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John Le Carré Biography

Pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwell. Nationality: British. Born: Poole, Dorset, 1931. Education: Sherborne School, Dorset; St. Andrew's Preparatory School; Bern University, Switzerland, 1948-49; Lincoln College, Oxford, B.A. (honours) in modern languages 1956. Career: Tutor, Eton College, Berkshire, 1956-58; member of the British Foreign Service, 1959-64: second secretary, Bonn Embassy, 1961-64; consul, Hamburg, 1963-64. Awards: British Crime Novel award, 1963; Maugham award, 1964; Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1965, and Grand Master award, 1984; Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, 1978, 1980, and Diamond Dagger, 1988; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1978; Nikos Kasanzakis prize, 1991. Honorary doctorate: University of Exeter 1990; St. Andrews University, 1996; University of Southampton; University of Bath. Honorary fellow, Lincoln College, 1984. Agent: David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.



Call for the Dead. London, Gollancz, 1961; New York, Walker, 1962; as The Deadly Affair, London, Penguin, 1966.

A Murder of Quality. London, Gollancz, 1962; New York, Walker, 1963.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. London, Gollancz, 1963; New York, Coward McCann, 1964.

The Looking-Glass War. London, Heinemann, and New York, Coward McCann, 1965.

A Small Town in Germany. London, Heinemann, and New York, Coward McCann, 1968.

The Naive and Sentimental Lover. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1971; New York, Knopf, 1972.

The Quest for Karla. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1982.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1974.

The Honourable Schoolboy. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1977.

Smiley's People. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1980.

The Little Drummer Girl. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1983.

A Perfect Spy. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1986.

The Russia House. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1989.

The Secret Pilgrim. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1991.

The Night Manager. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1993.

Our Game. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Knopf, 1995.

John Le Carré: Three Complete Novels (contains Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). New York, Wings Books, 1995.

The Tailor of Panama. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Single & Single. New York, Scribner, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 28 January 1967.

"What Ritual Is Being Observed Tonight?," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 2 November 1968.


Television Play:

Smiley's People, with John Hopkins, from the novel by le Carré, 1982.


The Clandestine Muse. Portland, Oregon, Seluzicki, 1986.

Vanishing England, with Gareth H. Davies. Topsfield, Massachusetts, Salem House, 1987.


Film Adaptations:

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, 1965; The Deadly Affair, from the work Call for the Dead, 1967; The Looking Glass War, 1970; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (for television), 1980; Smiley's People (for television), 1982; The Little Drummer Girl, 1984; The Russia House, 1990; A Murder of Quality (for television), 1991; The Tailor of Panama, 2000.

Critical Studies:

John le Carré by Peter Lewis, New York, Ungar, 1985, London, Lorrimer, 1986; The Novels of John le Carré: The Art of Survival, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985, and Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John le Carré, London, Orbis, 1986, both by David Monaghan; John le Carré by Eric Homberger, London, Methuen, 1986; Taking Sides: The Fiction of John le Carré by Tony Barley, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Open University Press, 1986; Corridors of Deceit: The World of John le Carré by Peter Wolfe, Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1987; The Quest for John le Carré edited by Alan Bold, London, Vision Press, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988; Understanding John Le Carré by John L. Cobbs, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1998; The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics by Myron J. Aronoff, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

* * *

Though John le Carré had written two thrillers, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, it was when The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was published that it became obvious that a new talent for writing a different kind of spy story had emerged. Le Carré caught a new mood of chilling horror in this picture of the beastliness underlying the espionage of the cold war, for this is a novel which shows how man's capacity for inhumanity to man and woman is heightened through the process of espionage. The style matches the material. The moods evoked are of gray despair. The tone is cold, almost clinical. The conversations convince; they have the authentic texture of contemporary speech. And the details of the British, Dutch and German background are painted in with a casual assurance. The story is unfolded, given fresh twists, until the reality of life itself becomes warped. Leamas, the British agent, is created convincingly; he carries out his role of defector only to find that his own people have framed him, in order to frame Fiedler, an East German who has discovered the truth about Mundt, his chief.

This is a world of intellectual skills applied arbitrarily, of brilliance without scruple, of brutality without restraint. The inexorable march of the story continues: its destiny is disaster, the same kind of disaster which opens its account of the effects of treason and betrayal. And yet in the final moment Leamas returns for Liz, the English communist party member who befriended him in London, who has been brought to East Germany to testify against him. Before their final moments, before they attempt to cross the Berlin wall, he makes his apology to her. To him it seems the world has gone mad. His life and hers, their dignity, are a tiny price to pay. They are, ultimately, the victims of a temporary alliance of expediency. His people save Mundt because they need him, "so that," he says to her, "the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary crummy people like you and me." He sees the loss of Fiedler's life as part of the small-scale war which is being waged, with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, though it is still smaller than other wars. Leamas doesn't believe in anything, but he sees people cheated, misled, lives thrown away, "people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men written off for nothing." Her party, he remarks, was built on the bodies of ordinary people, and she remembers the German prison wardress describing the prison as one for those who slow down the march, "for those who think they have the right to err."

Le Carré's next book, The Looking-Glass War, carries his exploration of the work of intelligence services further. This story opens impressively, with the death of a courier who has gone to Finland to pick up films made by the pilot of a commercial flight apparently off course over Eastern Germany. An unconfirmed report indicates the likelihood of a rocket site there. Then a small intelligence unit is authorized to put an agent into the area. The preparations are described in detail: the recruiting and training of the agent, the ineptitude involved, and the rivalry among the different agencies—and ultimately the schooled indifference with which the older professionals see their scheme fail abysmally. They are already planning the future, disowning the agent whose slow broadcasting on single frequencies on an obsolete radio has doomed him to capture. The story is well told; it explores the stresses and the vanities, the dangerous risks, even delusions, which beset the world of intelligence; it has a curious pathos, accentuated by the naivety and decency of the young man Avery which is opposed in fury by Haldane, who has become a technician: "We sent him because we needed to; we abandon him because we must."

In A Small Town in Germany there is an enlarging of scope. Here is a story of the British embassy in Bonn, from which secret files—and Leo Harting—have vanished. Turner comes from London to investigate. His interrogations of some of the embassy staff are brilliant. The pattern of thieving, of treachery, of insinuation, of making himself indispensable, of using others, emerges slowly as Turner tries to build up his picture of Leo Harting. The contrasts of personalities as Turner painstakingly pursues his inquiries give this picture depth, and yet the nature of the vanished man remains elusive. The complications of the British negotiations in Brussels where German support is necessary, the student riots, and the ugly neo-nazism give the man-hunt an extreme urgency. The attitude of the German authorities, and that of the Head of Chancery, surprise Turner. And the events he unravels surprise the reader.

The novel has a continuous tension; the discoveries of the investigator are cumulative, and finally his aggressive desire to hunt out the missing man turns to a sympathetic understanding of just what Harting has been doing. At this point his attitude differs markedly from that of the Head of Chancery. To a certain extent his reactions are parallel to those of Avery in The Looking-Glass War. Both are younger men, outside the orthodoxies of their elders, possessed ultimately of more humanity, though they have no capacity to influence the final stages of the story. The difference lies between the character who professes to control the processes of his own mind and the character who believes we are born free, we are not automatons and cannot control the processes of our minds. The novel is, in fact, about the problems of forgetting, and about the problems of idealism, innocence, and practical politics; and the incidental picture it gives of the complex working life of an embassy provides a very suitable background against which political issues can be spotlit.

The Naive and Sentimental Lover lacks the punch and energy of his earlier works. In them the tendency of the characters to be warped, maimed, frustrated men and women mattered little because the action backed by skillful description carried the plot forward at such headlong speed that analysis of character per se was less important than the actions taken by the participants. In this novel there is a need for a deeper analysis of character, and this does not seem to have been fully achieved, while the story does not move with the same sureness. However, it is likely that le Carré was experimenting with a new genre, and just as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold needed preliminary studies this may herald a development in character depiction similar to his earlier advances in technique and architectonic power in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which will remain as a chilling exposé of the continuous underground battle of intelligence services.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy are both surpassed by Smiley's People, the narrative art of which is combined with a sympathetic compassion for its characters. Here le Carré shows Smiley torn by loyalties, uncovering instead of covering up the murder of an ex-agent, and in the process peeling layer after layer from the mystery of betrayal, getting steadily closer to his old enemy the Russian Karla. The story moves deliberately, the details are amassed, but the tension is maintained right to the climax. This is a tour de force because its present action demands an understanding of the past, and that past is revealed so skillfully that its actions live as a pressing part of the present. The reader is involved in the characters' memories, their evasions and searchings.

In The Little Drummer Girl le Carré portrays the violent conflicts of Arab and Israeli, moving his characters freely about Europe as he tightens the tense atmosphere created by terrorism. His characters are meticulous in their attention to detail; he conveys the concentration, the ruthlessness, the tyranny of abstract concepts made utterly inhuman. This is a story in which several ways of looking at life—and the deaths of victims—are juxtaposed convincingly; the effect is achieved through le Carré's capacity to create confidence in his readers through an inside knowledge of how terrorists and counter-terrorists operate.

A Perfect Spy and The Russia House both show le Carré's maturity, his established mastery of his medium. In The Russia House he moves to the new situation in the Soviet Union and brings alive the nature of its strange society. Deftly he indicates the effect of glasnost, the shift from suppression of public debate to new speculation, new credulity, new idealism, all balanced by old shortages, old skepticism, old inertias. The analysis is effective, the shifting pattern of change suggested with subtlety, the tension maintained. Bailey, the blundering British publisher, and Katya, the unselfish Russian woman with whom he falls in love, hold our attention, watched over by the British and American intelligence agents. It is convincing, at times moving, always exciting; it blends irony with a sense of the absurdity of suspicion, while at the same time suggesting the need for political caution in reacting to the unpredictable turmoil of the then-contemporary Soviet scene.

The Secret Pilgrim is a collection of short stories that functions as a novel, or a novel broken into a series of stories. In this context, the method of disjointed chapters serves well to tell the story of a spy's education, and of the sometimes pathetic characters he has encountered in his career. The Tailor of Panama illustrates how le Carré can reduce a story of global proportions to one on a very personal scale, and moreover how he has effectively moved beyond the lines of the Cold War—not to mention his penchant for humor both dry and black. Under false pretenses, protagonist Harry Prendel operates a tailor shop in Panama, and when he is called down by an agent of British intelligence named Andrew Osnard, he has to come up with "evidence" of a conspiracy involving the transfer of the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian hands. The title of le Carré's next novel, Single & Single, refers to the name of a shady British bank that assists Russian black marketeers with money laundering. When the Russians shoot a bank employee and company president Tiger Single has to go into hiding, his son Oliver sets out—rather like Telemachus in the Odyssey—to avenge his father. What ensues is indeed an odyssey of sorts, one that shows le Carré at his intriguing best.

—A. Norman Jeffares

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