Writing about John le Carré is intimidating. Writing an appreciation after he has died feels doubly so. In some ways, this fear says much about the England that le Carré was so masterful at capturing: the class consciousness and fear of straying beyond your place. Le Carré inhabited an England beyond my horizons, not just the cloak-and-dagger one, but the one that exists at Eton and at Oxford and in many parts of London, lands that remain foreign to most of us. To write about him, then, is to risk exposing yourself—for missing the subtlety of a particular line of dialogue, or the joke woven into a novel that others can see because they know and you don’t.
Many of us relied on le Carré to reveal our own country to us. Through his novels, we got to spy on England’s crumbling ruling class. In A Perfect Spy, seen by many as le Carré’s autobiographical masterpiece, he writes that our rulers are not bad people, just “men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference.” Le Carré is not only an English shapeshifter, a man who bridges classes and professions, but one who knows the world beyond England too.
Because of this, le Carré, who died of pneumonia yesterday at 89, is a hero for many Englishmen like me, those who move between the subtle strata of England’s classes, each heaped on top of the other, the lines between them difficult to discern. The son of a con man who smuggled his son into the English upper class through boarding school, le Carré went on to be a student at Oxford, a teacher at Eton, and, of course, a spy, before becoming a writer. Even as David Cornwell—the novelist’s real name—he was a romantic figure, the liver of an unobtainable life, one of us and one of them. Who hasn’t secretly wanted a tap on the shoulder to see whether you would be prepared to serve Queen and country; to have country houses, where one could read medieval German poetry and deal with Hollywood filmmakers; and to live during the Cold War, when Britain still had an idea, and a side—when it was still just about able to convince itself that it was not the “poor island with scarcely a voice” that le Carré identified.