Coming in from the Cold

IT HAS BECOME DE RIGUEUR, in the world since 9/11, to say that so much more than mass murder befell the West on the day the towers fell: We lost our innocence; we lost our values; we lost the balance between civil liberties and state control. Not true, none of it, says George Smiley, the famed creation of John le Carré, who appeared among us at the height of the Cold War, in the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. "We've given up far too many freedoms in order to be free," Smiley says in The Secret Pilgrim, before bidding adieu—more than a decade before the war on terror.

To reread John le Carré's early works is to remember how unsparing his world is. He won his first acclaim, and readers, for exploding the spy genre. If James Bond was all muscle and action and toys, Smiley was the antithesis. Le Carré's subject has never been espionage but a trial that all endure: the dance of loyalty and deception, whether in matters of state, family, or marriage. To read le Carré is to be in the hands of an authority on not only tradecraft but also human frailties and self-deceptions, a guide with a moral compass, the kind of man the English of a certain age call "sound."

Le Carré began life as a mask, a pseudonym required by professional secrecy. In 1960, he scrawled out his first book, Call for the Dead, on a commuter train between a village in Buckinghamshire and London en route to the MI5 headquarters. (He would soon move to MI6, housed at a lonely address marked only by a fake plaque: "MINIMAX FIRE EXTINGUISHER COMPANY.") A few years later, he became a celebrated, and wealthy, writer with the runaway success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Today, twenty-three books later, le Carré stands at the height of his career. His most recent novel, A Delicate Truth, topped the best-seller list in the UK, half a century after Spy topped the US list—a feat likely without precedent.

All this has put David Cornwell, the eighty-five-year-old soft-spoken English conjurer who dreamed up the mask, in quite a bind. Cornwell professes to be hermetic: He hates cities and the beau monde, famously refusing awards, literary or royal. "I will never be Sir David, Lord David, or King David," he once told an American interviewer. Though he keeps a house in Hampstead (on a gated cul-de-sac, beyond the eye of the Google Mapping car), he prefers his stone lair atop the Cornish cliffs. And yet at bookshops, libraries, community book sales, he is a constant presence. His books have sold in the millions, even tens of millions. This, too, for le Carré, is part of the trouble. By now, the camps are drawn. Amazon, and many of his readers, may classify him alongside Ludlum, Forsyth, Follett, even Silva. But Philip Roth has called A Perfect Spy "the best English novel since the war." Robert Gottlieb, le Carré's American editor, has said,"Calling him a spy writer is like calling Joseph Conrad a sea writer, or Jane Austen a domestic-comedy writer."Le Carré occupies "an uneasy position," as Zoë Heller has written, "at the very perimeter of literary respectability." The author's own thinking is clear: In his ninth decade, le Carré has announced a donation of his literary archive—498 boxes of manuscripts—to the main research library at Oxford University. "The Bodleian," Cornwell has said, "is where I shall most happily rest." The struggle is not for respect, but identity.

A SIMILAR STRUGGLE HAS LED HIM to write his first work of nonfiction, the new memoir The Pigeon Tunnel. He concedes, or affects to concede, that the move to autobiography arose as a reply, a reaction to "a recently published account of my life"—Adam Sisman's John le Carré: The Biography, a six-hundred-page doorstopper that appeared in 2015. As Sisman, le Carré writes, "offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories" of his life, "it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own."

It does not take long for the reader to discover that the billing is false. The Pigeon Tunnel is less a reclamation project than a deliberately messy archaeological dig, in which personal and literary lineages are unearthed, piecemeal, only to be left aboveground, unsorted. These "stories from my life"—thirty-eight, in all—offer a tangle of four biographies: the lives of the spy; the writer, John le Carré; the man, David Cornwell; and his literary characters. These "lives" are presented in a single stream, running concurrently. Le Carré has again exploded a genre: It falls to the reader to draw in the definition, to untangle.

We are given only glimpses. In the life story of the man, the biography of Cornwell, we catch only half glimpses. "I have been to Russia twice only," he writes with characteristic restraint. And elsewhere: "I don't remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent."

About the birth of the writer, we learn little, only the origins of his spare style, the lapidary prose reliant on pitch-perfect dialogue and character sketches, deeply etched no matter how fleeting, to move the story ahead. Le Carré credits MI5's "classically educated senior officers," who "seized on my reports with gleeful pedantry, heaping contempt on my dangling clauses and gratuitous adverbs, scoring the margins of my deathless prose with such comments as redundant—omit—justify—sloppydo you really mean this? No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right." We learn, too, when and where the old life ended: in 1961, at the British Embassy in West Germany, "a sprawling industrial eyesore on the dual carriageway between Bonn and Bad Godesberg," filled with "the fuggy Rhineland air." Here was the start: "My past life entered its unstoppable demise, and my writing life began."

We learn the most about the life of the characters, how the literature came into being. On Alec Leamas:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold began in London airport, when a stocky man in his forties flopped on to a bar stool beside me, delved in his raincoat pocket and poured a handful of loose change in half-a-dozen currencies on to the bar. With a fighter's thick hands, he raked through the coins till he had enough of one currency. "Large Scotch," he ordered. "No bloody ice."

That was enough: five words of overheard speech. "I fancied I caught a whiff of Irish in his voice," Cornwell writes. "Whoever he was, he became my spy." When it comes to his characters, Cornwell is generous at retracing his steps. He recounts the turn, when, heeding a Graham Greene dictum—"If you were reporting on human pain, you had a duty to share it"—he "set out in search of experience: first to Cambodia and Vietnam, afterwards to Israel and the Palestinians, then to Russia, Central America, Kenya and the Eastern Congo." The strongest stories recalled here may seem torn from a travel journal, but they are, he explains, the notes of his characters, his "secret sharers" on his reconnaissance trips.

There followed forty-odd years of travels, many of the highlights recounted here. While he stands in awe of foreign correspondents, Cornwell played method writer—a "reluctant war tourist." He meets with Arafat, and Vadim Bakatin, Gorbachev's man to reform the KGB, and Dr. August Hanning, the chief of the BND, the German intelligence service. In Ostend, he listens to the Congo's secret exiles, testimony of "mass rape and persecution." In Cambodia he comes under fire, and in Tunis gets a pistol "jammed" into his temple. But in the main, these are private VIP junkets, whose value is solely literary. The purpose of the adventuring, the writer tells us, is to see, taste, touch, feel the world of his characters. In Beirut, he scribbles not his thoughts, but those of Charlie, heroine of The Little Drummer Girl, in "my battered notebook."

These tales are less reportage than war stories. There are, too, the rare gaffes. (Andrei Sakharov, he writes, suffered "torture"—he was, for instance, force-fed—but he was not tortured in the Soviet sense. Inaccurate, too, is the note, from a 1993 Moscow trip, that "gone was the fabled state-run shopping emporium GUM, and in its place, Estée Lauder." GUM remains immovable, and open for business.) Cornwell reveals, as well, a weakness for the Big Name: Hollywood directors (Kubrick, Ritt, Pollack) and movie stars (Burton, Taylor, Oldman) loom too large.

But here, too, we find the gems of the stylist: "the mischievous dolphin smile that spreads and flits away" (Alec Guinness); accidental contact with a USSR diplomat that "caused something of a flurry in official dovecotes"; a pool in Kyrgyzstan "heated to stockbroker temperature." And the vignettes shimmer in their laconic clarity. On Harold Macmillan, then prime minster, in 1963: "His hands travelled over the glass as if reading braille. His patrician slur . . . was like an old gramophone record running at a very low speed."

With Yvette Pierpaoli, a famed refugee worker, Cornwell saw, in 1974, his "first casualties of war," Cambodian soldiers "stacked head to head in an open lorry with their feet bare." They met over dinner in Phnom Penh, bullets flying outside: "She was sparky, tough, brown-eyed and in her late thirties, by turns vulnerable and raucous, never the one thing for long. She could spread her elbows and upbraid you like a bargee. She could tip you a smile to melt your heart. She could cajole, flatter and win you in any way you needed to be won." As with the best of le Carré's prose, it is an introduction that demands you read on.

John le Carré, South Sudan, July 1999. Simone Casetta/Anzenberger Agency
John le Carré, South Sudan, July 1999. Simone Casetta/Anzenberger Agency

THE MAIN DRAW, OF COURSE, is the biography of the spy. Le Carré readers have long wanted to pull off the mask, to learn the truth of the spy's life. Despite his publisher's false billing, Cornwell will not budge: "Of my work for British Intelligence, performed mostly in Germany, I wish to add nothing to what is already reported by others, inaccurately, elsewhere." He is bound, so goes the refrain, by "old-fashioned loyalty." On his own history in the secret world, Cornwell reverts to elliptical form: "I was twenty-five when, in 1956, I was formally inducted into MI5 as a junior officer"; "as a young soldier in Austria, I had interrogated scores of refugees from Eastern Europe on the off chance that one or two of them were spies"; "by the spring of 1961 I had completed the MI6 initiation course. . . . I was serving as a Second Secretary (Political) at the British Embassy in Bonn." Taken together, these glimpses tear more holes in the biography than they fill.

Cornwell, as adept at depicting the war between loyalty and betrayal as any modern novelist, cannot conceal the feint. Like many intelligence servants, especially those who took early retirement and moved on to second careers, he would prefer to diminish the record. In the 1964 forward to The Looking Glass War, he claimed: "None of the characters, clubs, institutions nor intelligence organisations I have described here or elsewhere exists, or has existed to my knowledge in real life." Success would, of course, soon make the lie untenable.

Now he attempts an explanation: He yearned for "my stories to be read not as the disguised revelations of a literary defector but as works of imagination that owed only a nod to the reality that had spawned them." For decades, Cornwell has tried to stave off assaults on his secret past. "I resigned from the Service"—MI6—"in 1964 at the age of thirty-three," he writes here, "having made a negligible contribution." The line drawn throughout these stories is meant to be the final say. "You would not, I imagine, if you were on the lookout for the inside story of Grand Prix racing, choose for your source a junior mechanic with a hyperactive imagination and zero experience of the race track. Yet that is a fair analogy of what it felt like to be appointed, overnight and solely on the strength of my fictions, to the status of guru on all matters of secret intelligence."

The master of the tell-and-withhold, so skillful at obfuscation on the literary page, would like to have it both ways. For despite the disclaimers, Cornwell's record of service to the state was extensive—far more so than he has conceded. Excepting his stint teaching at Eton, he was involved, as Timothy Garton Ash has noted, "in spying, in one way or another, for sixteen formative years, between the ages of seventeen and thirty-two." Sisman tries valiantly to fill in the blanks. We learn how the door opened: On Christmas Day in Bern in 1948—Cornwell, at sixteen, had fled England for Switzerland, enrolling at the university—he was introduced to "a county lady in tweeds and sensible shoes who introduced herself as 'Wendy Gillbanks'" and her friend "Sandy"; both worked at the British Embassy, and they invited Cornwell to come round the next day, as Sisman writes, "for a glass of sherry and a spot of lunch."

If the biographer was stymied, Cornwell in The Pigeon Tunnel offers clues. He hints at his role as a postwar interrogator: "In an earlier life, whenever I was sent to interrogate men in prison"; "when I was an army intelligence officer in Austria, a Sergeant Kaufmann was the keeper of Graz's town jail, where we locked up our suspects." He also gives a clue about the work he did as an undergrad at Oxford, having sat in on Anglo-Soviet Friendship meetings and made himself appear, to KGB "talent-spotters," like a potential double agent. But he skirts any in-depth discussion of the spying on his classmates that Sisman recounts. "I don't know that it's such a disgraceful thing to have done," Sisman quotes Cornwell as telling an interviewer of his infiltration of Communist groups; "somebody has to clean the drains."

The Pigeon Tunnel is as bewildering as it is beguiling. At times, readers will hear the "sound" narrative voice, the trusted guide who shepherds us into and out of Smiley's world. We glean the lessons of a life—not of characters' lives, but of Cornwell's: "The harder you looked for absolutes, the less likely you were to find them." "The more chaotic a country, the more intractable its bureaucracy." "Spying and novel writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal."

These verities speak to a clarity of vision, yet for each "lesson," the cost remains untold. The trouble may lie in Cornwell's politics, a bold contradiction: a Cold Warrior who breathes with the fury of an anti-establishment lefty. He concedes that though he had left Germany before the rise of Ulrike Meinhof's Red Army Faction, he has "no problem understanding its origins, or even sympathizing with some of its arguments: just not its methods." For years he has offered clues: He desires the demise of the Church of England and—a dire refrain—to destroy the remnants of the English boarding-school system. "By the time I was sixteen," he told Garton Ash, "I was certain that my country was sick at heart."

His much-debated post-9/11 jeremiad, then, should have come as no shock. In "The United States Has Gone Mad," Cornwell wrote, "The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams." Here Cornwell, the old spy, made clear his disdain for the "taciturn and remote image that in the spy world passes all too easily for inscrutable depth." Whether in the Cold War—"when the KGB out-witted and out-penetrated us at almost every turn"—or the war on terror, the body politic is duped. Snowden, eat your heart out. "Nobody can do corporate rot more discreetly than the spies," Cornwell writes. "Nobody knows better how to create an image of mysterious omniscience and hide behind it. Nobody does a better job of pretending to be a cut above a public that has no choice but to pay top price for second-rate intelligence whose lure lies in the gothic secrecy of its procurement, rather than its intrinsic worth."

YET SOMEWHERE AROUND MIDWAY through these stories, a discomfiting awareness settles in. These are stories of a man's life—spy, writer, traveler, companion to more-illustrious "secret sharers." But when it comes to his own life, the famed le Carré clarity fails. Despite his mumbles of "shrinks," Cornwell does not excel at self-reflection. At times, his tone approaches the confessional, but we know better. We recognize the feint, as we have learned over the years to "read" it in the le Carré character who marches chin-out to the fore. When Cornwell writes of "the need to cobble together an identify for myself," we sense the plot advancing. In fact, all throughout these stories he nibbles away at the central fruit: the sins of the father. Ronnie Cornwell "did serious time—three or four years"—for financial shenanigans of all varieties. "He was a crisis addict," his son writes, "a performance addict, a shameless pulpit orator and a scene-grabber. He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God's golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people's lives." To another Graham Greene apothegm—"Childhood is the credit balance of the writer"—Cornwell adds: "By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire." The childhood was a disaster. His mother, Olive, we learn, took up with a friend of her husband's, and fled when Cornwell was five years old.

"How I got out from under Ronnie, if I ever did," Cornwell would write, "is the story of my life." (The line appears in his first telling of his father, "In Ronnie's Court," in the New Yorker, but not in the revision included here.) This tale, too, lurking all along in the pages that precede it, is not told in whole cloth. The theme of father and son is betrayal. We do not learn all the sordid turns, only the contours. But we do discover the essential truth: In order to write, Cornwell had to betray two pasts: his father and his intelligence work—the "two elephants in my room," he writes, "from the day I started writing."

The Pigeon Tunnel should be the book of his life. It would seem the one that he has tried to write all along. He describes finding himself, years back, "dickering on the brink of an autobiography and frustrated by the poverty of collateral information." He "hired a pair of detectives, one thin, one fat, both recommended by a rugged London solicitor, and both good eaters," to dig into his father's life. Unable to play the repo man, he outsourced the job. "I'm a liar," he recounts telling the detectives. "Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist. As a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists."

Lost son. Spy. Writer. Mask. Le Carré is now a brand—with subsidiaries in film and television, cable and streaming networks. He appears in cameos in several of the filmed adaptations. He loathes interviews, but gives them faithfully on the eve of the arrival of each new book. He has not written an autobiography, and he does not pretend to self-knowledge. But he does ask the hardest question of his life: "Is there really a big difference, I wonder, between the man who sits at his desk and dreams up scams on the blank page (me), and the man who puts on a clean shirt every morning and, with nothing in his pocket but imagination, sallies forth to con his victim (Ronnie)?"

In his preface to his memoir, Cornwell recounts the discovery in his mid-teens, with his father in Monte Carlo, of a shooting range near the old casino that faced the sea. "Under the lawn ran small, parallel tunnels that emerged in a row at the sea's edge," he writes. "Into them were inserted live pigeons that had been hatched and trapped on the casino roof." The birds only had to make their way through the darkness to emerge amid the Mediterranean blue, "targets for well-lunched sporting gentlemen" poised with shotguns. Any birds who survived "did what pigeons do"—"they returned to the place of their birth on the casino roof, where the same traps awaited them." Cornwell is no longer hidden by a pseudonym, and his father's past no longer a secret. But he seems today as much a captive of Ronnie's deceptions, and of his own betrayal of his father, as ever. These stories are, necessarily, "unresolved"—to borrow a favored reckoning of the writer's. They, like the best le Carré novels, are besieged by an understanding that life, even a single life, cannot yield certitude.

Andrew Meier is a journalist and the author most recently of The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service (Norton, 2008).