First, John le Carré was a Cold War spy, then he left the secret service and wrote books that became bestsellers. Most recently, he wanted nothing more to do with Brexit England and became a citizen of Ireland.
I was young when I met David Cornwell aka John le Carré and I was very impressed. He was a delicate, narrow-headed man who liked to laugh. Laughing loudly seemed inappropriate to him. He saw the world as a playground for strange spies, broken and treacherous and obsessed with their craft that had doomed them to failure, even if they were successful. Moreover, he was British and behaved that way, although he did not come from a good or even rich family, quite the contrary.
He loved Germany, he visited regularly. He lived in Bonn and Hamburg at a young age, spoke good German in this soft hymn, because people always move in a second language, no matter how well they speak it, for fear of making mistakes that might embarrass them.
In one of his last interviews, Le Carré talked about his origins as a crime novel. “I was lucky,” he said, “that I was born with a subject.” The subject was not the Cold War in the divided post-war world, the subject was his father. He was an extraordinary and gluttonous criminal, a lifelong impostor associated with organized crime in London.
Cornwell fled to the secret services
“An endless procession of fascinating people” with a criminal background populated his youth, le Carré said in this interview. He didn’t even know what the truth was. The truth was what I got away with. The mother ran away with her husband’s business friend when he was five years old. The father said she was dead and put him and his brother in expensive boarding schools because cheaters think big.
What will become of such a child, adolescent, young man who has grown up like this? David Cornwell took refuge in the institutions that belonged to his father. As a student in Bern, he performed small services for the British Foreign Intelligence Service MI 6. He then worked in Oxford for the Internal Secret Service MI 5 and listened to small communist student groups.
In England, during and after the war, it was part of the fact that some top students developed a strange penchant for espionage. For example, Kim Philby was part of a cabal that distributed classified material to the Soviet Union. Le Carré did the opposite and had little sympathy for the Philbys of his country. In “Dame, König, As, Spion” he incorporated this fifth column, the exposure of which was a huge scandal in England.
Many of his own experiences flowed into his stories
Before David Cornwell became John le Carré, he taught the descendants of the British elite in Eton and tried his hand as an illustrator of children’s books. After that, he joined the Domestic Secret Service fully and learned how to pilot agents, eavesdrop on telephones and interrogate other spies, the rich, soulless craft from which he later drew his stories.
His most famous book remained “The Spy Who Came Out of the Cold”. Le Carré was sent to Berlin immediately after the construction of the wall. Berlin was the Dorado for all secret services on Earth. An ideal place for this novel, which became the first of numerous bestsellers, filmed in 1965 with Richard Burton in the lead.
Le Carré then ordered his bank to notify him as soon as £ 20,000 was in his account. When the time came, he left the service and was now a free man, a freelance writer. He created his own spy world and put biographical information from real life into it.
The main character also serves as a father figure in Carré’s fantasy
The main character of John le Carré is George Smiley. He is short and fat. A man who is as humble and melancholic as he is brilliant. He is the epitome of the disaffected master spy who is angry with his service and cheats on his wife.
At the same time, Smiley is something like Carré’s surrogate father to the biological father, the monster of lies and deceit for whom the son showed up repeatedly when he was broke, had accumulated debts without ever coming to his senses. Le Carré said, “As a father figure in my fantasy, Smiley was the exact antithesis of my real, unpredictable father.”
In his latest book “Badminton” Carré came to the present. The American president has his secret service work with the British to undermine the democratic institutions of the European Union. Le Carré called this novel “terribly plausible” and referred to Donald Trump. The present provides the best stories that no one would believe if an author just made them up.
The best-selling British author becomes an Irish citizen
At the end of his life, David Cornwell didn’t even want to be British anymore. He hated Brexit, or rather he hated the people who wanted Brexit and those who did not prevent it. He became a citizen of the Republic of Ireland in October 2019.
John le Carré has been writing books for 60 years. Gifted the world with immortal stories. He has remained humble and unyielding in his stubbornness. What a life, what a man, what a job! Thanks David.