John le Carré was a paradox: evocative and nuanced, an insider in self-imposed exile, a man as fiendishly clever and breathtakingly ordinary as George Smiley. He was, as he once wrote, the spy who had come out of the woodwork and told how it really was. The world is a richer place for it.
Actors, writers and even MI6’s boss paid tribute to John le Carré following his death in December 2020. Gary Oldman, star of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, said le Carré 'owned' the genre of the serious, complicated spy novel. Stephen King called le Carré a 'literary giant' and MI6 head Richard Moore paid tribute to the 'evocative' author.
Despite his reclusive nature, le Carré was happy to appear on camera. During an MI6 party in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he stood next to a man dressed as Lenin. He joined the cast of A Most Wanted Man as an extra in a bar scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Susanna White, director of Our Kind of Traitor, said le Carré cooked up the idea of making a cameo as a Swiss-German guard at the Einstein museum over supper: “With a typical attention to detail, he was very specific about the shoes he should wear - he felt his character had bad feet and was a bit miserable because of it.”
Le Carré posed as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl but his first speaking role came as an outraged diner exchanging lines with Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager. Unsurprisingly, le Carré insisted on rewriting his lines.
A perfect young spy
Le Carré grew up in an English coastal town in Poole, Dorset reading John Buchan thrillers and Rudyard Kipling’s spy novel Kim. Buchan, Dornford Yates and Rider Haggard could do no wrong, le Carré recalled in his biography The Pigeon Tunnel.
He later found solace in German literature, retreating with Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse: “When I came to study the drama of Goethe, Lenz, Schiller, Kleist and Buchner, I discovered that I related equally to their classic austerity and to their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.”
Le Carré excelled as an academic and linguist. He learned German at 13, reveling in its lyricism. By 17, he was studying German at the University of Bern, washing elephants at a circus to earn money, and slipping into the back of a lecture room to hear Herman Hess give readings.
“It is, therefore, no sort of surprise when the 'Great Call' came to me in the person of a thirty-something mumsy lady named Wendy from the British embassy’s visa section in Bern, that the 17-year-old English schoolboy punching above his weight at a foreign university should have snapped to attention and said, ‘At your service, Ma’am!’” he recalled.
‘Wendy’ offered le Carré a job delivering ‘’I knew not what to I knew not whom”. A spy was born.
By 1949, le Carré was trawling displaced-persons camps to recruit Nazis as allies in the struggle against the new enemy, Communists. Le Carré served in the Army Intelligence Corps in Austria running low-grade agents to watch over the Soviets, which he described as “little guys on motorbikes selling pornographic photographs to Russian sentries”.
Le Carré studied at Oxford, compiling dossiers on left-leaning students for MI5, and later taught at the prestigious Eton College. By the late 1950s and 1960s, le Carré was back in Germany working at the British Embassy, running agents and luring defectors.
Adopting the uniform
His upbringing prepared him for a life in the shadows. “My dad for part of my childhood was in prison. So I arrived in the heartland of the establishment - private education - as a kind of spy, as somebody who had to put on the uniform, affect a voice and attitudes, and give myself a background I didn’t have,” he recalled in an interview in 2019.
Born David Cornwell, he adopted the pen name John le Carré to distance his writing from the secret service.
Le Carré knew England’s secrets better than his own and his introspective nature led him to explore the psychology of identity and solitude, both in his life and work.
“The solitary interests me,” le Carré said. “In part, I have been a lonely person. Certainly the spy interests me because it is the solitary place in the collective position.”
He never quite accepted or fully understood his success. Le Carré modestly thought his breakout novel was the work of a 30-year-old’s wayward imagination, pushed to the end of its tether by personal confusion and political disgust. Years later, he described The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as a “not-very-well disguised internal explosion” that changed his life.
It also changed the trajectory of spy fiction, transporting the espionage genre into an art form and le Carré into the undisputed giant of English literature.
In death, a few secrets revealed
Le Carré, 89, had another book project in mind and spoke with joy and relief at the prospect, playwright Tom Stoppard said. He was also considering relocating to Ireland - “giving up on Brexitland”, as author John Banville put it - and visited Dublin and Cork to investigate his father’s roots.
In The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré recalls his obsession with a chipped green Chubb safe tucked away at the end of the labyrinth of corridors facing St James’s Park tube station.
The safe sat in an office that once belonged to the ex-chief of the secret service, Sir Stewart Menzies, but the key had long been mislaid. No one knew what was inside. No one at the secret service wanted to needlessly familiarize themselves with its secrets. What you don’t know, you cannot reveal. Sir Stewart may have literally taken his secrets to his grave, the author speculated.
When a Service safecracker was finally called in, the safe was found to be empty, innocent of even the most mundane file. It was an irony not lost on le Carré.