Tuesday, October 25, 2011 | Categories: |
John Le Carre at his home in London (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Fifty years ago, in his very first novel, John le Carré introduced a quietly complex character, a British spy named George Smiley. He reappeared in the series -"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People". The BBC made him the central character of several mini-series starring Alec Guinness. In fact, it's hard to say the name George Smiley without picturing Guinness's impassive, intelligent face.
But John le Carré's breakthrough book was his third novel, published in 1963, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold". Le Carré had watched the building of the Berlin Wall two years earlier, and his anger and fear fuelled his powerful story. It too was adapted for the screen - this time starring Richard Burton as the British agent who is double-crossed by his own people.
Both the novel and the movie became iconic symbols of the Cold War and of a tough and disillusioned image of the world of espionage.
But the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall didn't signify the end of le Carré's inspiration. He switched focus and wrote about conflict and corruption in countries around the world, from Panama to Kenya. And since 9/11, the changing face of the enemy and of terrorism have become his subjects.
John le Carré was born David Cornwell in Dorset, England in 1931. His father was a conman, convicted of fraud, and his mother left the family when David was five. He was sent to a public - which means private-school in England, and then in Berne, Switzerland. After his military service, which he spent in Austria, he studied modern languages at Oxford. It was during those years that he began his own career as a spy, though for decades he never revealed that his work involved espionage, especially when he was at the British Foreign Service in West Germany in the late 50s and early 60s.
It was after the great success of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" that John le Carré devoted himself full-time to his writing. And he's had success after success, with many of his books made into movies - most recently, "The Constant Gardener" starring Ralph Fiennes. And although le Carré is now a an octogenarian, he certainly hasn't slowed down, publishing a new novel about every two years. In 2010, he published "Our Kind of Traitor", a novel that looks at Russian money laundering and its much broader political implications.In the summer of 2010, Writers and Company host Eleanor Wachtel went to see John le Carré at his home outside of Penzance in Cornwall, England. Mr. le Carré was so generous that what you'll hear today is the first of a two-part conversation - a Canadian exclusive. The interview with Mr. Le Carré won a Silver Medal at the New York Festivals.