Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reading David Cornwell (John Le Carré), Ex-Spy (But Are They Ever Ex-?) Scribe Extraordinaire

Having just finished The Constant Gardener, and then watching (okay, rewatching) the Ralph Fiennes portrayal on video, I thought I'd share the latest MSM touting of that superb mystery writer (and one of my favorites, who combines deep knowledge of international politics with always surprising insights into how and why the CIA uses its charter to wreak vast personal devastation under the guise of protection), David Cornwell, whom most people know as John Le Carré, the ex-MI5/6/CIA (perhaps current spy) author for sophisticates (although few know that he was the product of a father who was a well-known con artist who spent time in prison when he wasn't running from or into the arms of the law).

The Constant Gardener was published in 2001 (written long before 9/11), and I've always thought it portrayed one of the early knowledgeable literary outings (and I emphasize "outings") of what life will truly be like once nations adopt the protection fantasy of constant surveillance under the rubric of the new world order (whatever type of order one perceives that to be), not to mention the complete ownership of governments by corporations with something that must be sold infinitely: war being the best product and fear being the best incentive to buy.

One particular favorite line that rang true to me (and I'm paraphrasing, so please forgive my imperfect memory) is that warfare under the guise of humanitarianism is what people now claim as their guiding interest instead of doing God's will.

John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age

(Nadav Kander for The New York Times)

John le Carré, the 20th century's pre-eminent spy writer.


Published: April 18, 2013


On a recent Saturday morning in February, two dozen or so scent hounds streamed through the streets of St. Buryan, a small village in Cornwall, England. Behind them drifted a loose formation of men and women perched atop well-groomed horses and wearing boots, breeches and hunting coats. As the fox hunt clopped through town, John le Carré, the pre-eminent spy writer of the 20th century, sipped from a paper cup of warm whiskey punch, doled out by a local pub to riders and spectators.

At 81, he remains an enviable specimen of humanity: tall, patrician, cleanlimbed, ruddy-complected. His white hair is floppy and well cut, so much so that the actor Ralph Fiennes, who starred in the 2005 film version of le Carré’s novel “The Constant Gardener,” badgered him for the name of his barber.

Le Carré is not a hunter himself, but he nodded at the people he knew and mounted a casual and running defense of fox hunting, as if he were doing color commentary from the 18th hole at the Masters. It’s an ancient part of the rural culture, he said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. It’s also largely futile: an actual fox is rarely cornered. When one is, a trained eagle owl is brought in to kill it.

As the final horse strode past, le Carré swallowed the dregs of his punch and crumpled his cup. His eyebrows, so thatchy and animated that they seem ready to leap off his forehead and start nibbling the shrubbery, rose as he turned toward me, his blue eyes alight, and happily declared, “At least they aren’t hunting that poor goddamn thing with drones.”

It is hard to blame le Carré for being in a cheerful mood. As he enters his ninth decade, he is in the midst of a hardy late-career bloom, thanks in no small part to the critical and popular success of the 2011 film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on his 1974 cold-war espionage classic of the same name. Subtle, somber and intellectually dexterous, the movie, which featured Gary Oldman as le Carré’s venerable MI6 master spy George Smiley, was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Oldman.

The film made his backlist fly from bookstore shelves. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” alone sold more than a million copies in paperback and e-books last year — some 500,000 in the United Kingdom, 350,000 in North America and 150,000 in Germany and France. And it rekindled Hollywood’s interest. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams recently finished shooting “A Most Wanted Man,” based on le Carré’s 2008 thriller indicting the war on terror, which is scheduled for release next year. Ewan McGregor will star in a film adaptation of le Carré’s 2010 novel, “Our Kind of Traitor,” about a British couple on a tennis holiday who become entangled in a Russian defection. What’s more, Oldman may reprise his performance as Smiley when the movie version of “Smiley’s People,” the sequel to “Tinker Tailor,” is made.

Le Carré likes to visit these film sets — two of his four adult sons, Simon and Stephen, are the producers behind several of the adaptations — but only early on, and only to voice encouragement and to sprinkle what he calls “pixie dust.” After that, he leaves filmmakers alone, telling them they can call if necessary.

At the moment a new generation is stumbling upon his work, le Carré is still writing at something close to the top of his game. His 23rd novel, “A Delicate Truth,” about a supposed counterterrorist operation on the British overseas territory of Gibraltar gone dismally wrong, will be out next month. The book is an elegant yet embittered indictment of extraordinary rendition, American right-wing evangelical excess and the corporatization of warfare. It has a gently flickering love story and a jangling ending. And le Carré has not lost his ability to sketch, in a line or two, an entire character.

Readers like myself, mostly allergic to spy stories and genre narratives, have long been drawn to le Carré’s stuff because of the wit and incisiveness he manages to insert into pained understatement. His early books sketched, as he once put it about his Smiley novels, “a kind of ‘Comédie humaine’ of the cold war, told in terms of mutual espionage.”

In his lesser books, le Carré’s prose can thin out perilously, but at his best, he’s among the finest writers alive. There’s a reason Philip Roth has called “A Perfect Spy,” le Carré’s 1986 autobiographical work of fiction, “the best English novel since the war.” The Times of London ranked him 22nd on a list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945. His books are less about espionage than they are about human frailty and desire; they’re about how we are, all of us, spies of a sort.
Dwight Garner is a book critic for The Times.
Editor: Sheila Glaser

Read the rest here.

(Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
John le Carré in Hamburg in 1964.

His readership is vast and influential. When le Carré received an honorary degree from Oxford last summer, the Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was on hand to receive one as well. In her speech, she declared: “When I was under house arrest, I was also helped by the books of John le Carré. . . . They were a journey into the wider world. Not the wider world just of other countries, but of thoughts and ideas.”
The legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, who worked on many of le Carré’s novels while at Alfred A. Knopf in the 1970s and ’80s, laughed when I proposed that some still consider him a genre hack. “He’s a brilliant writer for whom spies are merely subject matter,” Gottlieb said. “Calling him a spy writer is like calling Joseph Conrad a sea writer, or Jane Austen a domestic-comedy writer.”

Gottlieb added, “Who are these idiots who think otherwise?”
One of the best things about le Carré’s novels is that, from the start, they’ve hummed with the flavorful and recondite language of espionage, a field that has its jargon like any other. In many cases, le Carré has invented that jargon himself. Terms from his novels — “honey trap,” for instance, to denote using sex to compromise a target — have been adopted by the pros.

He can probably claim “mole” as well. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, he says, wrote him once, asking if he invented the idea of employing the word as a synonym for a long-term penetration agent. Le Carré wasn’t certain. But the sole other historical usage turned out to be one he is unlikely to have seen — it appears in a little-known 17th-century volume about King Henry VII by Francis Bacon.
Yet John le Carré’s greatest invention is easily John le Carré himself. Born in 1931 in Poole, a sprawling coastal town in Dorset, he is a product of a childhood both unusual and enviable — if you happen to be a writer. It made him suspicious of charm of any sort and gave him a limitless fascination with humans and their secrets.
Le Carré, as most of his fans know, is a son of a great, debonair English con man. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, born into mundane middle-class life, remade himself into a funny, gracious man who found that he could talk anyone out of anything, and did so. He was friendly with the Kray twins, the notorious and photogenic London gangsters. He was jailed for insurance fraud. He always, le Carré said, had a scam or two in the works.
“In his high days, he had a racehorse at Maisons-Lafitte outside Paris, and dancing girls, and he’d go whizzing off to Monte Carlo with the former lord mayor of London to stay in grand style at the Hotel de Paris,” le Carré said. “His social rise was extraordinary.” When things went badly, le Carré recalls, “not only were the police looking for him, but the boys were. We had to put the cars behind the house, keep the lights out and so on.”
Le Carré likes to cite a passage from the autobiography of Colin Clark, the son of the art collector Lord Clark, who wrote about what it was like to be taken in by le Carré’s father: “He was your favorite uncle, your family doctor, Bob Boothby and Father Christmas rolled into one.” He could, Clark wrote, “fix anything” and did. “Ronnie invited me to Royal Ascot and gave me a few good dinners. Then he showed me a piece of derelict property, which he did not own, promised to double my money in three months and took the lot.”
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Le Carré’s latest:

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

From the April 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine:


By John le Carré

I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of thirty under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.

As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.

And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.

Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realized that now and forevermore I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world and written about it.

But journalists of the time weren’t having any of that. I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck. Meanwhile, I was receiving the sort of attention writers dream of. My only problem was, I didn’t believe my own publicity. I didn’t like it even while I was subscribing to it, and there was in the most literal sense nothing I could say to stop the bandwagon, even if I’d wanted to. And I wasn’t sure I did.

In the Sixties — and right up to the present day — the identity of a member of the British secret service was and is, quite rightly, a state secret. To divulge it is a crime. The service may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may showcase an intelligence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their omniscience and — wait for it — openness. But woe betide a leaky former member.

And anyway I had my own inhibitions. I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary. Presenting myself to the press in New York a few months after the novel had made its mark in the States, I dutifully if nervously mouthed my denials: no, no, I had never been in the spy business; no, it was just a bad dream: which of course it was.

The paradox was compounded when an American journalist with connections told me out of the corner of his mouth that the reigning chief of my service had advised a former director of the CIA that I had been his serving officer, and that he had told nobody but his very large retinue of best friends, and that anyone in the room who was anyone knew I was lying.

Every interview I have faced in the fifty years since then seems designed to penetrate a truth that isn’t there, and perhaps that’s one reason why I have become allergic to the process.

Con artistry?

A master craftsman.


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