John Le Carré is a famous English spy novelist. His real name is David John Moore Cornwell. He's not a "literary" writer, so nobody teaches undergraduate courses about his sex life and political views. Nevertheless we can maybe throw together a few facts about him.

Mr. Cornwell was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset. He was the son of a successful swindler, Ronnie Cornwell, who eventually served time in prison. His mother wasn't around (his 1986 novel A Perfect Spy lends much of this background to a fictional character). After public school, young Cornwell spent a year (1948-1949) studying German literature at the University of Berne in Switzerland. He then transferred to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he got something called a "first-class honours degree" in modern languages. He claims1 that in Berne he performed small tasks for British intelligence, and that at Oxford he helped monitor known communists among the faculty and the students who associated with them. That's not as crazy as it sounds: In the 1930s, the Soviets had great success recruiting "moles" at Cambridge. A number of those moles ultimately rose high in government and betrayed their country on a grand scale.

Cornwell finished up at Oxford in 1956 and taught French and German at Eton for two years. He worked in the British Foreign Service from 1959 until 1964, in Bonn (the West German capital) and in Hamburg as a consul. In a BBC documentary (The Secret Service, 20002) he has claimed that what he was really doing there was working for British intelligence. I throw in all this "he claims" stuff because the man himself has told us that you really shouldn't trust much that you hear from anybody who works in the spook business, so either he was a spook and you should take it with a grain of salt, or else he wasn't and he's just making the whole thing up. Blah blah Goedel.

Cornwell's first two novels (1961, 1962) weren't great successes. In 1963 he published his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a relentless and gripping Cold War bummer. He wrote it immediately after watching the Berlin Wall go up. It sold like beer at a ballgame, won the Somerset Maugham Award (?!), and established his reputation. He left the foreign service and has since devoted himself to writing full-time.

Le Carré's most famous and characteristic creation is the "donnish", retiring, cuckolded British spymaster George Smiley. His spy novels are, very consciously, a stark contrast to the Ian Fleming's flashy bon vivant schtick3. He has two big themes or preoccupations: Realpolitik and casuistry vs. idealistic morality, and the minds of spies.

The realpolitik thing is a question we can never really get away from any more: "Democracy is not a suicide pact." International relations is a very rough game. There's no referee and if you try to play "fair", you just lose. You can't realize your ideals (democracy, fairness, truth'n'beauty, etc.) without sacrificing them at some point and to some degree. Should they be realized? Is it better to live a perfectly moral life and let the bastards grab all the power, or to be something of a bastard oneself and strike a compromise where at least somebody gets to live in a democracy, even if it's an imperfect one? Le Carré, like many of us, says yes: An ugly compromise is better than total capitulation. Since 1961, he's been examining some of the ugliest parts of that compromise in obsessive detail. The optimization problem here is just which compromise to make, and how ugly you can make it before you've turned into whatever it is you're fighting against. In a post-Cold War world, it's all more difficult than ever. For moral ambiguity fans it's a regular bonanza.

The minds of spies are an equally murky matter. Most of us are happy enough to live in what we like to think of as "real life": We pay our taxes and go to work every day, all safe and sound and within the law. A few people can't stand that, so they go out looking for excitement and danger. Some of those people start rock bands or climb mountains and so on, and they get their names in the papers. James Bond is more that type than anything else. If we here in "real life" lead sufficiently boring fantasy lives, we're probably dreaming about that "fame and fortune" thing, if only we had the nerve to go out and do it (thank god we don't; if everybody did, there'd be nobody to watch us all on TV).

Le Carré's characters are a different animal: They lead lives of anxiety and desperation, more squalid and boring (except for the eternal fear) than glamorous. They die obscurely under assumed names, and hardly anybody will ever know why. They wrap themselves in layers of lies, but the lies are drab lies. Adventure is supposed to be sexy, isn't it? Isn't that the point? Yes, and the whole point of being sexy is that everybody knows you're sexy. It's a strange kind of mind that at the same time seeks both constant danger and bland anonymity. Most pathological liars want to dazzle and fascinate you, but not these. These pathological liars want to seem so boring that you'll never give them a second look. Is this really such an interesting matter that somebody needs to explore it over thousands of pages for forty years? The sales figures say "yes". Who am I to disagree?

Call for the Dead (1961)
A Murder of Quality (1962)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
The Looking-Glass War (1965)
A Small Town in Germany (1968)
The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
Smiley's People (1980)
The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
A Perfect Spy (1986)
The Russia House (1989)
The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
The Night Manager (1993)
Our Game (1995)
The Tailor of Panama (1996)
Single & Single (1999)
The Constant Gardener (2001)
Absolute Friends (2003)
The Mission Song (2006)
A Most Wanted Man (2008)
Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
A Delicate Truth (2013)

I can't see any sense in listing articles and so on. At there is a bibliography which is complete up to 1999.



3 I recall one exception from Fleming: In his Octopussy collection (out of print), there's a really fine short story, a stark and joyless little vignette about an assassination in Berlin. If you ask me, it's the best thing he ever wrote. I read it many years ago and I don't have the book handy, but the information on leads me to think the story is called "The Living Daylights" (nothing much to do with the movie of the same name).


Thanks to Siobhan for prodding me into writing this.

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