Writers & Company

The legacy of John le Carré: master of the political thriller

The British spy-turned-novelist died on Dec. 12, 2020 at the age of 89. In this 2010 interview, le Carré spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how his childhood and career in the intelligence service shaped his fiction.
Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times. (Jane Eustace)

John le Carré, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller, died on Dec. 12, 2020. He was 89.  

Named by the Times of London as one of the greatest novelists of post-war England, le Carré earned a wide readership with his breakthrough title, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963. Following its phenomenal success, he produced more than 20 books, many of them drawing on his own experience working as a spy for Britain's intelligence service during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he also wrote about conflicts and corruption in countries around the world, from Panama to Kenya.

Through his best-known character, the enigmatic British spy George Smiley, he explored themes of betrayal, moral compromise, and the psychological toll of a secret life. For le Carré, the world of espionage was "a metaphor for the human condition."

Many of his novels have been adapted for the screen, notably the 1965 BBC productions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People — starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. More recently, The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl were adapted into hit miniseries. 

John le Carré spoke with Eleanor Wachtel three times over the past decade: in 2010 about Our Kind of Traitor; in 2015 about A Delicate Truth; and in 2017 about his final Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies, and his entertaining memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel

For their first conversation in the summer of 2010, le Carré welcomed Eleanor Wachtel to his home outside Penzance, in Cornwall, England. They talked about his childhood and how it had shaped his fiction — le Carré's mother left the family when he was five; his father was a conman, convicted of fraud.  

Born a spy

"My father was aspiring to break through this hideous social structure that we have, and particularly wanted his two sons talking and looking like gentlemen. We were, in a sense, injected as agents into an alien society [at private school]. We learned the language, we put on the clothes, we learned their manners. 

"In protecting my father, and my absent mother, from the inquiring eye of my colleagues at school, I would invent stories about them. I would pretend I had both parents. I would pretend my father was in this or that, or even in the service during the war. And these were lies. In a sense, I felt like a secret observer in that community — and I felt that home ground was very dangerous. This informed my work with a certain tension. 

We were, in a sense, injected as agents into an alien society. We learned the language, we put on the clothes, we learned their manners.

"If George Smiley were to go home, you wondered what was going to hit him — home was a dangerous place. It was for me too — home was where my toys were ripped up by the bailiffs when they came in. And home was what you got turfed out of when your father was bust, or what you protected when you thought he was going to go bust, or where you were sent to when your dad was mysteriously absent. 

"So all of these tensions in early life, I think, produced in me the kind of person who was naturally conditioned for the work I later did."

Lies that I lived

"I had two great lies that I lived, until my father's death. The first was that I'd been in the secret world at all, which in those days was an unspeakable thing. I didn't say it; I just denied it. Then gradually that whole mood shifted and a lot of people who worked with me went public.

"The other lie that I was living was about my father, and the extent to which the manipulations and that whole childhood had really turned me into what I was. I could not begin to discuss my roots as a writer until I was able to say with Graham Greene, 'a childhood is the credit balance of the author.' And by those standards, I was a millionaire.

"I had this extraordinary father and this amazing theatrical company of associates. I mean, many of the people who worked with him later had been in prison with him. And like many prisoners of that sort of the middle classes, they were amusing and wicked. 

I could not begin to discuss my roots as a writer until I was able to say with Graham Greene, 'a childhood is the credit balance of the author.' And by those standards, I was a millionaire.

"I had this sort of extraordinary Dickensian company all around me. I had the humiliations and the anger and the ambitions of a middle-class boy, without any of the ordinary human warmth of street life. It was because we were constantly moving around and driven into isolation, which is wonderful to fertilize the imagination. 

"Without those early privations and excitements, and without that access to the extraordinary community that was surrounding my father, I wouldn't have been the writer that I became."

Thoughts on the world around us

"With time, my opinions have become more radical, not less radical. I haven't mellowed. I don't want to mellow. I think that I've been offered awful examples of political misbehaviors in recent times.

"We've had a prime minister who, to my mind, committed the biggest crime any leader can commit, that is to take a country to war under false pretences. There is nothing worse to my mind. It's 50 years since I was in harness, practically, to all this stuff. But as I moved away from it, I became more objective, read more, thought more. 

"And by and large, I would always now do my best to put humanity first and duty second. The other thing that has driven me a great deal is the recognition that the dissemination of information, on a vast scale, is not the same as the dissemination of the truth. 

With time, my opinions have become more radical, not less radical. I haven't mellowed. I don't want to mellow.

"Thus, we still have an extraordinary percentage of the American people who believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Twin Towers, and that the war against Iraq was a war to avert a threat to the United States. I'm appalled by the extent to which the increase in communication adds to the power of manipulation by politicians. 

"I think individual voices become increasingly important. I'm appalled by concepts of correct thinking, that we should all think the same things about the same things. I absolutely resist that. So I think, as the end of my life approaches, I've become more querulous, more grouchy and more determined to assert the individual voice and promote it in other people."

John le Carré's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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