John le Carré, a Master of Spy Novels Where the Real Action Was Internal

The author, who died on Saturday, “had a knack for language of every variety,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “His books hum with the flavorful and recondite language of espionage.”

George Orwell wrote that a creative writer can expect to remain at the top of his form for only about 15 years. John le Carré wrote espionage novels at a high level for nearly 60. His first, “Call for the Dead,” was published in 1961; his last, “Agent Running in the Field,” appeared just last year. There were mediocre books in between, but surprisingly few of them.

Mr. Le Carré, who died on Saturday at 89, was a sane, sophisticated, morally ambiguous writer who possessed a vision of recent history, whether the Cold War, discord in the Middle East or adventures in torture at American detention camps in the wake of Sept. 11.

His novels delivered tutorials in how to brood, in fiction, without toppling into pretension. His spies knew how to handle themselves in tight spots, but the action in a le Carré novel is largely internal. His books are a rebuke to the action-man flexing in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

One of the pleasures of his penultimate novel, “A Legacy of Spies,” I wrote in this newspaper, was a reminder that adults were evvel in charge of the destiny of the free world.

Even if you are largely immune to the appeal of spy stories and genre narratives, Mr. le Carré’s books delivered a sting. So much incisiveness was inserted into pained understatement. His early books sketched, as he put it about his novels about the master spy George Smiley, “a kind of ‘Comédie humaine’ of the Cold War, told in terms of mutual espionage.”

You’ve heard of Mr. le Carré’s novels even if you haven’t read them. This is in part because of the multiple movie and television adaptations, some quite good. There are so very many of these now that a subscription service could be based on them. In part, too, it’s because he had a knack for titles.

“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Little Drummer Girl,” “The Night Manager,” “The Constant Gardener” — few writers have had a string of titles that so imprint themselves on the mind and have lent themselves to punning wordplay in the fidgety hands of headline writers everywhere.

Mr. le Carré had a knack for language of every variety. His books hum with the flavorful and recondite language of espionage. He invented some of this jargon himself — the term “honey trap,” for instance, to denote using sex to compromise a target, made its way from his work into the intelligence community.

He was nearly the victim of a bad bit of verbiage. Born David John Moore Cornwell, he attended Oxford and later worked for both MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence and security agency, and also MI6, its foreign intelligence wing. MI6 wouldn’t allow him to publish his first novel under his own name, so what to call himself? His publisher’s suggestions included “Chunk Smith.” This was a bullet neatly dodged.

Mr. le Carré’s best-known spy, Smiley, is among the great literary characters of the 20th century. Alec Guinness played him in two BBC TV series, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” and he embodied Smiley’s plump and clammy constitution, which Mr. le Carré described in “Call for the Dead” this way: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

If Mr. Guinness made Smiley vaguely resemble the poet Philip Larkin, Gary Oldman gave him a bit more pained muscle in a 2011 remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mr. le Carré sometimes put a foot wrong, politically. He had a long-running feud with Salman Rushdie, which broke into the open in 1997 over Mr. Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” Mr. le Carré opposed the novel’s paperback publication, writing that he was “more concerned about the girl in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie’s royalties.” The two, Mr. le Carré told me when I profiled him in The Times Magazine in 2013, managed to patch up their spat.

That profile was out of the ordinary for Mr. le Carré. He disliked book tours and interviews, calling the latter “making bird noises.” He let the words roll from his tongue: “gruesome bird noises.”

He didn’t attend book parties. He did not compete for, nor accept, book prizes. In 2011, when he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, he asked that his name be withdrawn.

He had honors of a different sort. Philip Roth called Mr. le Carré’s autobiographical novel “A Perfect Spy” (1986) “the best English novel since the war.” That’s a crazy thing to say, but the novel is very good. The Times of London ranked Mr. le Carré 22nd on a list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945.

His privacy at his remote house in Cornwall was cemented by the fact that he owned a half-mile of the surrounding cliffside in either direction. Mr. le Carré’s essential solitude emerged often in his fiction. An early draft of “Tinker, Tailor,” he has written, began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside toward him.”

Readers interested in learning more about the real life behind the fiction would do well to read the comprehensive and insightful biography that Adam Sisman produced, with Mr. le Carré’s cooperation, in 2015.

In person, Mr. le Carré seemed like the most patrician man alive. Yet he was a stern critic of the British class and education systems. “I find our obsession with class to be absurd,” he told me. “I have a right to these feelings, because I have pretended to be a gentleman for so long.”

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Source: The New York Times

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