There's an old adage that goes "truth is stranger than fiction." That's often true, but nowhere perhaps less true than for John le Carré's masterful espionage fictions. David Cornwell (le Carré's real name) outlived his subject matter, as the Cold War wound down during the Gorbachev Era, depriving him of a real life model for the involved, dramatic plots and intrigue which made his stories so thrilling and absorbing.
The Berlin Wall
Le Carré [1931- ], has certainly now become the grand old man of espionage and suspense, and his later works, finding new raw matter (and new readers), have moved beyond the Soviet versus The West dialectic which preoccupied world foreign policy, and the political and philosophical issues which accompanied it, for the better part of the 20th Century. It often seemed in those decades--1940's through 1980's--that almost nothing else mattered half so much as the fragile "balance" of the unholy bargain of "mutually assured destruction" we'd made with the devil, against the potential of an all-out nuclear war. Having passed through that period relatively unscathed (at least in terms of what we imagined might have happened), it's been our lucky privilege to be able to look backwards at the period, noting discrepancies, mourning lost opportunities, and harvesting ironies from the backlog of data and evidence which survived destruction.
Le Carré had the advantage of having lived close enough to the drama he later described, to lend some authenticity to his fictionalized recreations. Readers of his early work might have suspected that the authority and facility with which he described the world of spies and espionage, was the result of first-hand knowledge. And they would have been right.
Le Carré recently gave a rare autobiographical lecture last March, to my knowledge the only time he's ever been this forthcoming about the connections between his own biographical profile, and the fictionalized versions of it he's published so far. As any fan will know, of course, The Perfect Spy is his fantasized autobiography of his alter-ego or doppelganger, though it would be a great error to see more than the merest shadow of correspondences between Magnus Pym and David Cornwell. The traits and experiences they share have more psychological significance, than factual connection.
I thought I would take the occasion to reprint Le Carré's lecture, which I've typed out in full, from the text that's linked from his web page. Divided into two parts, I'll comment a bit on the writer and his works, and then let him speak, as it were, for himself. As you will see from his speech, he's a modest but witty man, who checks all the angles of a thing before taking a stand or making an assertion. His books, by indirection as much as by intention, probably tell us more about the ethical and human dilemmas of the Cold War, than any historical or biographical accounts could.
Le Carré is not, for those of you who know, just another mystery writer. No less an admirer than Philip Roth noted that Le Carré's novels were as strong as any "straight" contemporary fiction being written, summoning up the envy of "serious" writers (such as Updike), and bringing honor and integrity to a form usually regarded as a formulaic genre of "entertainments" (as Graham Greene liked to put it). No one would have thought that you could tell an exciting yarn while you portrayed complex characterizations and conflicts among fully three-dimensional figures, until Le Carré showed us how, with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor, A Perfect Spy, and The Russia House. Many of his plots have been made into movies, but none could compare with the BBC miniseries production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , which starred Alec Guinness and a cast of brilliant character actors, spread over 7 seven separate episodes (actual running time 315 minutes).
But Cornwell's first great success was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold , which won the Edgar Award, and was filmed with Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner. Ironically enough, I had the good fortune to discover Le Carré on my very own during the early Sixties, when I picked up paperback editions of his first two books, Call For the Dead , and A Murder of Quality . I was reading James Bond in those years, but Le Carré's work had an immediate appeal. He could make the dry, grey, plodding world of police work and espionage trade-craft seem fascinating and important, without resorting to ingenious plot twists, gratuitous sex and violence, or exotic locales. He was clearly a writer, it was plain to see, who was interested in people, and ideas, and the problems of the world; and as his career developed, this became more apparent and revealing.
Guinness as Smiley, interrogating Karla (played by Patrick Stewart].
However, it wasn't until he published his masterwork Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , a fictionalized account of the Philby-Mclean (or Cambridge Five) affair. It's ingeniously plotted and constructed, using flashbacks, and brilliant deduction, to unravel the web of treachery that has "turned the Circus [British Secret Service] inside out" through the presence of an active "mole" or long dormant Soviet agent, at the highest levels of British Intelligence (or MI5 as it's called).
The Cold War is a sad account of just such instances of treachery and betrayal, as defectors and moles vouchsafed countless secrets and "intelligence" over to the Soviets and their Satellite allies. The moral complexities of these betrayals form the guts of Le Carré's best fictions. How does evil persuade its henchmen and fellow-travelers to act against their own best interests, against their espoused loyalties? What does it feel like to live in constant fear of discovery, to live inside a shell of identity while carrying on a double life as a spy for an enemy regime? What kinds of people are susceptible to "turning" against country and allegiance? The answers to such questions are never simple, and Le Carré's stories are, as much as anything, rational attempts at constructing contexts within which such transgressions and compromises can occur. As the speech makes clear, Le Carré's progress as a writer was, as much as anything, a metaphor for his progress as a man in the world, who began placeless and identity-less and emerged, through his own considerable efforts, a self-made man of no little distinction and wisdom. He listened and watched and recorded, as good spies (and good novelists) are wont to do.
Without further ado, then, the first two-thirds or so of the Le Carré/Cornwell speech--
Speech at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University, on March 24th 2010
by John Le Carré/David Cornwell
Thank you for being here.
Thank you, Sunday Times, for this distinction.
And thank you, Christopher Wren, for this historic, daunting place.
I have to confess to you, however that this is not the first time I have been made aware of the true meaning of literary success.
* * *
The year was, I think, nineteen sixty-five and I was still riding high on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I had been invited to a grand literary party.
The room was stuffed with famous writers I hadn't heard of. To my relief I spotted a lifelong hero of mine, none other than the great A.P. Herbert, lawyer, Independent MP, wicked humourist, and editor of Punch magazine.
He was in late age, and seated in an armchair. A group of admirers surrounded him.
"A.P.H.,' my publisher cried," above the hubbub. "I want you to meet John le Carré!"
The great man's watery eyes gazed up at me with adoration tinged with disbelief. If he had recited the Nunc Dimittis I would not have been surprised.
"My dear fellow. What an honour! What a pleasure. Every word you've written--I can't tell you what joy you have given me over the years. There's only one problem, and I'll confess to you. Your soufflés don't come out."
Not for nothing my years of training. As my publisher disappeared between the floorboards, I heard myself gently admonishing the great A.P. Herbert for failing to preheat his oven.
* * *
A life of writing has been extraordinarily kind to me.
And since it began, give or take, fifty years ago, I thought it appropriate that tonight I should offer some account--heavily redacted--of the implausible route that got me from there to here, one I confess I still marvel at.
Now, I do know the pitfalls.
We all, as we grow old, meddle with the storyline of our lives, edit stuff out, re-cas the darker passages in a kindlier light.
And old novelists are the worst at this by a mile. All their lives they've been reshaping the truth to the point where imagined and real experience are indistinguishable.
* * *
I will be as brief as I decently can; those of you who have read A Perfect Spy must forgive me.
My childhood, mercifully, is pretty well documented, not just by me, but by newspapers of the time, and prison records.
My mother absented herself from the family nest when I was five. I tracked her down when I was twenty-one. I never really got to know her.
I knew my father Ronnie, on the other hand, rather too well. He never ceases to appall, fascinate and enchant.
* * *
He was by calling a confidence-trickster; no stranger to the owner's enclosure at Ascot, the Savoy Grill, Wormwood Scrubs, and an impressive list of foreign houses of correction:
In his autobiography, Colin Clark--brother to Alan--describes with awe how Ronnie, equipped with Bentley, chauffeur and glamorous wife--all of them borrowed for the occasion--took him for the proverbial ride.
I'm glad Clark mentioned the Bentley because Bentleys were the talisman of Ronnie's fortunes:
When there was a Bentley in the front drive, we were up. When it was hastily transferred to the back garden, we were holding our breath.
And when it disappeared, we were down and--quite possibly--out.
Here it is in A Perfect Spy:
Stretched side by side on the Bentley roof, father and son let the hot moon scorch their faces.
"Are you all right?" Pym asked, meaning, are you broke, are we on our way to prison?
Rick gave Pym's hand a fierce squeeze. "Son. With you beside me, and God sitting up there with His stars, and the Bentley underneath us, I'm the most all-right fellow in the world."
(from A Perfect Spy)
* * *
When the war came, Ronnie joined it with typical enthusiams. The inconvenience of military service was quickly dispatched.
While Europe burned, Ronnie and I stood shoulder to shoulder in a cellar in Aberdeen, squeezing black market figs into laxative tablets.
With the peace, he turned property developer, with the saintly purpose of building homes for our boys returning from the front. A problem arose when he was caught claiming war damage reparation on houses that had been built in 1946.
* * *
But perhaps the enduring legacy of my childhood wasn't Ronnie himself, but the procession of Dickensian characters that gathered to him: fellow con-men, judges, racketeers, film stars, jockeys, Members of Parliament and Permanent Under-Secretaries, boxers, snooker champions, priests--frocked and unfrocked--bent coppers from Scotland Yard, Test cricketers, and ladies of the night: even today, when I'm stuck for a walk-on part in a novel, I find myself returning to that seemingly inexhaustible casting pool.
And now and then a real-life survivor steps out of the past and confronts me: like the twinkly old gentleman in the white gold cap and Bahama shirt who a few years ago introduced himself out of the blue to my wife and myself at a beach café in Corfu:
"I did prison for your Dad, David," he told me proudly. "We was all bent. But your Dad was very bent indeed."
* * *
Nothing goes away.
In 1987, arriving in Moscow for the first time, I was offered a prize more coveted by journalists in those days than an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev: a tryst with Kim Philby at his dacha.
To the surprise of Philby's minder--and I confess to my own--I said no.
Philby, equally surprised apparently, later enquired of his biographer whether I knew something about him that could account for my uncivilized behavior--apart, obviously from the side issue that he had betrayed his country and his Service and consigned an unknown number of its agents to the flames.
His biographer passed the question to me and I replied that, having grown up in the shadow of a doting, amoral, maverick father, I thought I could distantly understand--however much I might condemn--Philby's decision to take his secret revenge on the world.
It was at best a subjective view, and I'm not sure I believe it any more.
Perhaps Connie Sachs, the Circus Queen of Research in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy said it better, talking to George Smiley just up the road from here in North Oxford:
"Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world."
And finding no waves of their own to rule, Philby and his like-minded friends had borrowed other people's.
* * *
At sixteen I undertood the first of my life's several defections.
After serving eleven years in the British boarding school gulag, I informed Ronnie that I proposed to continue my studies at the University of Bern, in Switzerland.
Heaven knows what made me choose Bern. I had no friends there, no connections, no introductions. Perhaps that's why the city drew me.
And Heaven knows why I had already, even then, embraced German as the language and culture of my adoption. Most likely, it was adolescent bloody-mindedness. The year was 1949. Everybody hated Germany, so Germany couldn't be all bad.
* * *
At the prompting of my German Jewish tutor in Bern, I wangled a visa to occupied Germany and visited Berlin--still a bomb site--and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which four years after the war still reeked of its unimaginable crimes.
Then back to Bern: to Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin and Heine--and the insoluble mystery of how those two Germanys could explain themselves to one another.
* * *
After a year in Bern, it was time to become English again. National Service beckoned. Posted to occupied Austria, I ran low-grade spies into the Soviet Zone. Most were rascals. Some were even younger than I was. All had the con-man's gift of the gab.
For three nerve-wracking days, heavily disguised in a green loden coat and Tyrolean hat, I rode up and down to Vienna on the inter-zonal train with orders to keep an eye out for two bland-looking Englishmen of class resembling photographs shown me in huge secrecy.
So I kept an eye out for them, and sure enough, a few days later, there they were on the front page of the Daily Express: Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
Military Intelligence, the saying goes, has as much to do with Intelligence as military music has to do with music.
* * *
And if I ever needed to be reminded of the sombre reality of old Europe laid waste, there were Austria's heartbreaking refugee camps, teeming with families from the East who hardly knew any more whether they were fleeing from the Germans or the Russians.
* * *
And after Austria I came to this place, to Lincoln College, where I read--inevitably--German, if by "German" we understand Bishop Ulfila's translation of the Bible into Gothic, and the eccentricities of Ablaut, and Werner's Law.
Halfway through my second year, Ronnie scored his largest and most publicized bankruptcy--the one he was most proud of. In the best tradition of Evelyn Waugh, I went down for a year to teach at a rural prep school. Here is Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy arriving to teach at his prep school:
Jim Prideaux arrived on a Friday in a rainstorm. The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling facades. He arrived just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand caravan that had once been blue. Early afternoons at Thursgood's are a tranquil time, a brief truce in the running fight to each school day. The boys are sent to rest in their dormitories, the staff sit in the common room over coffee, reading newspapers or correcting boys' work. Thursgood reads a novel to his mother.
The difference was, I had no caravan. And no car either.
* * *
After a year, Lincoln in its munificence made my return to Oxford possible, and I completed my degree and took another teaching job, this time at Eton.
Was I feeling a subconscious need to complete my own public school education?
Was I addicted to the prison-houses of my childhood?
Did I believe Eton would compensate for my social insecurities?
If I did, I had come to the wrong address:
"Darling," my very grand hostess enquires, at a housemaster's dinner traditionally given to welcome the new arrival. "Are we by any chance related to the Gloucestershire Cornwells?"
To which I reply, in a flush of inverse snobbery: "I'm afraid my father was a self-made man."
And she in return, very pleased: "Darling, how sweet!"
* * *
Five years later, I got my own back. A day came when I was able to send Smiley off to solve a mystery at a great English public school. Here he is, cornered by the same hostess:
"So sweet of you to come to the funeral yesterday. I hate funerals, don't you? Black is so unsanitary. I always remember King George V's funeral. Lord Sawley was at Court in those days, and gave my husband two tickets. So kind. I always think it spoilt us for ordinary funerals in a way. Although I'm never quite sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation: cherry brandy and seed cake in the parlor. I think the tendency of people like ourselves is no flowers, just a short obituary and a memorial service later." Her small eyes were bright with pleasure. She finished her sherry and held out her empty glass to Smiley. "Tell me, darling, who are you?"
* * *
My next defection was to the nether world of secret Intelligence.
Again I ask myself the question: why?
True, I'd felt its shadow in Bern, served it in Austria, been courted by it at Oxford.
And in Ronnie's bookless households, you survived or failed by your wits alone. So in a sense, I had done my spy's training in advance.
Or perhaps I wanted to find a good home for my baser instincts.
And when I'm being very kind to myself, I say I joined for a lot of the reasons that Smiley had joined twenty years before me: to get to the inmost point. To serve. To protect. For love of England.
But my strongest reason for joining, as I see myself from here, remains the most ironic:
I was searching for moral certitudes that had eluded me in the larger world outside. In which case, once again I had come to the wrong address.
* * *
The Service I had joined was unfit for purpose, as most historians would today agree.
Probably the most useful thing it could have done for its country would have been to disband itself, and start again from scratch--which later, under the gimlet eye of Margaret Thatcher, it was pretty much forced to do.
Ravaged by revelations of treachery within its upper ranks, shorn of the academics who had secured its wartime triumphs--but somehow still believing itself to be master of the Intelligence universe--embroiled in a home-grown witch-hunt that led to its own Director-General's door, MI5 in those days was a paradigm for post-war, post-imperial Britain at its lowest ebb.
* * *
Now I couldn't know any of that at the time. I was far too junior.
But I could sense it, as many of us could. You could almost touch the tension in high places. It was like static electricity.
So it's no wonder at all to me that, after a few months inside the secret walls I was taking my first furtive steps towards a novel.
Not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I had to wait another six books for that. But a novel all the same, a small first novel, but driven by many of the same perceptions that later drove Tinker Tailor. I wrote in the lunch hours; when I was stuck for a night in London on some operational wild goose-chase; on the wearisome commuter train between Great Missenden and Marylebone, on my knee, in little notebooks.
But best of all, my guardian angel had provided me with a wise old spy named John Bingham--a thriller writer and Irish peer of vigorous if subdued right wing nationalist opinions. We actually shared a room together at the end of a long upper corridor in Curzon Street:
Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad...
And perhaps to deny my embarrassing social origins:
So Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard's van of the social express...
* * *
Bingham was the first writer I'd met. He remains the most generous.
And where his deeper reflections didn't tally with my own, I had only to call to memory my mentor at Lincoln College: the late, great Vivian Green, Chaplain, Senior Tutor and finally Rector. Nobody saw deeper into human nature than Vivian, I reckoned. Nobody knew more about tolerance.
And I reckon it still.
* * *
After three years, I was due for another defection: this time to the smarter, sexier Service on the other side of St James's Park. But the news there was little better.
On the day I was initiated, George Blake was unmasked as its latest traitor. Sentenced to forty-two years in prison, he escaped and fled to Russia.
Three years later in Beirut, Kim Philby confessed his sins, before slipping off to join Blake in Moscow.
By then I had been assigned to the British Embassy in Bonn as a Second Secretary in Chancery. My duties included escorting West German political high-rollers to London to meet their counterparts in the Cabinet and Her Majesty's Opposition.
In one halcyon year I interpreted for Harold Wilson and Harold Macmillan--and also for a delegation of German back-benchers who, after sampling for the first time the joys of warm English beer, insisted on being escorted to a London brothel on a Sunday night--in those days, what with Sunday closing, not as easy as it sounds.
Escorted by me, of course.
* * *
A friendly sergeant in Special Branch recommended an establishment in Shepherd Market that offered French lessons round the clock. When the neon sign in the window saying "French Tuition Here" glowed red, tutors were available.
To the general delight, if not mine, the neon sign glowed red.
A magisterial matron in kaftan and turban opened the door and surveyed our delegation with dark suspicion.
It took our stout Bavarian representative to put her at her ease:
"We are German, and we wish to learn French!"
* * *
And on an August morning in 1961 I drove my green Hillman Husky car to Nuremberg to hear Willi Brandt, then Mayor of West Berlin, address a German Socialist Party rally. His speech rang with anxiety: We Berliners can feel it in our fingertips: something serious is about to happen in our city.
I talked to his Party lieutenants. They shared his sense of foreboding.
Driving back through the night to Bonn, I thought I would drop by at the Embassy and file my report before going home to bed.
All the Embassy lights were burning. On the upper floors people who should have been asleep were hurrying down corridors.
Word was coming in that the Russians had closed off the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint between East and West Berlin with barbed wire.
* * *
Nothing I had seen of human folly had prepared me for my first sight of the Berlin Wall. Nothing had ever so graphically expressed my inner feelings of frustration and scepticism at the continuum of human conflict. The result, after five or six weeks, was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. My Service hesitated, then approved the novel. Within a year, I had hung up my cloak for good.
It was my last defection. I was a free man, if that's what writers are.
* * *
[End of first part. Second Part to follow in subsequent blog post.]