The Double Life of John le Carré

As The Spy Who Came In From the Cold turns 60, a reassessment of John le Carré and the forces that shaped the writer and the man

A photo illustration of a typewriter, with the silhouette of a person in a trench coat and hat and John le Carré's eyes.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Terry Fincher / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty

“Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” John le Carré once wrote. “Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal. Those of us who have been inside the secret tent never really leave it.” Le Carré’s enigmatic gift as a writer wasn’t simply that he could draw on his experience of having once been a British spy. He brought a novelist’s eye into the secret world, and the habits of espionage to his writing. Far more than knowledge of tradecraft, this status—at once outsider and insider—enabled him to uncover truths about the corrupting nature of power: His novels are infused with the honesty of an outsider, but they could only have been written by a man who knows what it is like to be inside the tent.

In the worlds le Carré created, truths are rarely self-evident. So it was in his own life, as we learn in a recently published book of his letters. On the surface, he progressed naturally from his youth to the inner sanctum: His adolescence was spent in English public schools immediately after World War II, where the boys did military training in uniform, jingoism was the norm, and—at least for one final generation—empire was an inheritance. He studied foreign languages. He served in the British army’s Intelligence Corps. He attended Oxford. He taught German at Eton. By the time he joined MI5 in 1958, his biography read, well, like a lot of other recruits’.

The deeper truth is more interesting. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was an inveterate con man, in and out of money and trouble with the law. His mother left them when he was 5 years old, so young David Cornwell, as was his birth name, was enlisted as his father’s accomplice. He entered the secret world early, engaging in deceptions on behalf of his father but also to protect himself against a man who drank, gambled, and wasn’t above beating his son. “Spying did not introduce me to secrecy,” le Carré wrote in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. “Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood.”

His own service as a spy was short-lived—including a few years undercover in Germany with a cover identity as a junior diplomat in the early 1960s. Still, it was an auspicious and life-changing period. The Cold War was at its apex, at the moment of the Berlin Wall’s construction and the Cuban missile crisis. Meanwhile, British intelligence was rocked by the revelation that it was harboring two high-ranking Soviet double agents: George Blake and Kim Philby. The British elite were scandalized. MI6’s networks were decimated. The British secret services were discredited in the eyes of the Americans.

During this period, Cornwell rose early and wrote three novels under the pseudonym John le Carré: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, and, in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. This last book, which turns 60 this year, recast the Cold War: The conflict was not a morality play of good versus evil, as leaders of both sides presented it; rather, it was an ambiguous addendum to World War II waged by gray men in the shadows, broken by their own betrayals and the bureaucracies—capitalist and Communist—that treated them as expendable. The novel became a global best seller, making his (invented) name. In any case, David Cornwell’s career as a spy ended the year after his breakthrough novel was published: Philby, it is widely believed, blew his cover.

For the rest of his life, he would be John le Carré the writer. Despite his accurate protestation that he “was a writer who had once happened to be a spy, rather than a spy who had turned to writing,” le Carré never really separated himself from his time on the inside. He was not a genre writer. He was motivated less by portraying cloak-and-dagger conceits and more by a searching need to understand the overreach of empires, be they British, Soviet, or American. He wove stories of how individuals and nations reveal themselves through the secrets they carry. In a way, every book he wrote is a symphonic variation on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—in which a British agent poses as a Communist defector in order to take down a brutal East German foe, only to learn that his own service has betrayed him and the innocent are left to suffer the consequences. It is an unsparing look at the cost of moral compromise in pursuit of so-called national interests.

Two years after his death, we now have a voluminous collection of le Carré’s letters, assembled by his son Tim Cornwell and published late last year: A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré. Through his correspondence, we learn a lot about le Carré’s habits as a writer. There are literary feuds, frustrations with critics, and glimpses into how some of his books became successful film and television productions (and how some didn’t). Despite his success, you get the sense that le Carré never let go of his insecurities about being taken seriously as a novelist; we see him seeking—and reveling in—the approval of writers such as Graham Greene, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard. Clearly, he wanted to be known as more than a spy or a spy novelist.

There is less material that reveals le Carré’s secret lives. The correspondence during his time as a spy often reads like an opaque curtain veiling his cover—a litany of logistics and family updates. Le Carré had numerous infidelities during his two marriages, a habit that doubtlessly benefited from his experience in subterfuge. According to his son, le Carré “covered the tracks” of his infidelities—but there are occasional revelatory exceptions. “Dear heart, try to understand a mole too used to the dark to believe in light,” he wrote in one letter to Susan Kennaway, with whom he began an affair in 1964. “If you live, as I have, so long in the dark, you can’t always, if you are me, have faith in the light.” Clearly, le Carré felt the burden of living secret lives, which must have contributed to his capacity to conjure characters who feel the agony of betraying loved ones while hiding away their truest selves.

His letters also reveal a man who cared deeply about how his work was consumed by the wider world. In 1966, he wrote an open letter to a KGB-controlled literary journal that had critiqued The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In it, he acknowledged drawing equivalences between the Soviet Union and the United States, but not between communism and Western democracy—the issue, instead, was how the West betrayed its own ideals in the methods it used to wage the Cold War. To le Carré, the real tragedy was the wreckage of human lives all around: “The problem of the Cold War is that, as Auden once wrote, we haunt a ruined century. Behind the little flags we wave, there are old faces weeping, and children mutilated by the fatuous conflicts of preachers.”

The letter can be read as a mission statement for le Carré’s politics at the time. Notably, though, it was published in Encounter, a magazine funded by the CIA—le Carré was expressing his outsider’s viewpoint in a publication that was very much a part of the inside, the same machinery that he was critiquing. This irony recurs in his letters: Le Carré repeatedly offers withering indictments of the powers he served, but he never seems to cast them aside. Later in life, he wrote nostalgically to Alan Judd, a fellow novelist who once served as a soldier and diplomat, of his time at MI5 and MI6: “I miss the Office … In a sense, they are the only places, apart from writing.”

Yet, in other places, he could be withering about the people who become spies, himself included. He explained himself to a friend who learned that le Carré spied on him at university: “I was a nasty, vengeful little orphan with a psychopathic liar for a father and a boy-scout self-image as an antidote.” The description is eerily similar to one le Carré offered of Philby in a letter to a journalist: Philby was “a nasty little establishment traitor with a revolting father, a fake stammer and an anguished sexuality who spent his life getting his own back on the England that made him.” But again, there’s that tension—le Carré was no romanticist for England, but he maintained a righteous rage at Philby for betraying it. Ahead of one of his trips to Russia, le Carré was approached about meeting Philby to hear his side of the story. Most writers would have jumped at the chance; le Carré refused.

What he did do was travel the world researching the settings, characters, and themes of his novels. Many of his letters testify to his doggedness. He pursues guides to far-flung places like a spy recruiting sources, and reports back his findings through novels—often by putting us inside the experiences of those on the wrong end of power. He understood this as a key to his own success—a mixture of empathy and exactitude—which depended upon other people trusting him. “Each novel I have written has been a complete life,” he writes to Vladimir Stabnikov, a Russian literary figure who was le Carré’s guide on trips to Moscow. “The novels I wrote about Russia were lives that you enabled me to lead. And when I moved on to other lives: to the Middle East, to Africa, and to Latin America, other people opened doors for me and I was again the beneficiary of kind strangers who became kind friends.”

Although he wandered widely, he returned—again and again—to the profession he knew best. He produced a shelf of books about a British intelligence service whose concerns mirrored the nation’s struggle to determine what it was without an empire. Many of his later books act as broadsides against an American national-security apparatus filled with the hubris of an empire that didn’t know it was hastening its own decline. To le Carré, this wasn’t just a matter of writing what he knew; these books were a useful vehicle for telling the stories he wanted to tell. “If you are a novelist struggling to explore a nation’s psyche,” he wrote in his memoir, “its Secret Service is not an unreasonable place to look.”

His letters reveal just how much the United Kingdom and the United States had let him down by the end of his life. “My response to the political scene is vehement,” he wrote to a journalist in 2018. “I hate Brexit, hate Trump, fear the rise of white fascism everywhere and take the threat very seriously indeed; the craving for conflict is everywhere among our pseudo dictators.” Shortly before his death, he sought and received Irish citizenship. Finally, a cord was cut. To an Irish bureaucrat, he wrote, “You have given me back my long friendship with Europe.”

A photo illustration of a John LeCarré within the silhouette of spies.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; John Stoddart / Popperfoto / Getty

In 2017, I finished eight years working at the center of American national-security policy in the White House. Exhausted by lack of sleep, haunted by world crises unresolved, disoriented at moving from the inside to the outside, and rattled by Donald Trump’s presidency, I sought out reasons to travel. In a bookshop in Hong Kong, I bought a set of le Carré’s first three novels—the ones written when he was on the inside. Near the beginning of the first, Call for the Dead, he introduces us to his finest creation, that owl-eyed observer within “the circus,” le Carré’s analogue for Britain’s secret services: George Smiley.

He learnt what it was never to sleep, never to relax, to feel at any time of day or night the restless beating of his own heart, to know the extremes of solitude and self-pity, the sudden unreasoning desire for a woman, for drink, for exercise, for any drug to take away the tension of his life.

I couldn’t stop reading. Here was a man working things out through his writing, trying to make sense of forces that could be soul-crushing—particularly, in this case, for people on the inside.

Something about being on the inside opened the floodgates that allowed le Carré to begin constructing his own canon. By the time I reached The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I marveled at the immediacy with which le Carré was able to distill things that could never have been captured in an intelligence report or a diplomatic cable. Spies seek information to buttress national power; writers seek the truth of the human experience. Le Carré noted this reality in a 1974 letter to Graham Greene: On one of his many research trips, he traveled to Saigon toward the end of the Vietnam War. There, with the Vietcong winning the war, he reread The Quiet American, a 1955 novel that foreshadowed America’s defeat through a piercing story of American hubris. “The sheer accuracy of its mood, and observation, is astonishing,” le Carré wrote to Greene. Greene, like le Carré, had been a spy. Greene’s novels, like le Carré’s, convey truths that elude those who serve power.

On that trip to Southeast Asia, le Carré was researching what would become The Honourable Schoolboy, about a British agent named Jerry Westerby. In the process of unmasking a Soviet intelligence operation in Asia, Westerby’s loyalties shift from his government to a woman. Still, he does the work. Pulling a thread that leads him through war-ravaged Laos to Thailand, Westerby ends up at an American military base just as Saigon falls.

Le Carré describes an exhausted outpost of empire, a bookend to The Quiet American. Through Westerby’s eyes, we see how “a flow of air-force personnel was drifting in and out of the camp, blacks and whites, in scowling segregated groups … The mood was sullen, defeated, and innately violent. The Thai groups greeted nobody. Nobody greeted the Thais.” Westerby meets his contact, an American major drinking brandy while absorbing the news of his nation’s defeat. “I want you to extend to me the hand of welcome, sir,” the major says to Westerby. “The United States of America has just applied to join the club of second-class powers of which I understand your own fine nation to be chairman, president, and oldest member.” Westerby, who has traded dreams of empire for the pursuit of love, responds cavalierly: “Proud to have you aboard.” Later, though, he takes in his surroundings with the eyes of a spy and the insight of a novelist: “This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside sound-proof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm’s length. This is how they lost.”

In le Carré’s letters, he expresses flashes of anger at being slotted as either a Cold War writer or a former spy. There was, he knew, something more enduring about his work, even though it depended on the knowledge he’d acquired inside the secret tent: It was literature. So often, ambition in public life can be tethered to achievement in the moment—rising through the ranks, reaching the heights of bureaucracy or political office. But by melding his insider’s knowledge with his outsider’s perspective, le Carré ascended to a greater height. When empires die, the most powerful thing they leave behind are stories. David Cornwell told them.

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