Carré on spying

John Sutherland

  • A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
    Hodder, 463 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 340 38784 X
  • The Novels of John le Carré by David Monaghan
    Blackwell, 207 pp, £12.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 14283 5
  • Taking sides: The Fiction of John le Carré by Tony Barley
    Open University, 175 pp, £20.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 335 15251 1
  • John le Carré by Peter Lewis
    Ungar, 228 pp, £10.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 8044 2243 5
  • A Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox
    Virago, 321 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 86068 702 3
  • A State of Independence by Caryl Phillips
    Faber, 158 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13910 8

John le Carré has patiently established himself over the last twenty-five years as the discriminating reader’s favourite thriller writer. The BBC’s adaptations of the George Smiley trilogy in 1979 and 1982 made him almost overnight a popular author on the Ian Fleming scale, and it can have done no harm that the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy coincided with the Blunt scandal. Now, as a rite of academic canonisation, three critical monographs have been published which respectfully analyse his fiction.

Given the delays in book production, his academic commentators necessarily break off with The Little Drummer Girl (1983), a work which promised interesting transitions. With Smiley’s People (1980), le Carré had consciously ended a major phase of his writing career. As he put it in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1983, ‘by the end of the Smiley books I’d gone too far into a private world.’ The Smiley saga ends, it will be remembered, with Karla crossing no man’s land, betrayed into defection by love for his daughter. It is a life’s triumph for Smiley, whose jubilation is typically uncertain: ‘“George, you won,” said Guillam as they walked slowly towards the car. “Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did”.’

The Little Drummer Girl, and the fierce pro-Palestinism of le Carré’s subsequent 1982-83 articles in the Observer on Sharon’s invasion of the Lebanon, suggested he had become a more publicly engaged writer in his maturity (like Graham Greene). But ingenious le Carré watchers (specialists in their own kind of espionage) soon turned up interesting privacies. An article by Norman Moss in the Sunday Telegraph, for instance, disclosed that the little drummer girl Charlie was at least in part based on le Carré’s half-sister Charlotte Cornwell.

A Perfect Spy doubles back to unfold more of le Carré’s private world than any of his previous novels. It is the least political and most personal work the author has published. More particularly, this novel treats the father-son relationship with direct relevance to le Carré’s own past. In various interviews (notably one with Miriam Gross in February 1980) le Carré has divulged the major outline of his childhood, and has given some picture of his extraordinary parent Ronnie Cornwell. According to le Carré, Ronnie was ‘a Micawber character who always managed to spend twice as much as he earned – or twice as much as he obtained’. His wife soon deserted him, leaving the Cornwell sons in his dubious custody. On one terrible occasion Ronnie was sent to prison for fraud. Nonetheless, the family lived in the ‘style of millionaire paupers’, and care was taken to give the young David Cornwell the best of public school educations, and a thorough grounding in the codes of upper-class Englishness. The son of a crook, Cornwell was brought up a gent. By his own account, the young Cornwell, subjected to these strange contradictions, ‘became extremely secretive, and began to think that I was, so to speak, born into an occupied territory’. In this lost childhood the spy (or at least the man preoccupied with spying) was formed. And as with T.E. Lawrence, shameful paternity resurfaced in later life as an obsession with patriotism.

A Perfect Spy is a long and tortuous suicide note put together in extremis by the hero, Magnus Pym. The Who’s Who entries of David John Moore Cornwell and Pym would match significantly. Both were born in 1931 and educated at a public school which they left early to study German in Berne. Both got firsts in modern languages at Oxford and went into the Foreign Office as a cover for intelligence work. It is at this point that fictional divergences take over. Cornwell (according to one published source) worked for MI6 in Germany, from 1960 to 64. Pym, we gather, is a senior spymaster, who has successfully operated a Czech network since the Fifties. This is the first layer of deception in his life. At a deeper level (where deception becomes treachery), Pym is a defector in place, a mole. At the deepest level (where treachery becomes loyalty to principles higher than country), Pym is a ‘good man’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in