John Banville, the Guardian, interviewed John le Carré or David Cornwell, ahead of publishing his 25th novel, about our ‘dismal statesmanship’ and what he learned from his time as a spy. December 2020.
British espionage writer John le Carré (19 October 1931 – 12 December 2020) has died aged 89, following a short illness, his literary agent has said. The author of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy died from pneumonia on Saturday.
I have always admired John le Carré. Not always without envy – so many bestsellers! – but in wonderment at the fact that the work of an artist of such high literary accomplishment should have achieved such wide appeal among readers. That le Carré, otherwise David Cornwell, has chosen to set his novels almost exclusively in the world of espionage has allowed certain critics to dismiss him as essentially unserious, a mere entertainer. But with at least two of his books, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and A Perfect Spy (1986), he has written masterpieces that will endure.
Which other writer could have produced novels of such consistent quality over a career spanning almost 60 years, since Call for the Dead in 1961, to his latest, Agent Running in the Field, which he is about to publish at the age of 87. And while he has hinted that this is to be his final book, I am prepared to bet that he is not done yet. He is just as intellectually vigorous and as politically aware as he has been at any time throughout his long life.
In the new book there is a plotline that is predicated on covert collusion between Trump’s US and the British security services with the aim of undermining the democratic institutions of the European Union. “It’s horribly plausible,” he says, with some relish when we meet in his Hampstead home. His relish is for the fictional conceit, not its horrible plausibility, and at once his conman father pops up with his large-browed head and his all too plausible grin. Ronald “Ronnie” Cornwell was a confidence trickster of genius, of whom his son is still in awe, and to whose exploits and influence he returns again and again, to the point of bemused obsession. “I’ve had the good fortune in life,” says le Carré, “to be born with a subject” – no, not the cold war, which many foolishly imagined was his only topic – “the extraordinary, the insatiable criminality of my father and the people he had around him. I Googled him the other day and under ‘profession’ it said: ‘Associate of the Kray brothers’.” This gives us both a laugh, though a queasy one.
“A ceaseless procession of fascinating people” wound its felonious way through his childhood. In his earliest days he was “relieved of any real concept of truth. Truth was what you got away with.” All too familiar to him, then, are the frauds who have swaggered their way into the spotlight in today’s political pantomime.It seems to le Carré now entirely natural that escape from the toxic background of his childhood should have been entry into “severe institutions”. He was sent to his first boarding school at the age of five – “and I did five years straight of stir”. He went on to Sherborne school in Dorset, which he hated – in later years the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, David Spedding, told him that what he most admired him for was the fact that “you ran away from Sherborne while I stayed the course”. Spedding’s rueful warmth is in marked contrast to the recent attack on le Carré by another former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, who last month at a literary festival in Cliveden – of all places – said the writer was “obsessed” with his brief time as a spy, which he had used as a basis for novels that reveal him to be “so corrosive in his view of MI6 that most SIS officers are pretty angry with him”.
For all his sufferings under the educational system of the day, boarding school was for le Carré “one route in the search for some sort of clarity about behaviour”. Then came “the glide into the secret world”: at Oxford he was approached by the security services and did some spying, and informing, on his fellow students of the left-leaning sort, something of which he does not repent. John le Carré, or better say David Cornwell, is at heart an old-fashioned, romantic English patriot. For all that, he is not deluded about the mores of the “secret world”. The security services fixed on their candidates “for being on the one hand larcenous” – a favourite word – “and on the other hand, however you call it, loyal”. This dichotomy raised “huge, many-faceted questions”, for instance what distinguishes patriotism, good, from nationalism, bad. That particular question “kicked around in me ever after. It remains unresolved.”