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John le Carré’s collection of anecdotes about his life as a schoolboy, novelist, screenwriter and spy has no epigraph. A reminiscence offered by an associate of his father, a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird” called Ronnie Cornwell, could serve as one. “‘We was all bent, son,’ Reg added in a last respectful epitaph to a friend. ‘But your dad was very, very bent indeed.’”
There have been many purveyors of fiction in le Carré’s life, himself included, and some hailed from Eton, the elite public school. “All I needed now was a decadent, well-born British rascal . . . ” he recalls of seeking a model for a character in The Tailor of Panama (1996). “But for anyone who has taught at Eton, as I had, there were candidates galore.”
As with other incidents in le Carré’s books and life, the narrator’s motivation is not entirely clear. Adam Sisman’s well-regarded and thorough biography of the novelist who was born David Cornwell was published less than a year ago. Le Carré is self-admittedly prickly about being interviewed or profiled, so is his self-portrait a correction, a retort or an extended set of footnotes?
Perhaps he felt liberated from the obligation to be comprehensive. Sisman, for example, describes his marital infidelities while the sinner himself merely thanks his “two immensely loyal and devoted wives”, adding magisterially but vaguely, “I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way. Love came to me late, after many missteps.”
It is impossible to miss the similarities between le Carré and the father who beat him as a child (“but only a few times and not with much conviction”). He writes that “Ronnie the conman could spin you a story out of the air, sketch in a character who did not exist, and paint a golden opportunity where there wasn’t one . . . if all that isn’t part and parcel of the writer’s art, tell me what is.”
They also share a weakness for grand hotels. These were “the conman’s catnip” for Ronnie, who would abscond after a long stay without paying the bill. For le Carré, the Continental in Saigon, Le Commodore in Beirut, the Constellation in Vientiane and the Orchids in Bukavu became places to absorb information from foreign correspondents and local diplomats.
He recalls one frightening moment “on a sunny spring day in 1974” when he arrived in Hong Kong to find that, contrary to the recently corrected proofs of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there was a tunnel between the island and Kowloon. He had relied on an outdated guidebook and had to revise hastily to avoid looking like a fool. “It told me that in midlife, I was getting fat and lazy.”
That set off travels that form the background for his later novels. He attributes his wanderlust not only to a compulsion to research the unfamiliar but also to his decision at 16 to flee public school in England and enrol at Bern University instead. “I hoisted my backpack and, fancying myself some sort of wanderer in the German Romantic tradition, set out in search of experience.”
The revelation that his outlook is influenced as much by German philosophy as British subterfuge is the biggest surprise. But his affection for Goethe and other German writers’ “classic austerity” and “neurotic excesses” is instantly plausible. From The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) onwards, love and disgust for England were both plain.
Le Carré’s divided self appears in Tinker Tailor in the characters of George Smiley, the humble, persistent spycatcher, and Bill Haydon, the charming, feckless traitor. Though he writes of how he wanted his novels “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”, The Pigeon Tunnel shows how much he drew from his time as a spy for MI5 and MI6.
His father was the deepest influence on his work; Kim Philby, the MI6 double agent who betrayed countless secrets and people to Russia, emerges a close second. “It was Kim Philby’s murky lamp that lit my path,” le Carré notes. He once rejected on moral grounds an offer to meet Philby, and these pages drip with anger at the spy’s treachery.
Another story of establishment brutality is telling. While working at the UK embassy in Bonn in 1963, le Carré took a German politician to the skewed trial in London of Stephen Ward, a society osteopath caught in the Profumo sex scandal. Ward committed suicide two days later, not waiting for his conviction for living off immoral earnings.
“I do remember . . . the exhaustion in Ward’s face as, aware that we were some sort of VIPs, he turned to greet us: the fraught, aquiline profile, skin stretched tight, the rigid smile and exophthalmic eyes reddened and tinged with tiredness, and the husky smoker’s voice, playing it for nonchalance. ‘How’m I doing, you reckon?’ he asked suddenly to both of us at once.”
There is a lot of le Carré there, from the piercing physical description and sad portrait of a man near the end of his tether, to Ward’s poised breach of the fourth wall (“You do not expect, as a rule, actors on stage to turn round and chat casually with you in the middle of a drama.”). A scene of harsh interrogation with a break for small talk is le Carré through and through.
That is the memoir’s beauty. Apart from stories of a Romantic wanderer through powerful haunts — lunch with Rupert Murdoch at the Savoy Grill, and with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street — it offers thrills of recognition as le Carré’s archetypes spring to life. “My wife Olga, she like music too. You got house?” inquires a Russian diplomat in Bonn as he flirts with defection.
The 84-year old novelist discards extended narrative and writes in elegiac fragments with linking harmonies, like the late works of that other German Romantic, Beethoven. Or the stories, polished over time, of a British foreign correspondent in a grand hotel bar. They may be half imaginary but they feel like truth.
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator and the author of two novels, ‘The Ghost Shift’ and ‘A Fatal Debt’