The Double Life of John le Carré

How a con-artist father and treason in MI6 created the bard of the Cold War

Matt Taylor

Every writer is a kind of spy, ghosting through life in the service of an alien power. He lurks, he snoops, he eavesdrops, he jots his jottings, he thinks his treacherous thoughts. But not every spy is a writer. Kim Philby, for example, the Soviet double agent who spent a perfidiously productive decade in the highest echelons of Cold War British intelligence, was also responsible for some appalling prose. “Her political views are Socialistic, but like the majority of the wealthy class, she has an almost ineradicable tendency towards a definite form of philistinism.” This is Philby, secret totalitarian, summarizing for his Moscow controllers the ideological impurities of his (at this point) unsuspecting wife, Aileen. “She believes in upbringing, the British navy, personal freedom, democracy, the constitutional system, honor, etc.” The single literary touch here is an accident: that supremely horrible and languid etc., following the word honor and trailing off into an abyss of contempt.


Philby is one of the two enormous, duplicitous presences—or anti-presences—hanging over Adam Sisman’s new John le Carré: The Biography. The other is its subject’s father, Ronnie. Philby was a snake, whereas with Ronnie you reach for adjectives like Falstaffian or Rabelaisian, his monstrous vitality seeming to emanate from some artistic over-realm. But both men were double-sided, truth-inverting, charismatic, untainted by empathy, profoundly destructive, and finally incomprehensible. Between them, they form the reason you will find le Carré’s novels in the mystery section of your local bookstore.

John le Carré, one of England’s greatest novelists, author of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and creator of the character George Smiley, was born David Cornwell in 1931 in Poole, England. He was 2 when his father—who was always either booming or busting, expanding and contracting to the rhythm of his own dodginess—got 15 months for fraud and other charges. “He could put a hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket and both gestures would be equally sincere,” David’s brother Tony once said. He also molested his own children. “When he came home sozzled,” we read in John le Carré, “Ronnie would sometimes climb on to David’s bed, pawing and fondling him, while David feigned sleep.” (Sisman, perhaps taking his cue from le Carré himself, passes swiftly on from this fact, which might have been the cornerstone of another kind of biography.)

In the manner of many a sociopath, Ronnie was a sentimentalist, too, lachrymose and Kipling-quoting. “Love your old man?” he would ask. Away at boarding school during the Second World War, David felt that his father—who at the time was down in London skimming the cream off the black market—was in need of a cover story. “David quietly let it be known,” writes Sisman, “that Ronnie had joined the secret service, was being trained for an important mission and would soon be parachuted into Germany. Unknown to him, his father was peddling similar stories to his cronies in London.”

The boys’ mother had left, so there was just Ronnie, with his huge, fragrantly oiled head and his well-groomed hands and his alternating waves of neglect and stifling overinvolvement. It’s not an unfamiliar story, almost a writerly genesis myth: that of the boy who cultivates extrasensory powers of observation and interpretation, who sharpens his surveillance skills while watching, in fright, his unpredictable father. John le Carré leaves us in no doubt that it was Ronnieenlarged chaotic patriarch, drunken groper, devourerwho primordially displaced his son from life’s center and pushed him out into the flickering zones of the novelist and the spy.

School, in the best English tradition, was hell. Many years later, le Carré remembered his headmaster at St. Andrews thusly: “I always knew when he was going to beat me because he became dreadfully slow in his movements, like a man moving through water. He would stand up, put down his pipe and stare at me in dull confusion.” Is it the clogged, distorted energy of the sadist with the pipe that so shocks us, or the traumatic deceleration of the memory itself? To relieve the pressure, David faked sickness, impressively counterfeiting first an epileptic seizure and then the symptoms of a hernia—so precisely that he actually underwent an operation. (An eerie parallel arises here to the tragic story of Aileen Philby, who, as her husband’s crimes deepened, began to seriously injure herself and make herself ill.) Le Carré writes of his school days with undiminished boyish loathing—so much so that it feels not reductive but oddly satisfying, like justice, to imagine his Cold War novels as a prolonged and incredibly sophisticated act of vengeance upon the Establishment that had tormented him.

David Cornwell, who would one day join MI6 (foreign intelligence), seems to have started working in earnest for MI5 (domestic intelligence) around 1953, while studying at Oxford. The British double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had recently defected to Moscow, and although their friend and fellow traitor Kim Philby was not yet officially exposed, it was, in le Carré’s words, “witch-hunt time.” We might call this the Philby Effect: Still at large, although under suspicion, he had unzipped the psyche of British intelligence. The Americans had been duped, too—Philby and James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s future head of counterintelligence, were regular lunch buddies in Washington, D.C.–—but it was the English upon whom he wreaked real havoc, because it was his Englishness that had enabled and preserved him.* Philby was clubbable and perfectly mannered; he had a sense of humor, that useful English substitute for emotion. The idea of his being crooked was simply impossible, and friends in the service rallied round to debunk it.

With Philby you were in negativeland, the silvery counterworld of the thing that you know but don’t want to know that you know—in other words, you were in what would later become the fictional atmosphere of John le Carré. When Smiley reflects upon the treachery—personal and professional—of his colleague Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré writes, “He knew, of course. He had always known … All of them had tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which was like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never owned to, never diagnosed.”

Taking the pen name John le Carré (he doesn’t remember where from), Cornwell began to write while still working in intelligence. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, in 1963, was the breakthrough: a thriller with the purity of an existential fable, and a best seller. (Its success enabled him to retire from the service.)The cold in the book is actual—October winds and chilly rooms—but it is also metaphysical, infernal: It kills love. The British spy Alec Leamas returns to London from Berlin, his network of agents on the other side of the Wall having been destroyed by his opposite number, Mundt. He is summoned into the aura of his superior, the man known only as Control, a desiccated omniscience fussing over an electric heater. Control shakes Leamas’s hand “rather carefully, like a doctor feeling the bones,” and then tells him, “I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.” A trap is being set for Mundt. Leamas is instructed to drift, detach, descend, burn out, become useless, until Moscow—convinced at last of his disaffection—makes its inevitable approach to turn him. He is to become a double agent. His cover will be no cover at all: total exposure to the slow wrath of society, and its cold war upon the lonely.

The Berlin Wall of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, le Carré would later write, was somehow his own wall: his burden, his blockage. “Staring at the Wall was like staring at frustration itself, and it touched an anger in me … A disgusting gesture of history coincided with some desperate mechanism inside myself.” But of course it was no coincidence: Although le Carré has written plenty of excellent novels post-perestroika, it was his particular genius as a novelistwhat Kipling would have called his “daemon”that transformed the theater of the Cold War into his own beautifully resonating symbolic structure. The muffled violence, the bleak streets, the human data so refined as to be almost beyond perception—hypervigilance is part of the psychology of the abuse victim, as is dissociation. Standard spy stuff. Control discusses with Leamas the sensation of seeing one’s agent get shot: “a sickening jolt like a blow on a numb body.”

And in the middle of it all is the spymaster Smiley, as much priest as agent, dense with subterranean knowledge, blinking, suffering, doughily pliable and razor-sharp. His wife cheats on him; his colleagues at the Circus, le Carré’s fictional version of British intelligence, corral him with a bruising, bullying affability. Quietly goes Smiley: memory spy, an artist of recollection, traveling back into the files, back into the memory banks of frazzled ex-Circus types such as Connie Sachs, back into his own mind, to find the truth of what is happening around him.

This backwards movement, in its own way a therapeutic operation, is a le Carré signature. “I strain and stretch … I shove with every muscle of my imagination as deep as I dare into the heavy shadows of my own pre-history.” Thus reflects Magnus Pym, the Philby-like double man at the heart of 1986’s A Perfect Spy. Pym’s father, Rick, is Ronnie-like—tremendous, larcenous, overflowing all boundaries. And as resistant to the truth as to a drug: “His face … acquired the dreamy expression that overcame it at the approach of a direct question.” It’s le Carré’s lodestone novel: his two great liars, in one book.

We learn from John le Carré that the Quest for Karla trilogy—the sequence of novels covering the almost mystical battle between Smiley and his KGB nemesis, Karla—was originally conceived as a much larger, Balzacian cycle. It’s easy to see how this might have been done: The lore and liturgy of the Circus feels limitless, and the character of Smiley is nearly prophetic. Smiley’s Britain is on the wane, “a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.” In Smiley’s People he orders a taxi from a private firm—not because he needs a taxi, but because he wants to quiz the driver about a fare he picked up the day before. After concluding the interview, Smiley blandly directs the cabbie, “You can tell your firm I didn’t turn up.” “Tell ’em what I bloody like, can’t I?” comes the response. A snarl, a micro-wobble of the class system: This is 1970s London, with punk rock around the corner, and the deference of the proletariat can no longer be assumed.

“I have sometimes reflected,” Sisman writes a bit ruefully in his introduction to the biography, “that my unintended role has been to spoil a fund of good stories.” And indeed his investigations—conducted with the cooperation of le Carré himself, who is 84—take on now and again the character of a punctilious field officer’s debriefing of a wayward agent. At one point, querying the location of a le Carré anecdote from the early 1950s, he proudly out-fact-checks the fact-checkers at The New Yorker. The anecdote concerns a rendezvous, in an Austrian saloon, with a Czech airman who has information to sell. Le Carré and a colleague enter the bar and order a couple of beers. When le Carré picks up a pool cue and leans over to make a shot, his gun falls out of his waistband with a clang. “Abort,” says his colleague, between sips of his pint. (Le Carré was a great writer but a mediocre spy—Philby through the looking glass.)

Writing involves betrayal, and le Carré—after his fashion and to our lasting benefit—double-crossed his own people. His Cold War novels were psychic microfilms of an Establishment hollowed out by deceit, denial, and inadequacy. They outraged his fellow spies. “I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services” was the verdict of one former colleague, late in life, on the le Carré opus. And Sisman also gives us this: “ ‘You bastard!’ a middle-aged intelligence officer, once his colleague, yelled down the room at him, as they assembled for a diplomatic dinner in Washington. ‘You utter bastard.’ ” But what else could he have done, this damaged son, this malingering schoolboy, this doubtful servant of a shrinking empire—this spiritual exile, onto whose numb body the blows had fallen—what else could he have done but make his report?

* This article originally identified James Jesus Angleton as the head of the CIA. We regret the error.

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