In A Perfect Spy, his most autobiographical novel, John le Carré describes his protagonist, the morally compromised double agent Magnus Pym, as having an agile stride, “his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class. In the same attitude, whether static or in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the decks of sinking ships.”
British imperial decline, and the dubious strategies of the political classes and intelligence services to disguise that decline during the cold war, form the backdrop to many of the 25 novels of le Carré, who has died at the age of 89. Espionage was the genre that earned him fame. But he used it as a platform to explore larger ethical problems and the human condition with such insight that many fellow authors and critics regarded him as one of the finest English-language novelists of the 20th century.
Like Joseph Conrad’s character Charles Marlow and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, le Carré’s George Smiley recurs in his novels, reminding readers of the author’s enduring concerns. Smiley, a middle-aged, ponderous but not unsympathetic spycatcher with a troubled private life, is the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who seduces women and dismantles the nefarious plots of enemies with the kind of casual ease that prompted le Carré to deride him as a “gangster”.
Le Carré had a sharp sense of humour and spoke in sentences as elegantly constructed as his prose. “A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself,” he once said. “And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue.”
Nevertheless he put to good use his first-hand knowledge of espionage, deception and the frailties of the human character.
Born in 1931 in Poole on the southern coast of England, le Carré’s real name was David John Moore Cornwell. His mother left the family home when he was five years old and his father was a “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird”, as he wrote in his memoirs, The Pigeon Tunnel.
In 1948 he abandoned his English private school, Sherborne, and travelled to Switzerland to study languages at the University of Bern. There he was inspired to “embrace the German muse as a substitute mother”, immersing himself in the works of Johann von Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist and Georg Büchner.
Le Carré joined the British Army Intelligence Corps in 1950, interrogating people in Austria who had crossed from communist eastern Europe to the west. After a spell at Oxford university, he taught for two years at Eton, the British private school whose alumni he later described as “an absolute curse on the earth, leaving that school with a sense of entitlement and overeducated cultural posturing”.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s he worked for MI5, the British domestic intelligence service, and then for MI6, its foreign counterpart, which sent him to Bonn and Hamburg. By his own account, his duties were minor. But he acquired enough experience to write three spy novels, the third of which, The spy who came in from the cold, was an international bestseller and turned into a successful film starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.
In one of his last public appearances, at the German embassy in London in March, le Carré explained that the spy world of his novels — an arena of betrayal, broken lives and corroded morality — came primarily from his own imagination. He broke new ground for the genre by stripping his characters of glamour and constructing plots that resolutely avoided simple clashes between good against evil.
He was no neutral observer of the cold war, stating that, whatever the shortcomings of western political systems, they were not to be compared with one-party dictatorships. After the end of communism, however, he said: “Spies did not win the cold war. They made absolutely no difference in the long run.”
In his post-cold war novels, le Carré emerged as a searing critic of US and British foreign policy. Africa, Central America, the former Soviet Union and other regions were the settings for novels that dissected the arms trade, drug trafficking and the global pharmaceutical industry.
Le Carré married Ann Sharp in 1954 and the couple had three sons, Simon, Stephen and Timothy. After their divorce in 1971, he married Valérie Jane Eustace, who contributed to his work with her editorial expertise. They had one son, Nicholas, a novelist who writes under the name Nick Harkaway.