Art & Culture

John le Carré: The author who came in from the cold

Ajitvikram Singh
Ajitvikram SinghJan 31, 2016 | 11:59

John le Carré: The author who came in from the cold

I found my first John le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - in my father's pile of books, many moons ago. What attracted me to the novel was not that it was a bestseller, but because I had watched the eponymous titled movie, starring Richard Burton, which had created quite the buzz.

I even remember ditching the novel a few pages in. Truth be told, it was all too painfully slow. I was a schoolboy then and I had somehow imagined it to be a page-turning spy thriller.


I revisited the novel a few years later, after having read and enjoyed Call for the Dead and Murder of Quality, which are slimmer, straight out of the mould of murder mysteries, and relatively easier reads. This time I began to fully appreciate the immersive experience of an intense psychological espionage drama, which unfolds in backdrop of the Cold War. Thus began my deep found love for le Carré.

What I found most intriguing about le Carré's plots were that the motives were always murky and unclear. You are constantly lied to by your handler; friends and foes are equally untrustworthy.

His style of writing was something else altogether. He belongs to that unique league of British authors, like Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Roald Dahl, who were actually involved in the business of spying. But unlike them, he was in active service while he wrote his first three novels, hence he was obliged to take up a pen name, "Le Carré " which means "The Square" in French.

His real name is David Cornwell. If you're unaware of George Smiley, you are unlikely to pick up, leave aside read, this 600-page tome, John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman, the acclaimed biographer of likes of AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor Roper.

John le Carré: The Biography; Bloomsbury; Rs 799.

Sisman, for the biography, was given full access to the writer's private archives. In it, we learn that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré's third novel and first bestseller, was timed with when Kim Philby, "Britain's fabled third man", surfaced in Moscow and made news. The media went into a frenzy about spies and counter-spies. The book made him enough money to actually leave the Secret Service and become a full-time writer. Le Carré brought to the writing table the in-house parlance and spy craft secrets, and ultimately invented his own glossary of terms: "honey trap", "lamplighters", "moles", "ferrets", "pavement artists", which later ironically got absorbed back by the Secret Service fraternity.

Le Carré is a consummate liar, we learn, by his own admission. A teller of tales, he used happenings in his own life to colour his stories.

Getting to know who the real le Carré is not easy, as Sisman discovers while interviewing him. In fact, so good is le Carré at gleaning events from his life and turning them into fiction, that he has in turn managed to fictionalise some of the events in his own life, too.


Besides the spy setting based on his actual experiences working in the MI5 and later MI6, Murder Of Quality borrows from his time at Sherborne School and Eton College. The small town in Germany is based in Bonn, where he was first posted after joining the intelligence services. Even George Smiley and others are based on people he knew.

According to Sisman, le Carré at times actually kept a journal, recording conversations that he could use in one book or the other. Even his "off genre" title The Naive and Sentimental Lover is autobiographical.

Finally, in what is considered his most autobiographical of all novels, A Perfect Spy, the protagonist Magnus Pym's reflections of being abandoned by his mother and his close relationship with his conman of a father, are directly lifted from his own life. He is also proud of this feat. His oft-quoted line, "People who have had unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves", also sheds light on why his characters are so bleak and complex, forever entangled in the web of complexities. His spies, too, are no James Bond; they are human, with human failings.

The biography manages to illustrate that le Carré is truly a master of his craft. You also get an insight into the morally corrupt world of post-War espionage.

Le Carré is primarily a writer of spy fiction, a genre not deemed to be regarded as serious writing. He received his first Booker nomination in 2011; and he even petitioned to have his name removed. So, while he had by then received various crime fiction awards, like the Gold Dagger Award years before, and had been praised by the likes of Graham Greene and CP Snow, who hailed him as one of the "best novelists of the 20th century", in my opinion, this recognition came too late in his career for him to truly care a damn about the Booker.

Adam Sisman has written an interesting biography which manages to weave a thread between every le Carré book to what was playing in the author's life. It is definitely worth reading if you want to know the politics at play.

With the abrupt ending of the Cold War, le Carré's canvas began to fade too. What's most interesting is to find out in this biography is how the master storyteller managed to reinvent himself.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: January 31, 2016 | 16:57
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