How genre-bending tales of espionage emerged from a childhood of pain, anger, and deception

Le Carré at his home in Hampstead, North London, in March 1983 (Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)
Le Carré at his home in Hampstead, North London, in March 1983 (Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré edited by Tim Cornwell; Viking, 752 pp., $40

John le Carré suffered for your reading pleasure, but not in any material way: after more than two dozen bestsellers that spawned multiple blockbuster films—from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man—le Carré (in real life, David Cornwell) had enough jack in the bank for a chalet in Switzerland, an ever-expanding compound on the windy Cornwall coast, and a home in London. But he was also a tormented soul, the walking embodiment of the first line in Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Those agonies, and others, pulse through the letters in A Private Spy, edited and introduced by his son Tim Cornwell. They surface despite the lifelong curation of the archive by his ex-spy father, who, before his death in 2020, was ever mindful of his reputation beyond the grave. “My father mostly covered the tracks of his untidiness”—a suitably filial reference by Cornwell to the lacuna of le Carré’s letters to his mistresses. (Tim Cornwell himself died in May 2022, at the age of 59.) Other gaps loom, too, like the letters le Carré wrote to Jack Geoghegan, his first American publisher, all of which were destroyed. In A Private Spy, you see only what le Carré and his family want you to see. Yet such was le Carré’s life, such were the genius and range of his storytelling and the span of his acquaintances and experiences, that you don’t have to be a diehard fan to find the collection rewarding. Indeed, for writers both established and aspiring, the letters open a valuable window on the works, methods, and milieu of a novelist whose success spanned six decades.

Le Carré liked to quote a saying he attributed to Graham Greene—that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By those standards, he was a millionaire. Among those “riches” were the repeated bankruptcies of his father, Ronnie, a notorious confidence man who inflicted all manner of injuries and indignities on his family. When le Carré was three, his father was jailed for fraud; when he was five, his much-abused mother, Olive, walked out on le Carré and his older brother, Tony. (Le Carré was told she was dead; he wouldn’t see her again for another 16 years.) Over the years, his letters were punctuated by bitter denunciations of both parents. To wit: His father was “an infinite, darkest swindler”; “his very existence is a complete mockery of any moral consideration”; “I felt not so much humiliated as socially in debt to those who lay crippled in my father’s fearful wake.” He wrote to his aunts in 1986 that his barely disguised venomous portrait of Ronnie in A Perfect Spy, the semi-autobiographical thriller that Philip Roth praised as “the best English novel since the war,” had “alleviated my own pain, which has been prolonged and crippling.” Even so, 21 years later, he still railed to his brother (to whom he sent many of his rawest letters) that “our father was a mad genes-bank, a truly wild card, and in my memory disgusting—still.” About his mother he added: “When I met our mother I thought her spooky & unreal, & I was never able to understand … how you walk out on two sons in the middle of the night, then take the moral high ground.” As he told Tony, “We were frozen children, & will always remain so.”

The recruitment of damaged, smart children into the intelligence services is a cliché straight out of James Bond. Yet this was precisely le Carré’s experience. He left Sherborne School early to study German at the University of Bern in Switzerland, where British intelligence tapped him to report on left-wing student groups, a role he continued at Oxford University for MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency. In 1958, after joining MI5 formally, he took up writing on his train commutes to London. Two years later, having switched to MI6, which gathers intelligence overseas, he was posted to Germany. Under his le Carré pen name, he published his first novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. In 1963, he followed these with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which Graham Greene blurbed as “the best spy story I have ever read,” propelling it to become 1964’s best-selling novel in the United States. With his income and prominence rising (the latter a distinct no-no for a clandestine operative), le Carré resigned from the Foreign Office.

As Tim Cornwell notes, “The contemporary record in letters from le Carré about his years in the intelligence services is for obvious reasons thin.” Not until the 1970s did he begin to acknowledge his service. But the letters in A Private Spy confirm the impression from his books that the experience was stitched to le Carré as tightly as his shadow. He remained in close touch with his former MI6 colleague John Margetson, for instance. Toward the end of his life, he lamented to Alan Judd, a former diplomat, “I miss the Office, always have done—both Offices—in their way. In a sense they are the only places, apart from writing.” Witness, also, his fiery rejection of his left-wing Oxford classmate and friend Stanley Mitchell, who in 2006 demanded an apology from le Carré for having spied on him: “We were in combat with ruthless, insidious people who used British communists and sympathisers as their hunting ground.” Le Carré served during a time of dark betrayals by Soviet agents such as Kim Philby, George Blake, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean. (Philby may well have blown le Carré’s undercover identity to the KGB.) Their treachery not only furnished plot material; its tumultuous aftermath also shaped le Carré’s portrayals of both agencies as incompetent, petty bureaucracies.

The feelings he expressed about his country in these letters are likewise mixed. Writing from Austria in 1951 to his future first wife, Ann, he talked of escaping the “grey indifference of England.” To his brother, he wrote: “Every time I go abroad (except to our former colonies, as a rule), I feel the boulders roll off my back. Every time I return, I put on the harness.” Britain’s entrenched class structure grated. Le Carré hated the boarding schools he had attended, a feeling amplified by a later stint as a teacher at Eton, the incubator of England’s elite. In the last years of his life, he routinely railed in letters against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an Eton graduate, calling him “an Etonian oik.” The middle-class Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, he admired, despite her politics. As he told the American journalist David Greenway, his friend and traveling companion, “There isn’t anyone else around who can hold a candle to her when it comes either to forensic argument or Tamany (?) Hall barnstorming.” Nonetheless, in 1981, he refused her offer to be made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. As he wrote to Dick Franks, his former station chief in Bonn who later became the head of British intelligence services, he did so in part because of a desire “to stay out of the citadel.”

One citadel he never cracked was Britain’s literary establishment, with which his relationship was prickly. When A Small Town in Germany (1968) was greeted with unfavorable reviews, he wrestled in a letter to his publisher Charles Pick with the problem his writing posed to reviewers: Was he “a thriller-writer with pretentions? A novelist who hasn’t the guts to drop the thriller form?” The problem never went away. Salman Rushdie, for instance, sparked a feud with le Carré by panning The Russia House: “John le Carré … wants to be taken very seriously indeed. Much of the trouble is, I’m afraid, literary. There is something unavoidably stick-figure-like about le Carré’s attempts at characterization.” In a 1998 letter to Margetson, le Carré acidly predicted how British publications would treat his latest book (Single & Single): “The ‘Times’ will give it to their thriller man, the ‘Observer’ will trash it because I’ve been le Carré for too long, & the Guardian will as usual refuse to treat it as a novel at all, and … give it to one of their political-investigative reporters.” Le Carré’s complicated feelings on his standing tainted even his relationship with Graham Greene. Notwithstanding his respectful letters to Greene, to others le Carré would make fun of Greene’s religious and political beliefs, saying also that “I never knew anyone who tended his image more carefully than Graham.” For his part, Le Carré pointedly refused to allow his books to be considered for the Booker Prize. And his response to a gentle inquiry in 1977 from the Nobel literature committee for input on possible candidates has more bristles than a porcupine: “It is very kind of you to seek my opinion on the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I must tell you honestly that I have never given the subject a moment’s thought, except perhaps to reflect that, like the Olympic Games, a great concept has been ruined by political greed.”

Whether le Carré’s writing has the literary merit that Big Novelists like Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, and others have ascribed to it is for the reader to decide. But A Private Spy makes clear that le Carré cared deeply about his calling and his prose, from the moment ideas and stories were conceived to the most granular details of how they were presented. Perhaps with an eye to posterity, the collection is studded with letters encouraging younger writers such as Ben Macintyre and Nicholas Shakespeare. One tiny gem: le Carré’s messy draft of a note to John Cheever is a model of grace and humility that shows the care le Carré took with words. His research for his books could be prodigious (all the more remarkable because of what he called, in a 2016 letter to Shakespeare, his “darkest secret”—he had dyslexia and read “at a snail’s pace, much as I wd read aloud.”) For The Honourable Schoolboy—the first time, as le Carré puts it, “I put on the non-uniform of a field reporter in order to obtain my experiences and my information”—he and Greenway took a grueling trip tracing the opium trail through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. His letters to various experts setting up consultations and requesting information about everything from pharmaceuticals in Africa and the intricacies of Middle East politics to the operations of the Russian mafia are as perceptive as they are demanding.

In corresponding with publishers and editors, he was direct and at times ruthless in defense of his interests, including with Robert Gottlieb, his editor at Knopf, whom he praised as “the greatest of them all.” A 2009 letter to Penguin, his new publisher, detailed his instructions on everything from communications and publicity to launch parties (none, please), reviews (don’t send them), and editing: “The best editor for me is the one who diagnoses freely but never suggests remedies or comes up with alternative wordings.” Ever mindful of prying eyes, he hated doing publicity, in one case turning down a request to appear on BBC’s Desert Island Discs by saying, “I would pay good money never again to have to talk my way through a sanitised version of my life.”

Those who want to get past any sanitization should drop the letters of A Private Spy and pick up Adam Sisman’s painstaking 2015 biography, which had le Carré’s grudging cooperation—something he later regretted, not least for the details of his infidelities to Jane Eustace, his faithful, and professionally invaluable, second wife. (Wags might note the less-than-coincidental recent publication of The Secret Heart, a shag-and-tell memoir by one of le Carré’s lovers.) Yet even with its gaps and curatorial discretion, these letters bring out what le Carré described to Vivian Green in 2001 as the “ferment of buried anger and lovelessness from childhood” that he sometimes found “almost uncontainable.” Once, when a 10-year-old fan wrote and asked how he might become a spy, le Carré suggested that the boy should instead find a great cause. If he did that, “you won’t need to deceive anybody, you will have found what you are looking for. You will be more than a spy then. You will be a good, happy man.”

A Private Spy reveals a great writer, and even a good man. But happy? Not so much.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James Gibney  is an editor at Bloomberg Opinion and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer.


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