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Arts and Letters

The Double Life of John le Carré

A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré

John le Carré, ed. Tim Cornwell 

Viking, pp. 752, $40.00


John le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, was Britain’s greatest novelist of the late twentieth century. He was also a sneaky government nark, who spied on his friends for the state. He sent damaging reports on them to the U.K.’s secret police, MI5, while pretending an affable comradeship. It has been said that Cornwell has much in common with Dickens, and there is a lot in this. Many of his books have altered their readers’ lives and understanding of the world, for the better. They deal with huge themes of our time, most importantly Britain deluding herself in a period of pitiable national decline. They mesh with the imagination like few others. More “literary” writers, whose books are often uninteresting, wearisome, and soon forgotten, must have been relieved that snobbery about spy novels kept le Carré in his own vulgar category, and them in their elevated place, getting the prizes but not necessarily the sales, let alone the readers.

His early life, like that of Dickens, was often horrible and contained much personal betrayal as well as the professional sort. It is impossible, as with Dickens, to separate the misery from the genius. He had a childhood of lies, stinking secrets, and broken promises, and nowhere to call home. His mother simply abandoned him without saying goodbye. His father, Ronnie, was a hideous monster, a ruthless fraud who robbed the genteel poor, preying especially on the old, the lonely, and naïve, and greatly deserved his spells in prison. He looked like an ogre, squat and falsely smiling. You would cross a street or perhaps a river to avoid such a person if you had any sense. The idea of having such a creature in your home, ingratiating himself and seeking your love and approval is (if you can remember childhood) unbearable. I find it astonishing, after seeing photographs of him, that so few of his victims realized in time that he meant them harm. But think of the shame and the grief of this creature being your father, and of not knowing, until the squalid old crook was dead at last, that he would not turn up yet again out of the past. As long as he lived, his sons were never free of this danger. Cornwell’s succession of expensive, chilly boarding schools were not much of an escape. Like so many boys sent to minor English “public” schools, le Carré experienced the standard miseries of such places, but without the glory and the cachet of Eton or the intellectual grounding of Winchester. In the end, he fled Sherborne at the age of sixteen, presumably hoping to cut himself off from that dingy world of suspect tweedy men with creaky vicarage voices and an inordinate liking for the company of young males. So off he went to Switzerland.

No wonder this lonely man, adrift amid the chilly beauties of Bern, was so easily seduced by His Majesty’s Unmentionables, as proper diplomats once referred to the disreputable, deniable spies who lurked in the back parts of British embassies across the world. In Cornwell’s case the unmentionables were a pair supposedly called Wendy and Sandy Gillbanks. Wendy and Sandy seem to have defied researchers and biographers, and so died unquestioned about their most distinguished recruit. They became Cornwell’s substitute parents, delighted by the small betrayals and denunciations he proudly brought to them. What can have become of them? I can picture them, confident, utterly reassuring, speaking in the now-suppressed accents of the British military classes, in which “hat” rhymed with “bet” and nobody thought it ridiculous at all. Armed with sherry and pocket money, they seduced the young Cornwell into a little harmless snooping on his fellow students, and he found he liked it. Later, having somehow wangled himself into Oxford, he took up this occupation again. He was paid to smile at and charm his university contemporaries, while secretly truffling in their private things and reporting their politics to the authorities. And after Wendy and Sandy followed the whole circus of the secret world. This is often a parade of sinister clowns, and of acrobatics without safety wires or nets, that go terribly wrong. No wonder Cornwell would later call the fictional headquarters of his fictional intelligence service “The Circus.” But the secret Circus was good to him, giving him what so many of us need, a pattern to our days. In Cornwell’s collected correspondence, now published as A Private Spy, two epistles stand out from all the rest in letters of fire. Both are to Stanley Mitchell, who died in 2011 and so cannot be asked what he now thinks. Mitchell was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a sad and troubled organization, so had his own cross to bear. Cornwell pretended to be Mitchell’s friend, so much so that the two attended left-wing demonstrations together and even shared a walking holiday. Was he sorry for this sordid behavior? Not terribly. Many years later Cornwell gave a television interview in which he confessed that betraying other people “had a voluptuous quality.” That is to say, he enjoyed it. He informed on Mitchell during much of their Oxford friendship.

Here the inexpert reader must note an important detail about the British undercover world. Cornwell’s reports on Mitchell had been going to an organization often called MI5, whose real name is the British Security Service. Lazy or incurious journalists frequently suggest that its employees are spies. But this is an evasion at best. The only proper description of MI5 is that it is a secret police force. Though it has no powers of arrest, it knows people who do. And its job has always been to snoop on those whom the current government regards as potential enemies. It once snooped on me, because it thought I was too left-wing, and I suspect it may soon snoop on me again because it thinks I am too conservative. Thanks to his most famous books, Cornwell is generally associated with the supposedly more reputable and romantic MI6 (properly the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS), which does employ spies. But this is not quite right. MI5 and MI6 dislike and mistrust each other, and it is quite unusual for anyone to serve in both, but Cornwell did. And in his letters, he confesses to German friends that he viewed MI5, the Secret Police, as “ultimately more rewarding, more obviously necessary, more vocational” than MI6, the spies. He has said that his experience of both services is minimal. This is false. It is almost certainly true that he did very little spying. It appears that he was supposed to keep an eye on a possible Nazi revival in 1960s Germany, and was left with little to do as no such revival took place. But his snooping at Oxford seems to have been sustained and intense, and there is strong circumstantial evidence that (for instance) his reports prevented the future philosopher Bryan Magee, one of the most brilliant men of his generation, from getting a job in the U.K. Foreign Office, because his girlfriend of the moment was a Communist. I should count that a bad day’s work from everyone’s point of view.

This background is essential to understanding the two pivotal letters in this collection. They leap from the page, utterly different from the gossip, grisly sycophancy to other authors and actors, and general publishing chat that makes up much of the book, and they underline the ageless wisdom of burning all your letters well before you die. Both these key missives are to the betrayed Stanley Mitchell, who had by then finally discovered what his Oxford friend really was. The first was written in January 2001 and the second in April 2006. The first gushes about what seems to be a friendship renewed across the gulf of years and betrayal. It even invites Mitchell to stay in the guest cottage at le Carré’s Cornish fastness. Cornwell writes: “I truly believe that, by the weirdest of separate journeys we have arrived at very much the same larger vision of mankind and its failures.” But they haven’t. There is also the terribly embarrassing suggestion that “If I had not greatly valued our friendship, I would not have had anything to betray.” I for one did not know where to look when I read this bilge. It is at moments such as this that you suspect that Cornwell was, in some ways, his father’s son. More interesting is Cornwell’s claim to believe that “damage to national security” was “a sacred cow I have long learned to treat with the deepest suspicion.” But not when applied to his actions in the 1950s, for by April 2006 it was clear that the “larger vision of mankind” was not working out as hoped. Mitchell had begun to seethe about what Cornwell had done to him. Cornwell wrote to Mitchell (we only see Cornwell’s letters, not those he is replying to, or the replies to them), “It’s hard to respond to hate-mail.” He then chides his former target for “submitting your life and excellent intellect to the cause of world communism” and moans that Mitchell seems “to have no understanding, no compassion, no moderate feelings at all.”

“I betrayed you, you say,” rages Cornwell the retired informer. But Cornwell doesn’t accept this charge. He even complains, hilariously, that Mitchell sees himself as the innocent high-minded victim (how could he have formed this impression, one wonders?). Then, plainly in answer to a question from Mitchell, he asks: “What did I know to betray? What did you know or do that was betrayable? What did I tell my ‘masters’?” There are, presumably, files somewhere which would clear this up. But Cornwell asserts ludicrously that he expects he told his masters that Mitchell was “a good man,” wisely adding, in case the documents ever came to light, as such things sometimes do, “I forget, and so I am sure did they.”

After Mitchell’s death in 2011, Cornwell wrote a condolence letter to his family, in which he was still blaming his target for being outraged, asking querulously: “Was he really imagining that a bourgeois society would not spy on a revolutionary movement?” Well, perhaps not. Maybe he just objected to the identity of the person who had been watching him for the Secret Police. For, as has been said in other contexts “it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.” No doubt Cornwell was familiar with that passage of Scripture, for his education was strongly Christian and there is quite a lot of evidence that he found religion a persistent problem and an occasional temptation. I sat bolt upright when I first read (I think it was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) the words “Smiley hated faith.” How interesting, I thought. Why would this brilliant methodical thinker and studier of the human condition at its worst take such a stance? I never found out. The remark wasn’t explained. As a schoolboy, Cornwell had undergone a “complete revulsion” from Christianity soon after a stay with a group of Anglican monks. Later he would tell his former boarding school housemaster that he preferred the “natural” to the “unnatural” and the “free” to the “repressed.” Later still he would tell his Oxford chaplain, an unusual clergyman who famously wore leather trousers when off duty, that “I’ve always wanted to become a Christian and try and live like one.” About the same time, he wrote to his first wife, during another monastic retreat, “I just feel, perhaps for the first time, that I am near to finding a way of life and a real faith.” But he added urgently: “I’m not suddenly getting religion nor will I turn monk.” Later still, he told a psychiatrist that he had been trying during his first marriage “as I have tried off and on throughout my life, to embrace religion.” The attempt ultimately failed. His instructions for his funeral included a stern ban on any “mumbo-jumbo.” But the full passage is not quite so dismissive. It is in a 2001 letter to his sons and his wife and says: “I had an amazing life, against the odds. I turned from a bad man to a much better one. I detest the mumbo-jumbo of organised religion, love the glory of creation and believe in some kind of triumph of that glory.”

So what really guided his heart and mind, and his pen? Can anyone so undeceived by slogans and bluster as the author of A Perfect Spy retain any shadow of patriotism? Yet can anyone who puts so much force and anger into his prose have no worldview? Of course he had one, but then again, if people did not like it, he had others. He has of late become a sort of liberal hero, fashionably attacking arms dealers and the pharmaceutical companies and even adopting the cause of Chechen nationalism. Well, all right, but I sometimes wonder if the people and reviewers who now fuss over him so much ever actually read his early books with much attention. I think they reveal Cornwell as above all disillusioned, in that special way which only affects those who have had very strong illusions in the first place. The early works are full of despair about the great power fantasies of his fellow countrymen, especially their absurd belief that Britain is still a great nation which “won the war.” Having grown up with an actual fraud as his father, he is almost impossible to fool. I suspect he finds crude jingoism, much used by his father in the titles of his bogus insurance companies (“The Alamein Sickness and Health Company,” “The Dunkirk Mutual and General,” “The Military and Permanent Pensions Fund”) particularly easy to see through. The desperate maneuvers of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in which British spies destroy a good man (and casually wreck other lives too) to aid the rise of a bad one, are grim enough. Far more savage is “The Looking Glass War,” in which pathetic bureaucrats, still living Churchillian dreams of British greatness, take terrible risks for a futile end. Their follies are entangled with miserable private betrayals and wrecked marriages. The book is wonderfully written and takes firm hold of the reader—but grows more painful with each re-reading. Cornwell told friends that The Looking Glass War “for me remained always much braver and much better” than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

It is equally interesting to find that Cornwell at one point (the letter saying this was written in 1968) regarded A Small Town in Germany, which never became popular with reviewers or public, as “my best book by far.” It is certainly gravely underrated. The mystery at its center, and its final revelation, are worthy of Dickens. The depiction of Britain’s embassy in Bonn, then the tiny, intense capital of West Germany, is itself a miniature “state of the nation” novel about a proud country in embarrassing decline. The voices, mannerisms, and lingering class distinctions of this unhappy society are mercilessly described. Its pretensions are brought down by a lowly MI5 investigator, crude and thuggish in his methods and nature. Also examined without pity is the great paradox of the United Kingdom at that time, still officially a victorious occupying power on the soil of a defeated and evil foe—but in fact a supplicant debtor, bullied, scorned, patronized by a reviving Germany. And our national decay is memorably embodied in a stammering, useless (presumably drunken) diplomat of whom it is said that “He had been on Field Marshal Montgomery’s staff at El Alamein, and this was all that was left.” There it is, again, “Alamein,” one of the few actual purely British Empire victories of World War II, the war which has become a kind of secular religion to make up for the fact that Britain did not benefit very much from it. In the same book, Cornwell puts into the mouth of a British envoy the accurate description of West Germany as having “a great deal of democracy but not very many democrats,” which is almost as good as his perfect description of the last days of the Soviet Union, in The Russia House, as “a knight dying inside his armour.”

Cornwell would later proclaim himself, and his greatest creation, George Smiley, as keen supporters of the European Union, and all its works. In what must be by far Cornwell’s worst book, A Legacy of Spies, he somehow resurrects George Smiley (who must by then have been at least a hundred years old) in the pleasing German town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. There, the ancient spy declares that his whole life has in fact been dedicated to “Europe.” “I’m a European. . . . If I had a mission . . . it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe.” In the light of this piety, it is amusing to find Cornwell writing in 1969 to a fellow spy, John Margetson, about how the sales of A Small Town in Germany to the “Frogs and Krauts” are “quite satisfactory.” Cornwell’s son, Tim, who so very sadly died just as he had finished editing these letters, is presumably the author of a prissy footnote which explains that such expressions “were very common in Britain in the 1960s” and that his father “often used slang terms to refer to various nationalities from time to time.” Of course he did. That is what Englishmen of his class and generation were like, before we all reformed ourselves to suit the new internationalist age. Alas for the footnote, Cornwell has a go at foreigners yet again, and twenty years later, far from the 1960s. He does so in a 1989 letter to Sir Alec Guinness—describing “the Frogs” as “extremely jumpy” over the collapse of the Soviet empire.

I suspect that there was much talk of “Frogs,” “Krauts,” “Swissies,” and other words I won’t mention here, especially in the days when Cornwell toiled for Sandy and Wendy, and his days of spying on his Communist best friend. Why not? He was not really part of the literary class, with its complete set of left-wing opinions on everything from food to sex, and from foreign policy to architecture. The reader will have to search the book himself for Cornwell’s one enjoyably, unprintably rude reference to the King of the Literary Novel, Martin Amis. They could never have been friends. Invited in 2018 to one of the dozens of literary festivals, which have now become a major British industry, he warns his hosts that he’s not keen on debating the modern novel, confessing: “I read no modern fiction at all and don’t read the literary prints so I have absolutely no idea who the big lit. cats are or what they’ve written.” In April 2020 he confesses to a reader who has written him a letter of praise that “I’m reading War and Peace for the first time.” Luckily for us, Cornwell never attended any creative writing courses. He never strove to be a “great novelist.” But he was a man who had a unique understanding of two things—the secret world and human betrayal—and he used them to write some of the most enduringly good novels of his time.

But before closing, I must record a fact about his last hours so enraging and disgraceful that I am amazed it is not more widely known. In December 2020, David Cornwell and his second wife, Jane were both in the same hospital. He was suffering from pneumonia, she was in the last stages of cancer. But they were not allowed to meet, owing to the rigid and inhuman rules imposed in response to the Covid outbreak. He therefore died without being able to see her at the end. She died a few weeks later, at home. That this should happen to anyone fills me with fury. That it should have happened to one of the greatest men of his age tells us more than I personally want to know about the country whose melancholy decline he did so much to chronicle. What was he defending, in all those years of secret service?

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