Literary Spies: John le Carré

David Cornwell is the real man behind the famous author, John le Carré. Every few years, John steps back into the limelight. He is either promoting a new book or else talking about his back catalogue, which is not as extensive as you may think. Although, to the surprise of all Smiley fans, Penguin have announced one last Smiley adventure will be released in September 2017.

Le Carré recently got into a minor squabble in the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph, in which someone had accused him of painting a former boss, and the British security service, in an unflattering light. That unflattering light illuminated the hefty personage that is George Smiley, one-time fictional head of that service. He is the star of le Carré’s famous trilogy, now referred to as the Karla Trilogy, although it was not called that at the time. I think of it as the Tinker Tailor Trilogy for obvious reasons, or T3 as someone will soon decide. In my eyes, and contrary to the thrust of those accusations, there is no greater tribute. The most famous incarnation of George Smiley was performed in the original TV series by Sir Alec Guinness.

John le Carré

Around the same time, I became a huge fan of audiobooks once more. I had previously been a fan, but lamented the necessity of them always being abridged to fit on a tape or two and, later, a disc or two. With technology the thing to have now, the audiobook has resurged. There are no space limits and you can have every book in full, in crystal clear quality, thumped onto your phone in seconds. I located the Karla/Smiley Trilogy and bumped the whole lot down in one go. They are read by Michael Jayston, famous in England for his smallish roles in Only Fools and Horses.

For the uninitiated, Karla is the Russian baddy and George Smiley is the goody. But to use such terms, which are appropriate to pot-boiled pulp thrillers, is to insult the great men. Le Carré is not your typical thriller writer. George Smiley is overweight, beyond middle-aged, dour, downtrodden, divorced, and depressed. He shares a little of David Jason’s witty Inspector Frost but without the biting sarcasm. Smiley does sarcasm, but slowly and in a roundabout way. Karla on the other hand appears hardly at all. Even though I am now re-reading all the books, I have not met him yet. I have a feeling he pops up towards the end of the final part, known as Smiley’s People.

The first book is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the mid-section is performed by my favourite book, The Honourable Schoolboy, partly set in British Hong Kong. Schools and spies go hand in hand in real life, as in these books. City of London banks are also good recruiting grounds for spies. Business consultants and their like are the new spies. Such people are never really in one place or another, and I was drawn to that life at an early age. I have been both a consultant and a banker in my time, albeit on the technology side. I have also done some training, if not teaching. I am sometimes a writer, and I believe the spy is a bedfellow of all of these roles.

Michael Jayston has a long association with Karla. He played Peter Guillam in the famous TV series starring the estimable Sir Alec Guinness in the Smiley role. I once heard an anecdote that Guinness had dined with Sir Maurice Oldfield (a former head of the security service in real life) at one club or another, to research his role in that way method actors have. Le Carré, the grand creator, was there too. After Sir Maurice had left, Alec was all excited, almost overcome with sheer anticipation at playing a real spy. The anecdote goes roughly as follows. “Did you see what he did with his brandy?” said Alec, feverish with excitement. “I have seen people do this [mimes someone drinking]. And this [another mime]. But he did this [mimes again]. Do you think he was testing for poison?”

I am ashamed to say that my indoctrination into the world of Smiley and Karla came with a very cheap omnibus edition from a postal book club, in the days before online shopping. Indeed, there was barely a line for one to be on in the early nineties. I was a young teenager and looking for my next big thing after Tolkien. That book sits in front of me now and is a little worn. I decided, full of a new love for the trilogy, to obtain a set of first edition hardbacks, and that project is ongoing. They are not as expensive as they should be, unless signed or mint.

I read other books by le Carré of course. The Night Manager I loved, but it was ignored generally. Until, that is, it was recently reincarnated, along with Tom Hiddleston’s bottom. The Tailor of Panama I found so-so but it became a good film. The Constant Gardener became an even better one with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. An English Patient of its time, perhaps, yet without quite as many Oscars. Weisz won one, and also a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild gong. The books have a timeless cinematic appeal. Only recently did Gary Oldman play the George Smiley role in a new film, with Benedict Cumberbatch alongside as Guillam. A Most Wanted Man, in which the lead role is a banker, was the final acting role for Philip Seymour Hoffman, directed by Anton Corbijn.

David Cornwell used a pen-name because he still worked for MI6 when he published his first book. He had also previously worked for MI5, indeed the word is that he still worked there when he first started to write. His breakthrough was novel number three, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in 1963, and he left his job almost immediately. Born in 1931, he is still writing at his best today. Not that age means anything. Le Carré could have another 30 years in him yet, and I hope he does. He now writes about terrorism and the spy of the future. He was one of the few who did not think that the end of the Berlin Wall meant the end of the Cold War. It may be easier from inside your own arena to see the wood from the trees, but the opposite seems more common. As a former spy, he also noticed how Islamic fundamentalism was becoming something altogether darker than the troubles of Ireland, which made an indelible mark on my childhood. It was pure chance that I had left Manchester, and the North, that summer afternoon in 1996. It remains the largest mainland bomb of them all and it marked the end of terrorism in England on the grand scale. Until 2005.

And therein lies the fascination for me in spy fiction. Although le Carré is not escapist in the way that Fleming and Bond are, he does allow you to escape to a new yet familiar world. And he does not glamourise that world. He explains it more clearly for us than newspapers can. He does not write ‘shockers’ in the vein of John Buchan. His characters are not Roger Moore material, although perhaps Peter Guillam was, just a little. Smiley is the anti-hero, the suburban bank manager who accidentally became the head of the secret service of Great Britain. Yes, it really could have been you, whoever you are, walking down Curzon Street in the rain holding a first edition of Grimmelshausen, on your way to meet an alcoholic spy at your club. As long as you are a man. Yes, but these are books of a different era.

Curzon Street is known to me as the location of Heywood Hill, a bookshop frequented by Nancy Mitford in her heyday. And also by Smiley himself. It is also the home of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, nexus of international intrigue. After dinner at your club, you forget the Grimmelshausento your profound chagrin, and return home to find someone else’s umbrella in your hallway, a spy sitting in your armchair, his Porsche revving in the background. It could be you. Le Carré is literary, but only if that is a kind word meaning high quality. He was once told, breathlessly and by an American, that he had been upgraded. She meant from commercial to literary fiction. But he always was both those things. If David Cornwell is the spy’s spy, then John le Carré is a writer’s writer. How else could the London Library be a location in a spy novel? And yet it is, in the T3 books. Most importantly of all, he is the reader’s writer.

Pick whichever book you wish but I guarantee that whoever you are, as long as you enjoy good books, you will read more than one.




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