Sex for the gods (Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

October 10, 2022   6 mins

John le Carré, real name David Cornwell, was a spy, an absurdly successful English novelist and, we now learn from two new books about him, something of a shit. He is also an author whose work spoke to a particular generation of readers — but for reasons that have nothing to do with anything he ever wrote about espionage.

The first of the books, The Secret Heart, is written by le Carré’s former mistress who goes by her own rather splendid nom de plume, Suleika Dawson. It’s a brisk read, filled with gossip and acute observations about her subject, who seemingly alternated between insecurity and arrogance, kindness and selfishness — like most humans, but especially most writers.

It’s also a book with a fair amount of sex bits, which are generally boring, as sex bits almost always are in books (unless you’re in the first flush of puberty on holiday in Greece and have stumbled across a Jackie Collins paperback in the beach house your dad has rented, in which case they are thrilling and then, eventually, exhausting). But, given what she says, I seriously doubt le Carré would have complained:

“This was sex as I had never encountered it before, the sex I had determinedly pursued all my adult life, the sex I truly believed I had always been enjoying, until then. But this was different from anything before, by an order of magnitude. This was sex that only the hero and heroine can have; sex for the cameras, sex for the Olympics, sex for the gods.”

Crumbs. As well as sex there is also a fair bit of lying, which is inescapable given le Carré was a married man. He treats having a mistress like being back in MI6. Money for their holidays is taken from a slush fund (known as the “reptile fund”, as in his novels). The travel agents he uses to book their sojourns are the same “discreet” ones he used back in the day; he buys a flat for their trysts that he christens their “safe house” and so on. All of which is, in of itself, slightly sad, reeking of a middle-aged man living out the fictional life of so many of his characters. And all to deceive, not Moscow Station, but his wife Jane who, let’s face it, must have known.

What is interesting here is the compulsive need for deceit — or more narrowly, the need for some kind of double life. Doubles: agents and crosses and so forth are obviously integral to spy fiction. But they are also integral to le Carré’s life, which is what both books are about, because you cannot understand le Carré or his work without understanding his father, Ronnie Cornwell, a conman of unimpeachable dishonesty, who created both David Cornwell the spy (literally) and John le Carré the author.

The study of Ronnie has become so prevalent when discussing le Carré that it has become a cliché. Public school: tick. Class and empire: double tick. Ronnie: tick, tick, tick. But these subjects are inescapable, both to le Carré’s life, and more importantly, to his work.

Like so many flamboyant conmen, Ronnie was a relentless social climber. He sent his son to boarding school (Sherborne) to make him a gentleman and thereby breach the world from which Ronnie, despite his bogus Old Etonian tie and Ascot box, was forever barred. But Ronnie’s life of extravagant windfalls combined with periods of near-destitution meant that fees often went unpaid, while Ronnie’s school visits, often with relatives of varying but unyielding coarseness, mortified the young le Carré, who always claimed he lived uneasily among his peers.

Ronnie sundered his son’s life. Early in the other new book, A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré 1945-2020, we read of the “tension between le Carré’s home life, the high-wire existence of ‘Ronnie’s Court’, and the Anglican orthodoxy of [his teacher Mr] Thompson’s Sherborne”. Eventually the young le Carré couldn’t take it anymore and, when he was 16, fled. Years later, Mr Thompson, who appears to have been a colossal old bore, wrote that his escape “was all the result of an unsatisfactory home background working unhappily on a very sensitive mind… The boy found a disturbing contrast between his very material home background and what he experienced at school. He was afraid that he would “lose” his family, which he did not want to do.”

But even if he couldn’t stand it, Sherborne would leave a lasting imprint on le Carré. There, he was, for the first time, inside a traditional English institution, but not of it. And so was the pattern of a lifetime — and a body of work — set.

This, as they say, is the rub. If sex in books is often boring so is, for the most part, espionage. There are only so many dead drops and code words you can read about without the prose descending to uniform banality. But in the hands of a skilful novelist, what spying says about society is interesting. Good spy novels, like good crime novels, are always moral barometers of their settings. Every murder is an implicit statement on the value of human life; every betrayal is a judgement on the person or country or cause being betrayed. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are pastoral idylls in which a prelapsarian England is contaminated by a serpent whom she must cast out to restore Eden. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries are 19th-century paeans to empiricism exemplified in the image of the magnifying glass that Holmes never actually used.

Le Carré’s Circus (MI6) is the inner sanctum of the British Establishment, the locus and custodian of its secrets. But the circus is also, by contrast, a world of foreigners (the Hungarian Toby Esterhase), misanthropes (its boss, Control) and outright weirdos (the donnish Connie Sachs). Even his most famous character, the irretrievably English George Smiley, is a cuckold and, by the standards of his world, an outsider from the Establishment due to his “minor” public school and unfashionable Oxford college. These are le Carré’s (and thus Smiley’s) people: products of worlds shattered by revolutions and dictators and war.

It was reading le Carré and not, say, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl (whom I also revered before I discovered his thoughts on People Like Me) that I discovered an England that was avowedly mine. Even beyond my luminously foreign surname and Jihadi-like appearance, my world was cleaved by Events. Geopolitics sent my parents spinning across continents; mine was an England soaked in ambivalence, and it created ambivalence in me: a Greek who can’t bear shouting or fuss; a Jew who can recite the Lord’s Prayer and Anglican hymns from memory. 

In the end, with le Carré we always return to our beginnings, in his case to the need for some kind of double life. Earlyish in her book, Dawson recounts an anecdote where he has sent a love letter to the wrong address:

“That he encoded my address to keep it secret in his own home, hiding it out of a lifetime’s habit of secrecy whereby he instinctively treated his domestic environment as enemy territory. That he mangled the deciphering of his own code because he had been too long out of the field, away from the real world of secrets, even though the compulsion to create secrecy was as strong as it ever had been.”

It is in these secret, almost half-formed spaces that le Carré’s art emerged. People always make the same mistake with le Carré. They think he is a writer of Englishman’s Englishness, but he is not: he’s a writer of immigrants’ Englishness. As the books make clear, he always argued that this is because he came to the establishment as an outsider, like immigrants do, and because of Ronnie.

Now, le Carré might be regarded as a consummate insider and any idea to the contrary viewed as insulting to those who genuinely were outsiders, unable to catch a break. Viewed in a certain light, le Carré’s life was nothing but a succession of breaks. But the fact is he believed this idea, and this belief exercised huge influence on his work. You only have to look at his greatest novel, A Perfect Spy, to see Ronnie’s influence on him, or perhaps more correctly, on his artistic imagination.

Taken together: Sherborne, Ronnie, the Cold War — with its cast of exiles and misfits — created, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan, a writer who tackled both Eton and Estonia. But it is in his study of the latter that his lasting value lies. The MI6 of le Carré’s novels was, in this sense, a trailblazer. The first institution to allow this new breed — people that as a child I recognised as being like me and so many of my friends — to run Britain’s secret service.

Now, as I look around me — from the Cabinet to the media to the universities and banks, that is to say, the institutions — I see British men and women of the type he wrote about so well, and whom I recognise as so familiar, finally emerging from what were once marginal spaces. I have gone from seeing myself reflected in the people who ran the circus, to the people who now run the Treasury. What began in the Sixties has reached its conclusion. Smiley’s people — his half-breeds and exiles — have entered the mainstream, to play their part in reshaping our country, not covertly or in secret, but in the full glare of public life.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)