Cold Snap

A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré by john le carrÉ, edited by tim cornwell. new york: viking. 752 pages. $40.

The cover of A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré

BORN DAVID CORNWELL in 1931, John le Carré was too young to go to war and thus too young to experience Britain’s patriotic struggle with Nazi Germany from inside the intelligence service, too young to have worked in alliance with the Soviet Union, and much too young to have been a university student in the 1930s, when many idealistic young Britons joined with the Communists because they were the staunchest opponents of fascism. He was sent to boarding school at the age of five, and it left him with a bitter feeling toward his country’s ruling institutions, even as he would remain thoroughly a creature of them. There was a disconnect between his messy homelife and the orthodox Anglicanism of his schooling. He had a fascination with monks but they couldn’t have been more different from his father Ronnie, a divorcé (le Carré’s mother left him when the boy was five) and a criminal who would soon be exposed in the press as a heavy-duty con man after a bankruptcy that made headlines. “I began to think,” he recalled, “that I was the plaything of ridiculous forces, on the one hand this rackety criminality, on the other hand this toffee-nosed high-school style and I fled it really.” 

Ronnie Cornwell would be the model for Rick Pym, father of the double agent at the center of his son’s 1986 novel A Perfect Spy. “A theme of the novel,” le Carré wrote to his aunt Ella Haymes, who along with her sister Ruby was upset by the book (or at least its reception—they hadn’t read it), “is that hypocrisy thrives upon the silence and the goodheartedness of respectable people, and that deceit, when it passes unchallenged, can be bestowed upon one generation by another.” He enclosed a more “affectionate” portrait by his older brother Tony, an unpublished essay titled “My Brother’s Father and Mine,” in which Ronnie is described as “a picaresque, charming, maddening man.” Ronnie had died a decade earlier. Le Carré paid for the funeral but did not attend it. After the instability and shame of his childhood, he had to endure his father taking credit for his writing talent (Ronnie neither wrote nor was much of a reader), ordering copies of his novels on credit without paying for them, then selling them signed “From the author’s father.” He told an audience in 1997: “I was brought up in a bookless household, and I have a natural sympathy for people who grow up without the example of reading, or come late to it, or never come at all.” It was his stepmother Jean who read to him The Wind in the Willows once when he was sick and bedridden, his earliest literary memory. She would be an affectionate correspondent of her stepson’s until her death, still sending him sweaters for his birthday into his forties. 

When le Carré was sixteen, his father pulled him out of Sherborne School and sent him to Bern University to study German. His housemaster, R. S. Thompson, was sad to lose the sensitive boy who won prizes for his poetry: “He strikes me as the sort who might become either Archbishop of Canterbury or a first rate criminal!” It was another teacher at Sherborne, Frank King, who brought him to German literature. “He spoke excellent German,” le Carré said, “and he always reminded us in German class, as everyone was demonising Germany with justice, that there was another Germany, an enduring one and a much older one and a wise and loveable Germany.” King had also been an officer in the Military Intelligence Service during the war. In Bern, le Carré “assumed German identity and German culture as a replacement of my own. That’s where it began.” Soon he would be recruited to the British Intelligence Corps in Bern. It was membership in that order, along with his poetic sensibilities, that would determine the unlikely course of the rest of his life. 

During this phase, on a holiday in Saint Moritz in 1950, he met Ann Sharp, the daughter of a Royal Air Force officer. His father, she recalled, was using his son “as bait for the daughter of a possible client.” Le Carré would marry Ann in 1954. She is the addressee of many of the early missives collected in A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré, edited by their son Tim Cornwell, a journalist who died after finishing work on the volume this past May. Le Carré was an avid skier and his letters to Ann combine details of his injuries on the slopes with sweet and unbridled notes of longing for her, shades of the romantic effusiveness shared by many of the characters he would later create. Here he is in 1951 recovering from a fall on the slopes where he injured his left thigh:

Sorry my writing is a bit groggy, but I have just been given some pills to make me sleep. But I want to talk to you so much, to think of you & imagine I am holding you in my arms, and you are pressing up against me as if you were really a part of me. I want to dream of your deep, soft eyes and of your voice. To think for a second you are here, talking to me. To suppose you are sitting here beside me. 

It won’t be long now, darling. 

Few letters record le Carré’s military service and none refer explicitly to his intelligence work as he was doing it, but there is one reference in a letter to Ann to some derring-do he practiced in training in 1950: “Today D. played spies and was caught and put in prison. Escaped in true E. Phillips Oppenheim by laying out an Other Rank guard and removing his braces & tying him up, and stealing his revolver. Masqueraded as a publican from Doncaster. All rather fun, but cut my hand a little in the fight.” Oppenheim was a popular pulp spy novel writer of the early twentieth century; in a public feud over the Kim Philby affair in the late 1960s, Graham Greene, one of le Carré’s early supporters—he provided a crucial blurb for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “the best spy story I have ever read”—would disparagingly compare the younger writer to Oppenheim. (Greene and le Carré made up and continued a correspondence of mutual admiration.) Later, stationed in Austria, le Carré writes to Ann of sharing a train compartment with thirty Soviet soldiers also engaged in the ongoing occupation: “We smoked cigarettes together, but they refused to speak to me, or even say ‘Goodbye’ when they got out of the train.” Austria itself in 1951 was “a hot-bed of Communism now, and the up & coming breeding ground for international intrigue of every description.”

After his year of military service, le Carré went to Oxford, where he continued his studies in German as well as his intelligence work, hanging around leftist circles to report back to MI5. He was a gifted illustrator, and A Private Spy includes a front page of the Oxford Left newspaper’s “Special Peace Issue” with an illustration of his, of crippled refugees in a postapocalyptic landscape, for an editorial advocating nuclear abolition. The paper’s editor Stanley Mitchell was among those he informed on. Around this time Ronnie’s property frauds—the resulting debts in excess of £1,000,000—were exposed in the press. The checks for his son’s university fees were bouncing to boot. Beyond the desperate hustle for money from generous friends that ensued, Ronnie’s crimes were a source of deep shame to his son: “Suffice it to say, that my father has revealed himself both through his police-related and his private affairs to be an infinite, darkest swindler,” he wrote to Kaspar von Almen, a friend from his Bern days. “The clothes I wore, the food I ate and the books I read were bought with the money this had provided. Little old ladies in the Midlands had provided every penny of their savings towards some lunatic scheme which never existed—honest good Bürgers had been legally robbed and ruined, whilst I fattened and grazed on their pastures.” And to the Reverend Vivian Green, a mentor at both Sherborne and Oxford who would marry le Carré and Ann in 1954: “I’ve always wanted to become a Christian, and try & live like one.” 

John le Carré and his half-sister Charlotte Cornwell, ca. 1956. By kind permission of the Cornwell family
John le Carré and his half-sister Charlotte Cornwell, ca. 1956. By kind permission of the Cornwell family

In the early letters, shame and a moralizing streak—qualities, again, that many of his characters inherited—bring out le Carré’s most forceful writing. He writes in disgust to Ann Sharp on May 26, 1953, a week before the coronation of Elizabeth II: “There is Coronation beer, Coronation toothpaste and Coronation licensing laws. . . . What a far better investment it is not to sell the Crown Jewels, but to line them for view on a queen’s head, for dollars, francs, pesetas, rupees, marks, obols or what you will. What a pity that a national gift for tradition has become a national opportunity for dishonesty.” The disgust with commerce would be echoed by “bloody” Bill Haydon—a traitor and as such not exactly an authorial stand-in—in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of its death by greed and constipation.” At the end of the letter to Ann, le Carré says he will be going to London for a cocktail party at the Soviet Embassy, without mentioning that his purpose was to pose as a leftist sympathizer for MI5.

After Oxford, le Carré took a job teaching German and French at Eton College. “I’m not a bit sure I can stand the Eton pace!” he wrote to Green. “I don’t think I’ve ever met so much arrogance.” Certainly the reputation of Eton’s students (think of Boris Johnson, whom le Carré calls an “Etonian oik” in a late letter) comes through in his correspondence. The boys’ essays “are very clever—clever and crammed with idiotic careless mistakes.” There were new temptations on campus at the time: “there is a curious lowering of standards among the aristocracy e.g. Lord C. Spencer Churchill (aged 16) [descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a son of the tenth duke of Marlborough] tells me that he spends his evenings with father glued to the television.” Even among the intellectual students, there “is an infuriating tradition of not being enthusiastic about anything, or surprised. Hence discussions on painting for instance are somewhat limited by the extent to which a boy will confess himself impressed.” Many believed the withering portrait of a boarding school in his second novel, A Murder of Quality, was based more on Eton than on Sherborne. (The 1991 TV adaptation, with Denholm Elliott and Christian Bale, would be shot at Sherborne.) Yet it wasn’t all bad, or not as bad as the time le Carré had spent at school: “There is astonishing liberalism in many ways—not the least of these being the number of boys who are so terribly bad at games that Sherborne would have had a fit, and whose lives remain unimpaired by this handicap.”

Le Carré worked full-time in the intelligence service, for MI5 in London and for MI6 in Germany, from 1958 until 1963, when his fame as the author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (his third book but the first with significant sales and recognition) made him useless as a spook, even under a pseudonym. (Kim Philby had blown his cover to the Soviets by this time anyway.) The letters from this phase are few and light on detail. The record picks up when he begins correspondence as an author. Not yet famous, he writes to a family friend: “I have decided to cultivate that intense, worried look and to start writing brilliant, untidy letters for future biographers. This is one.” It is amusing to read his letter to Hilary Rubinstein, an editor who worked on his first novel, Call for the Dead, to answer the questions of a lawyer: “The characters are wholly fictitious, and so is the Secret Service setting—so far as I am capable of judging I know of no Government office at or near Cambridge Circus, but I do not suppose the Secret Service publicises the location of its offices. My reading on the subject has always led me to the belief that the Intelligence work is divided between separate services and you will notice that in my book there is only one service, which I suppose reduces the risk of a chance similarity.” How coy! Of course, he knew that MI5 was in Mayfair and MI6 was in Westminster—he had worked for both. Combining the services and moving them to Cambridge Circus put his characters in spitting distance of Soho, the better to allow for random binges at the pub and casual visits by George Smiley to the rare booksellers on Charing Cross Road. All the better to put a bit of space between them and the clubs of St. James’s Square. And the option of referring to the whole operation as the Circus—there in one word was all the intrigue, all the dysfunction, all the fun. 

There is plenty of trivia about the Smiley books and their adaptations in the correspondence. In 1978, le Carré wrote a flattering letter to Alec Guinness, saying that he and producer Jonathan Powell and screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft “agreed on one thing: that if we were to cry for the moon, we would cry for Guinness as Smiley, and build everything else to fit.” The only quality of the character’s he lacked was “plumpness.” (Indeed, on his first appearance Smiley is described as “a shrunken toad” in bad clothes.) “Some actors can act intelligent,” le Carré asserted in a second letter courting the actor. “Others are intelligent and come over dull, because of some mannerism which gets in the way. And a very few are intelligent and convey it: in Tinker Tailor this gift will be pure gold, because it gives such base to the other things—the solitude, the moral concern, the humanity of Smiley—all, because of the intelligence of his perceptions, grow under our eyes and in your care.” For all the flattery of the initial approach, le Carré later said he preferred Gary Oldman’s performance of the role in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film. In a 1980 letter to his stepmother, he mentions that Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a film of Smiley’s People, but he turned him down to stick with Guinness and the BBC.

Beginning with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the second installment in the Karla trilogy set largely in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, le Carré’s novels became journalistic enterprises. He would undertake extensive travel and recruit sources, often paying them handsomely for their time. The subjects of his post–Cold War novels were various: big pharma, the war on terror, conflict in the Caucasus, arms smuggling, etc. By the time of the Iraq invasion he was publicly a man of the left. His sons Simon and Stephen formed a production company in 2010 to make adaptations of his work a family business. His first marriage had ended in divorce in 1971 after his affair with Susie Kennaway, the wife of his friend, the Scottish novelist James Kennaway. The episode inspired The Naive and Sentimental Lover, the only le Carré novel that doesn’t qualify as a thriller. In 1972 he married Jane Eustace, who had worked in publishing and introduced him to Bob Gottlieb, his longtime editor at Knopf. The couple lived in London and Cornwall, where they both died within months of each other. Both had been suffering from cancer, though it was pneumonia that felled le Carré in December 2020. 

In a reply to an editor at the Hampstead & Highgate Express who asked him to review Greene’s late novel The Human Factor, le Carré said Greene was “a great writer who has, as he says himself, to put up with longevity.” Time brings the risk of the “off book.” Only after le Carré turned eighty did the novels take on an uncharacteristic slightness. He was writing till the end. After Agent Running in the Field (2019), a novel with parallels to the Edward Snowden affair, he started a book with the working title The George Smiley Years, which included an encounter between Smiley and his arch-nemesis and foil Karla, after the Russian spy chief’s defection to the West. Smiley was last seen in A Legacy of Spies (2017), in which the children of characters from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor make inquiries about what happened to their parents. Smiley shows up at the end, reading German literature and pleased that the divided Europe of his spy years has now achieved a peaceful union. Le Carré was aghast at Brexit and sought Irish citizenship (Ronnie Cornwell’s mother Bessie was Irish). The sight of another hot war on the European frontier would have crushed him. Responding to a Soviet reviewer who called him an “apologist” for the Cold War, le Carré insisted that his view was the opposite and was in fact “the greatest heresy”: “there is no victory and no virtue in the Cold War, only a condition of human illness and political misery.” A critic looking for simple binaries would be better off reading novels about “the hyena who stalks the capitalist deserts,” James Bond, a character with “the one piece of equipment without which not even his formula would work: an entirely evil enemy.” 

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.