Books

John le Carré: The Spy Novelist Who (Mostly) Kept Quiet

A PRIVATE SPY: The Letters of John le Carré, edited by Tim Cornwell


John le Carré was, from the start, wary of attention. He withdrew in style from the world’s political and literary chaos. He mostly maintained a dignified silence in his remote house on a cliff in Cornwall, England, hours from anywhere. He gave few interviews. He preferred to let his books do the talking.

With few exceptions, le Carré (1931-2020) didn’t tangle with critics either. “There’s no sillier fellow than the writer complaining about his critics, & I can’t be another,” he wrote in a 2004 letter, one of several hundred collected in a handsome and oversize new book, “A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré.”

Elsewhere in his correspondence, we witness le Carré pace the room about his notices anyway. His feathers were, it turns out, quite ruffleable.

When his breakthrough novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” appeared in 1963, le Carré wrote that the reviews were good with the exception of “some callow ape” who panned it in The Times Literary Supplement.

When success arrived, he feared exposure to faultfinding because he was “too rich, too pretentious, too much all the rest,” as well as “too fluent, too young and too capable.” Orson Welles had this problem. Welles said critics hated him because he looked successful.

Le Carré’s enemies list came to include Tina Brown, George Will and Norman Rush, writes Tim Cornwell, this book’s editor and the author’s late son. But le Carré had special contempt for Clive James, who took aim in several pieces, including one in The New York Review of Books in 1977 that began, “Le Carré’s new novel is about twice as long as it should be.”

The author privately accused James of “conducting a personal vendetta.” He added, not without wit: “I consoled myself with the thought that an expatriate Australian television critic from England who is trying to work his way into a new market has probably to jump about a bit.”

When his novel “Single & Single” was on the horizon, he complained to a friend in a 1998 letter about what he expected from the British press:

He gave one of his sons, also a writer, this good advice: “You just have to show up in the gym the next morning, & behave as if nobody knocked you cold the day before. And there isn’t anyone watching, or listening, not really.”

These moments matter because they’re among the few times le Carré, in his correspondence, lets his guard down.

“A Private Spy” is — how to put this gently? — not a good book of letters. If le Carré had close friendships, they’re not on display here. His tone throughout is bluff but guarded and ambassadorial. Nearly everyone is kept at arm’s length. He has an epistolary gift for writing much but saying little.

A typical letter from him read, no matter who he was addressing, something like: “Thank you for X, the weather here is blustery and Y, I am deep into a new novel so I can’t do what you are proposing, I have Z film projects in the works, I can’t decide if Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman is the better George Smiley, come visit us or maybe let’s lunch together in London in six weeks.” Many are bread and butter notes, a hard form to shock to life.

Asked to send in a stick figure of himself by an American nonprofit in 2004, le Carré opted for something more ambitious.

The book is, to echo James, thicker than it should be, as if to justify its steep ($40) price point at Christmastime. The margins are wide, the typeface large. There are many chapter breaks, and many pages with only a sentence or two on them. Le Carré’s baronial address, repeated at the top of his letters, eats up a lot of space on nearly every page by itself:

The editor is cagey about whether le Carré wanted his letters published. He did curate them, choosing which ones to file. He also burned many. He wrote them by hand, in the afternoons, after writing fiction in the morning and taking a midday walk.

The headlines about le Carré, since his death, have largely been about extramarital affairs come to light. He was wise enough to destroy most of the evidence, but there is a bit of it here. He wrote to one woman in 1994, when he was 62, “I expect you to be fully & effectively dressed when we meet, jewels, your longest fingernails & at least a ruby in your naval, which I shall remove with my teeth.”

Credit…Ben Martin/Getty Images

In his letters, le Carré did not write — indeed, he could not have written — about the intelligence work he did early in his career. But there are letters to some of the men who inspired his characters, and there are replies to spies of various sorts who, envious of his success, looked to him to help them become writers, too.

There are memorable details. Le Carré liked Avis rental cars, and proposed that his villains rent from Hertz. He hated Trump and Brexit, called Tony Blair a “mendacious little show-off” and Boris Johnson “an Etonian oik.” He changed editors and publishing houses often because he needed fresh people freshly excited about working with him.

His politics, over the course of his life, moved toward a light pink sort of socialism, yet he was conservative in manner, from the cut of his tweeds to the cut of his hair, and he was an upholder of verities. Like a deft waiter, he approached from the left and removed, financially at any rate, from the right. He had the kind of extreme reticence and modesty that is often the front for a titanic ego.

Le Carré and his wife, Jane, kept a guest cottage on their property, and the letters to prospective visitors are worthwhile. He left a small Volvo parked there for their use. He explained how to use the indoor pool. He expected them to bring their work and to amuse themselves until later in the day, when he was done writing. I’d read a book of similarly good operating-manual letters to guests, though they’d be hard to collect.

Le Carré frequently gave directions. It was a long way by car, from London to his house. I’d read a book of well-written directions. They’re a lost literary form. Thanks to GPS, people no longer know the joy of composing them, working in jokes, strange facts and food recommendations, and telling people to turn left after passing the grumpy old coot in suspenders on his porch.

The only time these letters got to me was at the end. Both le Carré and his wife had cancer during Covid lockdown. He wrote in an email, “We’re totally isolated here, but you might say we have been for 50 years, so what’s the difference?”

What a time to die, he wrote, with the world going to hell. “It’s the feeling of going down with a sinking ship, piloted by lunatics and disaster addicts,” he said. “How did we ever get here in such short order?”

There were medical Zoom calls, and a lot of hospitals. His marriage survived his infidelities and prospered. Shortly before his death he wrote, “I am entering my 90th year, Jane is eight years behind, we have been married for half a century and never been closer.”


A PRIVATE SPY: The Letters of John le Carré | Edited by Tim Cornwell | 713 pp. | Viking | $40

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