John le Carré’s Search for a Vocation

    Le Carré saw writing as a role he could play in a drama greater than himself. “Out of the secret world I once knew,” he explained in “The Pigeon Tunnel,” “I have tried to make a theater for the larger worlds we inhabit.” His letters show him travelling the world, running toward danger, looking for his characters’ inner conflicts in real-world conflict zones. In writing novels, he found a way to fill his life with all the adventure of a spy thriller but without the need to deceive others—at least, not for work.

    In a 1950 letter to his girlfriend Ann, le Carré wrote that he had been captured, stripped naked, and beaten. “But I never got my clothes back—so I am writing to you in a state of nature,” he joked, attaching a naughty illustration of himself. Aged nineteen, David Cornwell (he was not yet le Carré, the novelist) was in Sussex for spy-training camp. He had been recruited by British intelligence two years earlier while studying German at the University of Bern. Like me, he had received a call from a woman with a nurturing voice, a “mumsy lady named Wendy from the British Embassy’s visa section in Bern.” He was tasked with infiltrating left-wing student groups and reporting on their activities. His first overseas operation was in Austria, still in the guise of a Communist sympathizer, where he recruited a local boy to trade pornography to Russian soldiers in exchange for military gossip. “Life is very good,” he wrote to Ann. “Opera and intrigue. What could be more entertaining?” Le Carré was then twenty years old. At this point, his main approach to the Cold War was to enjoy it.

    But spying took le Carré away from literature. He had been in Bern, on leave from his British boarding school, with the intention of reading Goethe, not Soviet communiques. After graduating from Oxford, in 1956, he returned to his first passion and took a job teaching German at Eton. Regret set in almost immediately. “Eton is just about murdering us,” he wrote in a letter to his mentor, Vivian Green. His plan to instill a love of German poetry in the minds of future banking executives and Tory M.P.s was dashed by what he described as “an infuriating tradition of not being enthusiastic about anything, or surprised.” He lasted five terms—but it was not time wasted. In “The Pigeon Tunnel,” le Carré wrote that Andy Osnard, the corrupt M.I.6 agent in “The Tailor of Panama” (1996), had been inspired by his former students. He needed “a decadent well-born British rascal” to use as a model for the character. “But for anyone who has taught at Eton, as I had, there were candidates galore.”

    Soon, he was back to the only other job he knew: working for British intelligence. He was first stationed at an office in central London known as F4. “The letter F indicated,” he told a London audience in 2007, “that our target was Communist subversion in all its perceived variations. F4’s remit was to recruit spies of both sexes, to motivate, befriend, brief, counsel, debrief, pay and welfare them.” Still, an office job is an office job. Much of his work involved writing reports and operations summaries. Everything he wrote had to remain confidential, unseen. This proved a frustration for the young le Carré, who recognized his own talent and craved an audience. “Sometimes I wish you could see something of my work,” he wrote Ann. “I’ve finished an immense report today I was rather pleased with. Dearest love aren’t I vain!”

    One of his colleagues, a man named John Bingham, wrote thrillers in his spare time. It gave le Carré, whose only involvement in publishing at this point seemed to have been making illustrations for a ski magazine called Downhill Only Journal, the idea of taking pen to paper. His first novel, “Call for the Dead,” was published in 1961. The book, which was about an East German spy ring in London, introduced readers to the character of George Smiley, an S.I.S. agent, who, like le Carré, had an affinity for German poetry. Success came as fast as a missile. Hitchcock’s agent wanted to adapt it. By the time his third novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” was written, his publisher was offering a huge, life-altering advance. He wrote a letter to his stepmother about his newfound fame and fortune: “It’s all right, I suppose, as long as you don’t enjoy it. Like sex on Sundays.”

    As le Carré’s own life filled with glitz, he was making his name by ridding the spy thriller of that very same quality. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was a rebuke of jingoistic, Bond-like spy fictions. Men and women of conviction, on both sides, are swallowed up by a game of one-upmanship run by suits in London and Moscow. In a now famous line, a British agent named Alec Leamas preaches to an idealistic young socialist: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

    “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” changed le Carré’s life. “He moved from a spy in the guise, and on the salary, of a junior diplomat to a writer lionised worldwide, who lunched in New York with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” Cornwell writes in the introduction to “A Private Spy.” Its success also allowed le Carré to leave intelligence work. Ironically, it was as a writer that le Carré did the bulk of his fieldwork, coming face to face with the major political conflicts that defined his lifetime. To research his novels, he travelled to the heart of conflict zones: southeast Asia in the last days of the Vietnam War (“The Honourable Schoolboy,” from 1977), Israel and Lebanon (“The Little Drummer Girl,” from 1983), Chechnya (“Our Game,” from 1995), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“The Mission Song,” from 2006). If he had still been a spy, his new line of work would have made a great cover story.

    The letters from this period are focussed on the labor that went into writing political thrillers. This portion of le Carré’s correspondence reads like the field notes of a war reporter. He made several trips to Israel and Lebanon, where he met with Israeli intelligence officials and Palestinian leaders: “I just came back from Beirut after a long session with Arafat,” he wrote a friend in 1982. While on a trip to the D.R.C. to research “The Mission Song,” le Carré crossed the border into Rwanda to visit memorials to the genocide. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, “They’ve pickled the bodies somehow and left them on show, lest anybody should take it into his head to say it never happened.”

    In one letter, le Carré starts off, mundanely enough, apologizing to his accountant for not having receipts for some of the expenses he racked up while on a recent work trip. Less mundane is why:

    I promised you some while back an explanation of how I had incurred
    expenses of around £2,500, largely unaccounted for by receipts during
    my explorations of northern Indo-China for the purposes of my new and
    as yet unpublished book, of which the working title is THE CHINA
    TARGET. Largely, these expenses relate to the period when I was based
    on Chiang Mai, and from there exploring the illicit growing and
    refining of opium poppies in the area of the so-called Golden
    Triangle, which joins Burma, Thailand and Laos. Through the offices of
    the illegal Shan State Army in Chiang Mai, I succeeded in getting
    myself escorted along their supply line into the heart of the opium
    growing area. To do this I was obliged to make a contribution to their
    fighting fund of $1,000.

    The details of the journey went into “The Honourable Schoolboy.” In
    that novel, Jerry Westerby, a sports journalist working on behalf of
    M.I.6 is dispatched to Hong Kong to gather information about a Soviet
    money-laundering scheme. Later, in Laos, Westerby meets and falls in
    love with a young British woman who has been caught up in the drug
    trade. Smiley, back in England, tracks down her family, working-class
    strivers, who brag that she is in Laos working for British
    intelligence. They have a letter from her saying that’s what she’s up
    to. “This is good Work, Dad,” she wrote, “the kind we dreamed of you and me.”

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