On a recent Sunday morning, the sun shone as bright as an interrogation lamp over a Victorian house in a well-hidden cul-de-sac near Hampstead Heath in north London.
It was, after all, on Hampstead Heath--that famous London parkland with its many covert places ideally suited for spy novel settings--that a Russian agent encountered an unforgiving bullet and fictional spymaster George Smiley peered over the body wondering how he would make sense of it.
Orchestrating such scenes from his austere study at the top of this sun-bathed brick house he shares with his wife and son is David Cornwell, alias supreme spy novelist John le Carre. He is the man who has brought into being the mood, characters and labyrinthine plots that have become synonymous with the modern spy novel raised to the level of art.
“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Smiley’s People” and “The Perfect Spy” have, to a large extent, formed the image of international espionage in the mind of the modern reader, however much this image may conform to or deviate from the reality of spying. And in their film and television versions, these stories of a murky, all-too-human secret world have reached an even vaster audience--making Le Carre’s concept of spying the definitive standard.
On this unusually bright, hot day in London, Cornwell, speaking as Le Carre, takes refuge in the cool of his living room to talk about his new novel (“The Russia House,” Knopf, $19.95) and his continuing fascination with the secrecy of the spy world.
He is a somewhat edgy, carefully spoken, white-haired man of 58--but the first impression he gives is not really that of the complex, mysterious character one might expect of a former real-life intelligence operative who has lived for almost 30 years in a world of his imagination where the spy’s fear of discovery and betrayal never ceases.
First Visit to Soviet Union
Le Carre’s current enthusiasm is for what he sees as the extraordinary changes occurring in the Soviet Union, a country that he visited for the first time in 1987. “The Russia House” is the first of the 12 Le Carre novels--so many of which have dealt with the deadly ballet of the Cold War--that is actually based on first-hand research in the U.S.S.R.
“For 20 years, I’ve been writing about people under the strain of the Cold War, groaning under the ideological conflicts and the irreconcilable problem of trying to maintain one’s humanity in seemingly impossible situations,” he says.
“And now to my great delight--seemingly unexpectedly--we see the Soviet Union coming out of the ice. And so I find myself presented with a brand new pack of cards, and all sorts of possibilities within the genre to expand it yet further.” He speaks about world politics with the seriousness of someone who knows his fiction is now read and appreciated on both sides of what has been known for two generations as the Iron Curtain. “The Russia House” will be published in the Soviet Union and has already received positive advance reviews from such Soviet literary luminaries as Andrei Bitov and Andrei Voznesensky.
Film in the Works
There are definite plans for filming “The Russia House.” Czech emigre-turned-British playwright Tom Stoppard is writing the screenplay and Fred Schepisi will direct. If relations between East and West continue to be cordial, filming of the book will begin in Moscow and Leningrad this autumn.
Le Carre says that “The Russia House” is a story set firmly in 1987, during the first stirrings of the Soviet ideological thaw. “I’m thrilled with the idea that it’s a cross-border novel now at a cross-border time. Hollywood has to get used to the idea that just because you go to Russia, you don’t necessarily come up with a ‘baddie,’ ” he says. “The baddies are elsewhere in the story--I don’t mean they aren’t in Moscow but I mean the baddies are really those who are clinging onto old attitudes of aggression.”
That particularly includes the United States, via CIA agents, who, in a controversial portrayal in “The Russia House” are depicted as harnessed to a machine-like organization that, whatever the intentions of individual agents, controls them. “We in the West must undergo a perestroika (reconstruction) anyway,” Le Carre says. “We are so inured to our attitudes of aggression. We’re so used to being afraid. We have to realize that this is the moment when we really can end that neurotic phase of our history.”
British Balancing Act
In Le Carre’s fictional world, precariously balanced between aggressive superpowers, are Britain and the British. “The Brits have a very dependent relationship with the United States, which they resent--as they have done for a long time. They see themselves as the last of the Romans--with the knowledge but no longer the power.”
Though Le Carre virtually always deals in international themes, he remains as inexorably British as the mood of his novels. His huge popularity in the United States has not prevented him from portraying the British in his novels as just that little bit more decent and civilized as human beings than their American and Soviet counterparts.
“I think in my comedy,” Le Carre says, speaking of his books, “the English do present themselves as better. Within their little, packed labyrinth, they have, if you will, complete lives. Of course they draw upon a much more deeply rooted tradition than most Americans do. But as to my perceiving a genuine superiority in the Brits, I hope to heaven that’s not reflected in my work--but perhaps it is.”
Appreciators of spy fiction have often observed that there is no spy novel like a British spy novel. This may be because the British are more obsessed with privacy and secrecy, both in government and in their individual lives, than most nationalities. Even the British climate has a covered, cloudy quality.
A Sense for the Secretive
Le Carre has written that the British make excellent spies because dissembling comes so naturally to them. In such a highly developed society, a veil of manners, attitudes, and social graces covers the real self. “Because I am very English,” says Le Carre, “I know that the paths of secrecy will take me a long way to describing my own country.”
Le Carre’s latest British hero in his new novel is Bartholomew (Barley) Scott Blair. Scott Blair, often the worse for drink, is a London publisher--and the son of a London publisher--who is drafted into the spy world as a result of a connection made after a book fair in Moscow. He is chosen by a Soviet physicist, Yakov Savelyev (code names Goethe and Bluebird)--who bears a certain resemblance to the real-life dissident Andrei Sakharov--to publish in the West a potentially explosive document that reveals the state of disarray of Soviet military technology.
In “The Russia House,” Le Carre describes how Blair, after intense briefings in a grudgingly cooperative effort between the CIA and British intelligence, is well on his way to becoming a very good--if not a perfect--spy: “Often he seemed to embrace the entire ethic without demur. After all, (Blair) declared to Walter, was not seeming the only kind of being?”
Blair is also an honorable schoolboy, having been through what for so many agents--the infamous British spy-traitors Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald MacLean among them--is the training ground for espionage: public (an exclusive private) school and Cambridge University.
Public School Ambivalence
David Cornwell himself attended Sherborne, an English public school that was later the setting for the film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Cornwell’s early life was very unstable--his mother abandoned the family, and his father, whom he immortalized in his portrayal of Rick Pym in “The Perfect Spy,” was constantly in debt.
Cornwell defected from school at the age of 16, having had more than his fill of what he calls the “refined, very English form of child abuse” that constitutes the public school system. He went to a Swiss university to study German, then joined the British army intelligence corps and was posted to Vienna. He then returned to England to take an Honors degree at Oxford University. His first job after university was a teaching post at the public school at the pinnacle of the system: Eton College.
Though he has operated inside it, Le Carre’s relationship with the British Establishment has always been uneasy. He has said publicly that he votes for the Labor Party and is on record with the statement that he believes public schools should be abolished. “They never will be,” he said with a sigh. “Anyone trying to address the mysteries of English society, of course begins with the public school system.”
Like Graham Greene, Le Carre has said that his experience at public school formed the basis of his obsession with secrecy. To be accepted by the other boys, he had to pretend he was someone different from who he actually was: He had to dissemble, to hide the exigencies and inadequacies of his background.
And although Le Carre’s most famous creation, George Smiley of the Karla trilogy "(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”) did not have a public school background, Le Carre admits that--despite his aversion to the system--many of the English virtues expressed by his characters are virtues that are fostered at public school. “What makes the character also renders the character flawed,” he says, with characteristically paradoxical logic.
Dispelling the Spy Myth
Following his spell teaching at Eton, Le Carre joined the British Foreign Office; he was posted to Bonn and Hamburg where his duties included intelligence work. He now says that he has had nothing to do with real spying for almost 30 years. “It’s a charming fiction about me that I’m still an old spy. But once you know the inside-out thinking and once you know the attitudes, you never forget them.”
He began to write to compensate for a feeling of not truly belonging in the diplomatic world. As a result of a Foreign Office rule that members cannot write under their own names, Le Carre made up his pseudonym. He has offered many explanations for his choice of names, but says, cryptically: “Its French quality is a retreat from Englishness.”
Le Carre is said to be a perfectionist, and devotes almost monkish hours to his creative work. “I go to bed early at night and I get up very early in the morning. If the writing is really going, 4 o’clock (a.m.) is a lovely time for me. I give it the best of the day. And if I abuse that, I find that it doesn’t work properly.
“Like most artists, I’m an irreconcilable mixture of different people. If you have a talent and you know you have, you look after it, like a baby. So I do see David Cornwell as the guy who looks after John le Carre.”
At this point, with the sun’s interrogatory glare at high noon, David Cornwell took the more secretive John le Carre out of the house and into the enclosed public garden in front, reaching it through an almost invisible gap in a rhododendron bush. He commented on the four or five Sunday visitors to the garden: a mother watching her child, and two or three other stray people enjoying the sun. Though this was Le Carre’s territory, the visitors didn’t look like agents.