a position to be particularly choosy about who paid my bills. I had a few months left of health insurance, and I—who cannot swim—had just sent a rather pleading application to work as a translator on a salmon-fishing boat in the Russian Far East. Still, I was a little let down by the agency’s approach. This was not how being recruited as a spy had played out in my mind, where a pastiche of scenes from movies and cheap paperbacks had created a fantasy so vivid it almost felt like a memory. I was supposed to be sitting at a bar, nursing my second shot of bourbon, flirting with the bartender and exuding the tousled sex appeal of someone who has not lived up to their potential. A stranger would strike up a conversation, all small talk at first, asking me about the menu, the town, where I got my taste for brown liquor. Then casually, menacingly, the stranger—bearing a striking resemblance to Al Pacino in “The Recruit” (2003)—would call me by my name.

In a letter to his American lawyer, the novelist John le Carré sketched out precisely the kind of scene I envisioned that day—all the way down to the woman in her late twenties facing a tough job market. He had just begun work on a new book, “The Little Drummer Girl” (1983), in which an unemployed English actress with leftist sympathies is recruited by Israeli intelligence to infiltrate a terror cell. “The story opens in Greece,” he began.

Charlie—intelligent, acerbic and not by any means beautiful—is on holiday with her lover of the moment and a bunch of out-of-work English actors and actresses. On the beach at Mykonos she meets the aloof, rather puritanical figure of Joseph, and through a series of ‘chance’ circumstances finds herself forming a platonic friendship with him. After her boyfriend has been recalled to London to be auditioned for a film part—a most unexpected development—she agrees to go with Joseph on a week’s tour of Greek antiquities. The intelligence courtship has begun. Joseph charms her, plies her with questions, introduces her to his friend Shlomo in a pleasant apartment in Athens, takes her to Delphi, etc., and little by little reveals to her that he knows almost as much about Charlie as she does herself: about her abortion, her middle-class background and private education, and her periodic flirtation with English radical groups such as the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
Le Carré was not attempting to stoke fantasies of espionage with this scene. That was the other guy’s game. As he saw it, the escapist glamour of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels only bolstered the communist image of the West as a playground of thrill-seeking hedonists trying to fill the void with empty sex and alcohol. (“He’s on your side,” le Carré wrote the editor of a Soviet literary magazine, “not mine.”) No, Charlie only finds spying exciting because not much else is. Her last acting gig has come to an end. To the extent that she’s been politically involved, it’s felt superficial—listening to her boyfriend misquote Bakunin at the pub. Now, suddenly, here comes a “role” in every sense of the word. Intoxicated by the erotic tableau of political intrigue and an emotionally distant man, she takes the job.

Le Carré was writing from experience. He had been an M.I.5 agent before he was a novelist. In “A Private Spy,” a new volume of his letters gathered by his son Tim Cornwell, le Carré corresponds with an eclectic array of recipients, who had chosen all manner of roles: John Cheever, Ralph Fiennes, the president of an English book club in Siberia, the host of Desert Island Discs, and the former London station chief of the K.G.B. (The latter suggested to le Carré that the two men collaborate on a script together, “perhaps a musical.”)

The most revealing letter, though, might be le Carré’s gently discouraging reply, in 1988, to a ten-year-old boy who wanted advice on how to become a spy. He diagnosed his young fan with the same yearning—for adventure, for purpose—that had made Charlie susceptible to her handler’s seduction. “My guess is,” le Carré wrote, “you want excitement and a great cause. But I think and hope that if you ever find the great cause, the excitement will come naturally from the pleasure of serving it, & then you won’t need to deceive anybody, you will have found what you are looking for.”

Literature was le Carré’s great cause. He considered being a writer of spy fiction a serious responsibility and knew intimately how the genre could lure people into illusions about the way the world, and the job itself, worked. In his autobiography, “The Pigeon Tunnel” (2016), he wrote of how his love for spy thrillers had led him to work for British intelligence as a teen-ager, high off “Kipling’s Kim and any number of chauvinistic adventure stories by G.A. Henty and his ilk.” Le Carré’s own spies are bureaucrats, weary men in suits just trying to get a case in the win column. In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974), he turns a mole hunt into an office drama about ambition. When everyone is out for themselves and keeping secrets from one another, it becomes impossible to spot the traitor. What is a careerist, after all, if not a double agent?

The correspondence that makes up “A Private Spy” is capacious in theme, but a steady through line is work. These are, for all intents and purposes, business letters. Even the personal ones are mostly to do with his career. This could be an editorial choice on the part of his son, but le Carré’s characters are likewise often identified by their profession (“The Night Manager,” “The Tailor of Panama”) or in pursuit of a profession that could give them a sense of identity. That he held the concept of vocation—of a job that could become a container for the self—with a certain degree of sacredness is suggested in the considered and empathetic way he doles out career advice. (When he learned Sydney Pollack was thinking of taking a break from directing to act, le Carré assured him it was the right move: “You really don’t have to be Zeus all the time.”)

Le Carré saw writing as a role he could play in a drama greater than himself. “Out of the secret world I once knew,” he explained in “The Pigeon Tunnel,” “I have tried to make a theater for the larger worlds we inhabit.” His letters show him travelling the world, running toward danger, looking for his characters’ inner conflicts in real-world conflict zones. In writing novels, he found a way to fill his life with all the adventure of a spy thriller but without the need to deceive others—at least, not for work.

In a 1950 letter to his girlfriend Ann, le Carré wrote that he had been captured, stripped naked, and beaten. “But I never got my clothes back—so I am writing to you in a state of nature,” he joked, attaching a naughty illustration of himself. Aged nineteen, David Cornwell (he was not yet le Carré, the novelist) was in Sussex for spy-training camp. He had been recruited by British intelligence two years earlier while studying German at the University of Bern. Like me, he had received a call from a woman with a nurturing voice, a “mumsy lady named Wendy from the British Embassy’s visa section in Bern.” He was tasked with infiltrating left-wing student groups and reporting on their activities. His first overseas operation was in Austria, still in the guise of a Communist sympathizer, where he recruited a local boy to trade pornography to Russian soldiers in exchange for military gossip. “Life is very good,” he wrote to Ann. “Opera and intrigue. What could be more entertaining?” Le Carré was then twenty years old. At this point, his main approach to the Cold War was to enjoy it.

But spying took le Carré away from literature. He had been in Bern, on leave from his British boarding school, with the intention of reading Goethe, not Soviet communiques. After graduating from Oxford, in 1956, he returned to his first passion and took a job teaching German at Eton. Regret set in almost immediately. “Eton is just about murdering us,” he wrote in a letter to his mentor, Vivian Green. His plan to instill a love of German poetry in the minds of future banking executives and Tory M.P.s was dashed by what he described as “an infuriating tradition of not being enthusiastic about anything, or surprised.” He lasted five terms—but it was not time wasted. In “The Pigeon Tunnel,” le Carré wrote that Andy Osnard, the corrupt M.I.6 agent in “The Tailor of Panama” (1996), had been inspired by his former students. He needed “a decadent well-born British rascal” to use as a model for the character. “But for anyone who has taught at Eton, as I had, there were candidates galore.”

Soon, he was back to the only other job he knew: working for British intelligence. He was first stationed at an office in central London known as F4. “The letter F indicated,” he told a London audience in 2007, “that our target was Communist subversion in all its perceived variations. F4’s remit was to recruit spies of both sexes, to motivate, befriend, brief, counsel, debrief, pay and welfare them.” Still, an office job is an office job. Much of his work involved writing reports and operations summaries. Everything he wrote had to remain confidential, unseen. This proved a frustration for the young le Carré, who recognized his own talent and craved an audience. “Sometimes I wish you could see something of my work,” he wrote Ann. “I’ve finished an immense report today I was rather pleased with. Dearest love aren’t I vain!”

One of his colleagues, a man named John Bingham, wrote thrillers in his spare time. It gave le Carré, whose only involvement in publishing at this point seemed to have been making illustrations for a ski magazine called Downhill Only Journal, the idea of taking pen to paper. His first novel, “Call for the Dead,” was published in 1961. The book, which was about an East German spy ring in London, introduced readers to the character of George Smiley, an S.I.S. agent, who, like le Carré, had an affinity for German poetry. Success came as fast as a missile. Hitchcock’s agent wanted to adapt it. By the time his third novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” was written, his publisher was offering a huge, life-altering advance. He wrote a letter to his stepmother about his newfound fame and fortune: “It’s all right, I suppose, as long as you don’t enjoy it. Like sex on Sundays.”

As le Carré’s own life filled with glitz, he was making his name by ridding the spy thriller of that very same quality. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was a rebuke of jingoistic, Bond-like spy fictions. Men and women of conviction, on both sides, are swallowed up by a game of one-upmanship run by suits in London and Moscow. In a now famous line, a British agent named Alec Leamas preaches to an idealistic young socialist: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” changed le Carré’s life. “He moved from a spy in the guise, and on the salary, of a junior diplomat to a writer lionised worldwide, who lunched in New York with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Cornwell writes in the introduction to “A Private Spy.” Its success also allowed le Carré to leave intelligence work. Ironically, it was as a writer that le Carré did the bulk of his fieldwork, coming face to face with the major political conflicts that defined his lifetime. To research his novels, he travelled to the heart of conflict zones: southeast Asia in the last days of the Vietnam War (“The Honourable Schoolboy,” from 1977), Israel and Lebanon (“The Little Drummer Girl,” from 1983), Chechnya (“Our Game,” from 1995), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“The Mission Song,” from 2006). If he had still been a spy, his new line of work would have made a great cover story.

The letters from this period are focussed on the labor that went into writing political thrillers. This portion of le Carré’s correspondence reads like the field notes of a war reporter. He made several trips to Israel and Lebanon, where he met with Israeli intelligence officials and Palestinian leaders: “I just came back from Beirut after a long session with Arafat,” he wrote a friend in 1982. While on a trip to the D.R.C. to research “The Mission Song,” le Carré crossed the border into Rwanda to visit memorials to the genocide. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, “They’ve pickled the bodies somehow and left them on show, lest anybody should take it into his head to say it never happened.”

In one letter, le Carré starts off, mundanely enough, apologizing to his accountant for not having receipts for some of the expenses he racked up while on a recent work trip. Less mundane is why:

I promised you some while back an explanation of how I had incurred expenses of around £2,500, largely unaccounted for by receipts during my explorations of northern Indo-China for the purposes of my new and as yet unpublished book, of which the working title is THE CHINA TARGET. Largely, these expenses relate to the period when I was based on Chiang Mai, and from there exploring the illicit growing and refining of opium poppies in the area of the so-called Golden Triangle, which joins Burma, Thailand and Laos. Through the offices of the illegal Shan State Army in Chiang Mai, I succeeded in getting myself escorted along their supply line into the heart of the opium growing area. To do this I was obliged to make a contribution to their fighting fund of $1,000.

The details of the journey went into “The Honourable Schoolboy.” In that novel, Jerry Westerby, a sports journalist working on behalf of M.I.6 is dispatched to Hong Kong to gather information about a Soviet money-laundering scheme. Later, in Laos, Westerby meets and falls in love with a young British woman who has been caught up in the drug trade. Smiley, back in England, tracks down her family, working-class strivers, who brag that she is in Laos working for British intelligence. They have a letter from her saying that’s what she’s up to. “This is good Work, Dad,” she wrote, “the kind we dreamed of you and me.”

I came across this scene while rereading le Carré’s novels for this review. The letter made me feel less guilty about how long it took me to say no to the C.I.A. Le Carré understood what, for all its moral failings, intelligence work represented for people without family money to fall back on: a good, stable government job. His sympathy, however, never blinded him to the reality that all people have, in the end, a choice to make. His letters are full of admiration for people whose work meant putting themselves in harm’s way to serve others, such as Janet Lee Stevens, an American journalist who covered the lives of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. She died when a terrorist group affiliated with Hezbollah bombed the U.S. Embassy. In a letter to her parents, le Carré wrote, “Her dedication to the people she loved was absolute, and I cannot resist adding that she was ready to die for them. And in a sense, she did: by staying on, by being there, by refusing to count the risk, or quit, so long as the others were suffering.”

Le Carré’s judgments took on even more intensity after the end of the Cold War, when unchecked corporate greed no longer had an ideological counterweight. One person whose voice is all but missing from “A Private Spy” is that of Yvette Pierpaoli, an international relief worker whose outspokenness inspired the character of Tessa—a journalist who uncovers that a pharmaceutical company has been using Kenyans as test subjects—from “The Constant Gardener” (2001). Tim Cornwell says Pierpaoli was “quite likely, one of [my father’s] lovers,” but there is no trace of it here. After Pierpaoli’s death, in 1999, her daughter burned all but one of her mother’s letters from le Carré in her kitchen sink. “Whatever they had between them had to stay that way,” she told his son.

There is, however, a letter from 2001, from le Carré, addressed to two executives from the pharmaceutical giant Novartis. They had accused him of “portraying our industry as a bunch of greedy criminals who ignore basic human rights in order to maximise profits.” In response, le Carré wrote: “I have a suggestion for you that comes from your own world. It is that I am only a symptom. I am not the disease. By treating me as you would like to, you will not remove the root causes of your anger, which I suspect are insecurity and borrowed shame.”

Literature was the symptom of le Carré’s conscience. A career in fiction writing enabled him to avoid many of the moral compromises that plagued his characters, but he did not flaunt his good fortune. He knew what he had achieved was unlikely and that such lifeboats are in short supply. “I never meant to be the person who did all the things you were keen on doing,” he wrote to his brother, an aspiring novelist, “Mr Successful, or Mr Literature. . . . I just wanted to improve my game, & since you can’t disown success, having trodden over bodies to get it, I tried to enjoy it too!”

The source of le Carré’s popularity might be that he understood keenly the yearning to do work that is good, in every sense, and our collective sadness that so few options exist for it. Many of his characters are quiet, ordinary people longing for honorable work and finding, as we do, all paths riddled with complicity and compromise. Sometimes it feels like there’s no way out except to disappear into fantasy—but le Carré wrote fiction that refused to lie to us. Deceit was his old job.

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing writer at The Nation.

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