The Secret Worlds of John le Carre
John le Carre, 65-year-old author, former intelligence officer and celebrated re-inventer of the modern genre of spy novels, is sitting over orange juice and coffee in his suite at the Hotel Carlyle, talking about his childhood. The protagonist in his latest book, “The Tailor of Panama” (Knopf), is a minor-league con man.
Which naturally brings Le Carre back to memories of his father.
Ronnie Cornwell, an energetic swindler with a taste for high living, gave his son a lifelong preoccupation with deception, not to mention one of those dreadful childhoods that seems to turn some sensitive children into creative adults. Cornwell drank, gambled and concocted various real estate and insurance scams that landed him in jail when Le Carre was only 5 years old. He and his 7-year-old brother were then promptly abandoned by their mother. Over the next 11 years, young Le Carre shuttled between the care of intensely religious paternal relatives, English public schools that he despised and life with his flimflamming, pleasure-loving father.
“The vagaries and accidents of youth do drive you in upon yourself,” said Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell. “That’s when you start inventing your secret worlds. When there is absolutely no reason in the adult world around you, then more and more you feed and foster the imagination--secret rooms in the mind all the time.”
Le Carre is a tall, handsome white-haired man with bushy eyebrows and an elegant British accent. To the American eye and ear, at any rate, he has the look of a card-carrying member of the ruling class who could effortlessly step into one of the fine television series or appalling Hollywood films that have been based on his novels. (“Hollywood has been heartbreaking,” he laments.)
As an adult, Le Carre offered to support his father, but that did not keep Cornwell from treating his successful offspring as a potential mark. In the 1960s, when the normally reclusive Le Carre gave a long interview on British television in which he avoided mentioning his father at all, Cornwell “called up the [television] company and said that omitting all reference to him was an implicit slander since he was the progenitor of my life,” Le Carre recalled. “He said that 20,000 pounds would keep him out of court.”
Cornwell also “conducted at least one love affair that we know of by convincing the lady of his choice that he was me,” Le Carre said, sipping calmly on his coffee. “One ceased to be shocked.”
There is more than a little of the father and son in Harry Pendel, the protagonist of Le Carre’s new novel.
“My own background was an unshaken cocktail of influences, exactly as with Harry Pendel. Harry is half a Jew, half a Catholic, a bit of everything else,” Le Carre said.
“The Tailor of Panama” is a black comedy. A British expatriate in the Panama Canal Zone, Pendel is outwardly the dapper, respectable proprietor of a gentleman’s tailor shop. But he’s really a small-time con man who has spent time in jail for torching his uncle’s London warehouse.
Pendel’s problems begin when Andrew Osnard, a British intelligence officer who knows all of Harry’s dirty little secrets, walks into the shop and blackmails Pendel into becoming an agent. Osnard’s masters in London are intent on stopping the U.S. from turning the canal over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999. Pendel obliges by fabricating stories that conform to London’s beliefs and prejudices. His fantasies are finally transformed into a real-life tragedy when the U.S. is persuaded to launch another invasion of Panama.
“I was drawn by the obvious corruption of Panama and the wonderful collection of characters you meet there. It’s Casablanca without heroes. I was also amused that this was a millennium story that everybody had forgotten,” Le Carre said of his decision to write the book.
This is Le Carre’s 16th novel. He is credited with transforming a spy genre characterized by James Bond-ian obsessions with guns, girls and gizmos. Le Carre’s world of fictional espionage is a cold, gray universe filled with deceit, betrayal and moral uncertainty. The end of the Cold War hasn’t slowed Le Carre down any more than it has resulted in the dismantling of the intelligence agencies that fought the conflict between East and West.
Le Carre’s life has, in its own way, been as centered on deception as his father’s. He worked for years as a spy for Britain--a world, he said, that is nothing like the one he portrayed in novels like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”
“What I had really done, as everybody who had been in the secret world with me knew perfectly well, was that I had invented a different secret world. I produced a place with its own ground rules and ethic and language and so on,” he said. “The trouble was that my bluffs and fabulations were taken as gospel about the secret world. And while that was very flattering, it was simply untrue.”
Still, Le Carre credits his horrible childhood with not only giving him the knack for inventing “secret worlds” but with developing the flair for dissemblance that made him a good spy. He learned how to lie to angry creditors looking for his father.
He also fooled his classmates into believing he was just like they were by cloaking his background and adopting the speech and mannerisms of the ruling class. On school holidays, he and his brother would walk down to the end of the lane, as if they were expecting their father to show up any minute. After hiding out till the end of the day, they would return, pretending they had just had a wonderful visit with their father.
“I was already acquiring all those artificial attributes which are natural in a spy,” Le Carre said. “It was a very inhibited and very secretive childhood. There were no releases, no early love affairs because we never stayed anywhere long enough to get to know the girls.”
At 16, Le Carre ran away from school. He went to Switzerland, where he lied about his age to enroll at the University of Berne. It was in Switzerland that Le Carre began an association with the secret world that was to last off and on for the next 16 years. “I was acquired as a contact by British intelligence when I was barely 17,” he recalled. “They just picked me up at an embassy cocktail party.”
To this day, Le Carre has very little to say about his spying activities. At Berne, he studied German and, according to his heavily autobiographical novel “A Perfect Spy” (Knopf, 1986), sold bits of information to British intelligence.
After a stint as an intelligence officer in the British army, he returned to England and attended Oxford, where he wrote some poetry and “mucky short stories of exactly the kind people write in their early 20s.” According to “A Perfect Spy,” he also spied on left-wing student groups for British intelligence. After graduating with first-class honors in 1956, he obtained a teaching post at Eton, Britain’s most prestigious public school. But the tug of the secret world proved to be much stronger than his low-paying job.
“I was very divided,” he said. “On the one hand, I wanted to do something idealistic, like teaching. On the other hand, I was desperate to make money and buy myself away from my father’s shadow.”
Le Carre went “through the door” and back into the secret world. In the early 1960s, he spied in West Germany under diplomatic cover. “It was fascinating and terrifying at the time of the Cuban missile crisis seeing how close we came to nuclear catastrophe.”
By this time, Le Carre was using every spare moment to write: “I got to know [British novelist] John Bingham in the secret world. He was a thriller writer and a very good intelligence officer. I figured if he could do it, I could do it.”
And do it Le Carre did. He turned out three novels under his now famous pen name. (Le Carre has told many stories about the origin of his literary pseudonym. He now says he simply can’t recall how he came to invent the name.)
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963) was Le Carre’s third novel and international bestseller. It established him as a professional writer and enabled him to quit his job. But Le Carre never quite walked away from the secret world. He continued to submit his work to British intelligence for review until “A Perfect Spy,” his 11th and perhaps best novel. (In it, Le Carre at long last came to grips with the towering figure of his father.)
“Parts of it were very autobiographical,” he said. “I unilaterally decided I would not submit it because I knew I wasn’t going to change it.”
Le Carre lives now in splendid isolation in Cornwall, where his cliff-side home overlooks the Atlantic. When he is writing, Le Carre is at his desk every day by 5 a.m., where he writes in longhand until lunch. Then he takes a walk along the cliffs while his wife, Jane, types up his morning writing.
Le Carre writes and revises constantly. The process, he said, is “chaotic.”
“I have no march route. I just make little flow charts at the most to take me into the next chapter, And I usually have a vision, like in the movies, of how it will end. The last image on the screen.”
In the case of “The Tailor of Panama,” the last image on the screen is apocalypse.
“I wanted to work toward that,” he said. “I wanted Pendel to start a new war. I wanted the cycle to resume. At my age, if you’ve been watching the world, you have that feeling of the movie coming round again. All that unfinished business from the Cold War is already like a prerequisite for the next conflict.”