The Writer Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré, who died last Saturday aged 89, was the supreme chronicler of the sordid world of Cold War espionage - because he was once himself a spy.
The Cold War feels like it was an awfully long time ago. It was a painful and awkward stand-off which erupted out of the entrails of the Second World War and wasn't finally extinguished until the demolition of the Berlin Wall forty years later.
It was a war without battle lines - or indeed armies in the conventional sense - but with millions of casualties.
A war best captured not in history books or vain glorious memoirs, not in adventure movies or Netflix drama-documentaries, but in that until then overlooked genre: the spy novel. The best writers of spy novels are, not surprisingly, ex-spies. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, worked in naval intelligence - though his hero is too brash, suave, sexually confident and technically adept to be believable. The real master of the genre was John le Carré, once an agent of Britain's intelligence service MI6, who died a few days ago.
Le Carré's novels were not about heroism but betrayal. His spies, even the ones on the 'right' side, were tawdry, grubby, flawed, amoral, and compromised; their souls were damaged by what they had done and tolerated in the name of a greater good that they couldn't quite define. Rival intelligence agencies spent more time manoeuvring against each other - planting moles, identifying double agents, weeding out sleeper cells - than acting in a manner which might protect the national interest.
John le Carré's real name was David Cornwell. His family was well-connected but his father was a con man and crook, and his mother walked out on the household when he was five. At Oxford in the early 1950s, Cornwell worked secretly for the security service, pretending he was on the left so he could inform on the activities of left-wing fellow students. A shitty thing to do, but spies revel in shit.
A couple of years after graduating, he was given a job by the security service, MI5, which focuses on home-grown security risks. He ran agents, tapped phone lines and undertook illicit burglaries - the tools of the trade, you might say. A couple of years later he moved over to MI6 and took a post on the front-line, in the British embassy in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany.
In 1964, his career as a spy came to an end when a British defector to the Soviet bloc - there were quite a few over the years - blew his cover. By then he had already embarked on his career as an author - his breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, came out in 1963. His writing is wonderful, prose at its most powerful, and his sense of place and moment unerring.
A character in one of le Carré's early novels describes intelligence agents as 'a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too ... pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives'. He wrote about the tradecraft of espionage in a manner which convinced his readers of its authenticity. He was a master storyteller who understood the squalid, ego-ridden, back-stabbing world he wrote about.
The Cold War - the battle between the US-led NATO democracies (most of them) and the communist Soviet bloc - was played out most intensely in Europe. And above all in Germany, which was left cleaved in two at the end of the Second World War, with a separate nation of East Germany under Moscow's control. The old German capital, Berlin, was also torn in two - and West Berlin was marooned inside East German territory. Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing between West and East Berlin through the Berlin Wall, became the enduring symbol of the Cold War and of the 'iron curtain' which had fallen across the continent.
In Britain, the drama of the Cold War was intensified by the defection to the Soviet Union of a string of senior intelligence agents, the best-known being Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. They had, it transpired, been student communists at Cambridge in the 1930s, when communism bore the lustre of standing up against European fascism, and developed a loyalty to Moscow which shaped their lives.
For the British public, brought up to believe that western values of freedom and democracy were much superior to Soviet totalitarianism, there was a collective self-searching about how some of the country's most able sons could find solace in the Soviet system. That sense of self-doubt fed the appetite for le Carré's novels, several of which were adapted with huge success for the cinema and TV.
Le Carré did his best in his fiction to adapt to the post-Cold War world, but with less than total success. Three years ago, with A Legacy of Spies, he returned to the Cold War and its aftermath. It was also a return to form. He was a writer - a great writer - of his era, chronicling a cramped and unhappy age.