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by Bamber Gascoigne

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John Le Carré (1931-) - pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell


English writer known for disillusioned, suspenseful spy novels based on a wide knowledge of international espionage. Le Carré's famous hero is George Smiley, a Chekhovian character and shadowlike member of the British Foreign Service. In his work the author has explored the moral problems of patriotism, espionage, and ends versus means. Le Carré's style is precise and elegant, and his novels are noted for skillful plotting and witty dialogue. Familiarity with intelligence agents connects le Carré to the long tradition of spy/writers from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers, such as Graham Greene, John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, Alec Waugh, and Ted Allbeury.

"Beyond the trees, Smiley thought, cars are passing. Beyond the trees lies a whole world, but Lacon has this red castle and a sense of Christian ethic that promises him no reward except a knighthood, the respect of his peers, a fat pension, and a couple of charitable directorships in the City." (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974)

John Le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell. He was born in Poole, Dorset,  the son of Ronnie Cornwell, who engaged in swindles and was imprisoned for fraud. Though Ronnie Cornwell was bankrupt, he managed to keep his office going in Jermyn Street, he had credit and he also participated in politics. According to the author, this has been one of the reasons that themes of secrets and deceit recur in his work. His father's chameleonic character inspired the novel A Perfect Spy (1986). Le Carré's mother, Olive (Glassy) Cornwell, left the family when he was five. "I have no memory of mourning my mother at all," le Carré has confessed, but her absence was another secret, which shaped his early years. Le Carré did not meet his mother until he was 21.

Dissatisfied with Sherborne School, le Carré persuaded his father to send him to school in Switzerland. At Sherbone his relationship with the rigid housemaster was not good and le Carré started to view institutions with growing suspicion. He studied at Berne University (1948-49), and after military service, which he did in Austria, le Carré returned to England. In Switzerland le Carré met an English diplomat, who possibly was attached to intelligence work, and he become fascinated by espionage – it was the call for le Carré. He studied modern languages at Lincoln College, Oxford, graduating in 1956. At Oxford he kept a very low profile. Later it has been claimed, that le Carré was already a spy. He was two years as a tutor at Eton, teaching French and German, and then joined the Foreign Service.

In 1959 le Carré became a member of the British Foreign Service in West Germany, where he made friends of German politicians. Later he was consul in Hamburg. The most famous double agent of the Cold War, "Kim" Philby (1912-1988), betrayed le Carré, and gave his name among others to the Russians. Philby died in Moscow, where he read every le Carré book.

During his years at the operational section of MI5 le Carré met John Bingham, who encouraged him to write and read the manuscript of his first novel. Bingham, the pen-name and family name of Lord Clanmorris, was one of the two men who inspired le Carré's famous character, George Smiley: "Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes..." Bingham, who had published crime novels, never accepted the picture of the Intelligence Services that le Carré gave in his books. "As far as John was concerned – and many others too – claims of good intent were guff. I was a shit, consigned to the ranks of other shits like Compton McKenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge and J.C. Masterman, all of whom had betrayed the Service by writing about it." (Le Carré in his introduction to Bingham's Five Roundabouts to Heaven, Pan Classic Crime, 2001)

His first three books le Carré wrote while he was a spy but for decades he denied that his work in Germany had any element of espionage. His employing service had approved his two earlier novels before publication. This was the case also with  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), which he wrote under personal stress and in extreme privacy in the British Embassy in Bonn. The story was regarded as fiction and did not constitute a breach of security. But le Carré's life was never the same: he was billed as a spy-turned-writer. Gradually he broke his silence and has talked about this and other sides of his life in the BBC documentary The Secret Service (prod. 2000). Le Carré has insisted that he was never James Bond or anything like that: "I sat behind a desk". However, he was taught how to kill silently, and he recruited and ran low-level agents. 

At Lincoln College he apparently kept his eyes open for possible agents recruited by the Soviet Union. Later le Carré moved from MI5 to MI6, and he was in Berlin when the wall was erected – "the fun had started". His own experiences inspired him to compose a novel which became Call for the Dead (1961), le Carré's first spy thriller, which introduced George Smiley. Later the author himself considered it only a so-so book. It was followed by a completely different kind of work, A Murder of Quality (1962), a detective novel set in a boys' school.

After the success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré began to devote himself full-time to writing. His aim was to portray the intelligence world from a new standpoint – "When I first began writing, Ian Fleming was riding high and the picture of the spy was that of a character who could have affairs with women, drive a fast car, who used gadgetry and gimmickry to escape." With his breakthrough novel le Carré established an alternative form to the James Bond cult and a new type of hero. Graham Greene considered it the best spy story he had ever read and J.B. Priestley wrote that the book was "superbly constructed with an atmosphere of chilly hell." The novel won le Carré the Somerset Maugham Award.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the story of a frustrated British agent, Alec Leamas, whose life is far from the glamour of James Bond's world: he has a love affair with a lonely, unpaid librarian, not with a fashion model. After his sub-agents in East Germany have been killed, Leamas travels behind the Iron Curtain to destroy the head of the East German Intelligence, who has directed the killings. Soon he finds out that his own people had framed him in order to frame Fiedler, an East German. In the world of double-crossing, Leamas has no way out – he is used and destroyed by his superiors. George Smiley is the shadowy mastermind of the operation. "We have to live without sympathy, don't we? That's impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really, I mean... one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold... d'you see what I mean?" (from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) The novel was filmed in 1966. The harshly photographed black and white film was directed by Martin Ritt, starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.

Looking Glass War (1965) continued the exploration of the intrigues of the Intelligence Service. It began with the death of a courier, who had been sent to Finland, one of the spy centers of Europe, to collect films taken by a commercial pilot, who had flown off course while over East Germany. Orders are given for the planting of an agent in this territory where, it is suspected, a new type of rocket site is being set up.

A Small Town in Germany (1968) was set in the same town, Bonn, where le Carré had worked. In this novel Second Secretary in Chancery, Leo Harting, has disappeared. The story deals with topical issues, student riots and rising neo-Fascism, with an ambiguous message about what might happen in the near future in Federal Germany. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) le Carré re-introduced George Smiley. His character was based more or less on two true life persons: Lord Clanmorris, who wrote novels under the name John Bingham and who worked for MI5, and Vivian Green, who was Le Carre's teacher at Oxford. In this story a Soviet double agent has revealed some of the best agents in the English spy network. The mole is one of them – but which one? It was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People (1979), sometimes known as the 'Search for Karla trilogy', because the central theme is the struggle between Smiley and the Soviet spymaster Karla. The first two were made into hugely successful television dramatizations.

The Little Drummer Girl (1983) was narrated in the second person, and was about the cause of Palestinian liberation. The central character is an actress, who is persuaded by an Israeli agent to lose her Arab sympathies and spy for them. The book was made into a film in 1984, losing in the process le Carré's intricate plotting. "Nothing went right", said the author later. One of the actors, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was killed in April 2011 in Jenin's refugee camp, where he ran a theater.

Before the last or latest Smiley novel, The Secret Pilgrim  (1991), le Carré published A Perceft Spy (1986), drawing on his own relations with his domineering father, and The Russian House  (1989), a response to the end of the Cold War, where a British publisher becomes involved in espionage by a Soviet woman, who acts as emissary for a volatile friend. The novel was adapted for screen, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In 1954 le Carré married Ann Martin, the daughter of a Royal Air Force officer. He lived in the 1960s on various Greek islands, but then returned to England. After divorce in 1971 he married in 1972 Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor. They met when she was working for his British publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.  Le Carré has four children, three from his first marriage. Because le Carré writes with pen and ink, she has typed his manuscripts up for him.

The fall of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany left spy fiction adrift and le Carre turned his attention to the new roles of cloak and dagger people. The Night Manager (1993) was about drug smuggling and in Our Game (1995) two former spies and a woman find the end of their road in the mountains of the Caucasus, reflecting the new situation and the end of the Cold War. The Tailor of Panama (1996) has as its background the future of the Panama Canal. Single&Single (1999) was a father-and-son story which also dealt with a Russian mafia family.

The Constant Gardener (2000), le Carré's 18th novel, was set in Africa. Justin Quayle, the middle-aged gardener of the title, is married to a much younger wife, Tessa, a lawyer and activist. "She was doing a bloody good job out there in the slums, whatever anybody said about her up at the Muthaiga Club. She may have got up the noses of Moi's Boys but Africans who mattered loved her to a man," one of the characters concludes after she is found brutally killed. Justin is a disillusioned humanist, who doesn't know much of Tessa's attempts to reveal an international pharmaceutical intrigue. Justin's passivity ends after her death but he eventually shares Tessa's fate. Absolute Friends (2004), accused of anti-American bias, follows the lives of two man, friends from the radical 1960s, who still try to keep their anti-establishment idealism in the new millennium. Eventually they are crushed by international political intrigues. The Mission Song (2006) takes the reader into the complex relationships between business and politics in Congo.

In January 2003 le Carré published in The Times an essay entitled 'The United States has gone mad,' joining a number of European and American writers protesting about war on Iraq. "How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America's anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history," argued le Carré. Richard Cohen answered in the Washington Post, saying that the essay was "the intellectual collapse of what is called the anti-war movement." More radical than Mick Jagger, le Carré has declined all honors offered to him, stating that he will never be Sir David. In 2005 Britain's crime writers' club awarded him its Dagger of Daggers for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and in 2011 he received the Goethe Medal in honour of his life's work.

For further reading: Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (2004); The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics by Myron J. Aronoff (2001); Le Carré's Landscape by Tod Hoffman (2001); Wilderness of Mirrors by Peter Bennett (1998); Understanding John Le Carré by John L. Cobbs (1998); John Le Carré by LynnDiane Beene (1992); Spying on Le Carré by Ulrike Holtman (1991); Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré, ed.  Clive Bloom (1991); Taking Sides: The Fiction of John Le Carré by Tony Barley (1986); John Le Carré by Peter Lewis (1985)

Selected books:

  • Call for the Dead, 1961
    - Puhelu vainajalle (suom. Antti Salomaa, 1964)
    - Film adaptation: The Deadly Affair, 1967, dir.  Sidney Lumet, screenplay Paul Dehn, starring James Mason, Simone Signoret, Maximilian Schell, Harriet Anderson. "The two worlds portrayed in the movie, the world of espionage and the almost masochist love this man feels for his wife, formed the basic concept for the score. But this time, instead of two themes, Quincy [Jones] created only one: a painfully beautiful love song, sung by Astrud Gilberto. However, as the picture progressed, it slowly turned into one of the most exciting melodramatic scores I'd ever heard. It proved the power and importance of musical arrangements." (in Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, 1995)
  • A Murder of Quality, 1962
    - Paholaisen siivet (suom. Osmo Hamelin, 1965)
    - TV film 1991, dir. Gavin Millar, screenplay John le Carré, starring Denholm Elliott (as George Smiley), Joss Ackland and Glenda Jackson
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963 (the 50th anniversary edition with "Fifty Years Later", John le Carré's introduction, 2013)
    - Mies kylmästä (suom. Antero Salomaa, 1964)
    - Film 1966, dir.  Martin Ritt, screenplay Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper,  starring Richard Burton (as Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Peter Van Eyck, Rupert Davies (as George Smiley)
  • The Looking Glass War, 1965
    - Peilisota (suom. Antti Salomaa, 1965)
    - Film 1969, dir.  Frank R. Pierson, starring Christopher Jones, Pia Degermark, Ralph Richardson, Anthony Hopkins, Susan George  
  • A Small Town in Germany, 1968
    - Tapahtui Bonnissa (suom. Matti Wilén, 1968)
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, 1971
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974
    - Pappi, lukkari, talonpoika, vakooja (suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1974) 
    - TV mini-series 1979,  dir. John Irvin, starring Alec Guinness (as George Smiley), Michael Jayston and Anthony Bate; film 2011, dir. Tomas Alfredson, screenplay Bridged O'Connor and Peter Straughan, starring Gary Oldman (as George Smiley), Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Colin Firth
  • The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977
    - Sota ilman sankareita (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1979)
  • Smiley's People, 1980
    - Värisuora (suom. Aarne T. K. Lahtinen, 1980) 
    - TV mini-series 1982, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Paramount Pictures, starring Alec Guinness (as George Smiley), Eileen Atkins and Bill Paterson
  • The Little Drummer Girl, 1983
    - Pieni rumpalityttö (suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1983)
    - Film 1984, prod. Pan Arts, Warner Bros. Pictures, dir.  George Roy Hill, screenplay Loring Mandel, starring Daine Keaton, Klaus Kinski, Yorgo Voyagis
  • A Perfect Spy, 1986
    - Täydellinen vakooja (suom. Ilkka Rekiaro, 1986)
    - TV mini-series 1987, dir. Peter Smith, adaptation by Arthur Hopcraft, starring Jane Booker, Ray McAnally, Alan Howard
  • The Russia House, 1989
    - Sankari vai vakooja (suom. Jukka Jääskeläinen, Jukka Sirola, 1989)
    - Film 1990, dir.  Fred Schepisi, screenplay Tom Stoppard, starring Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Schneider
  • The Secret Pilgrim, 1991
    - Vakoojan testamentti (suom. Jukka Jääskeläinen, 1991)
  • The Night Manager, 1993
    - Yön pakolainen (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1993)
  • Our Game, 1995
    - Vain meidän kesken (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama, 1996
    - Panaman räätäli (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1997)
    - Film 2001, dir.  John Boorman, screenplay Andrew Davies, John le Carré, John Boorman, starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis and Harold Pinter as Uncle Benny
  • Single & Single, 1999
    - Single & poika (suom. Maija-Leena Remes, 1999)  
  • The Constant Gardener, 2000
    - Uskollinen puutarhuri (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 2002)
    - Film 2005, dir.  Fernando Meirelles, screenplay Jeffrey Caine, starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Hurston
  • Absolute Friends, 2004
    - Ylimmät ystävät (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 2004)
  • The Mission Song, 2006
    - Pakanalaulu (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 2007)
  • A Most Wanted Man, 2008
    - Lainsuojaton (suomentanut Erkki Jukarainen, 2009) 
    - Film in 2012, prod. Amusement Park Films, dir. Anton Corbijn, screenplay Andrew Bovell
  • Our Kind of Traitor, 2010
    - Hurmaava petturi (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 2012)
  • A Delicate Truth, 2013

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