John le Carré

John le Carré

Past Event: Tuesday, March 23, 1999

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Best known for his superpower espionage novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), John Le Carré introduced the world of spy intrigue to a generation of eager readers, exploring complicated issues of Cold War policy through fiction.

Le Carré is the author of seventeen novels, nine of which have become films or television miniseries. His books are classics of intrigue that employ the plots and settings of international espionage to illuminate complex political and personal situations. In a recent interview, Le Carré commented, “I hope to provide a metaphor to the average reader’s daily life. I think that what gives my works whatever universality they have is that they use the metaphysical secret world to describe some realities of the overt world.”

Born David Cornwall in England in 1931, Le Carré was educated at the universities of Bern and Oxford, where he earned an honors degree, and then spent five years in the British Foreign Service. His first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), was written during his commutes to work. With this book, Le Carré introduced the character of mild-mannered British secret service agent George Smiley, who would also appear in several other novels. After the success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré devoted himself to writing full-time. With this novel, which received the Somerset Maugham Award, Le Carré is credited with establishing a new, more realistic genre of espionage literature as a reaction to the James Bond cult. Graham Greene gave the novel considerable praise, and J. B. Priestley wrote that the book was “superbly constructed with an atmosphere of chilly hell.”

Connected to a long tradition of spy writers, from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson to Daniel Defoe, Le Carré draws material for his novels from his own experiences and familiarity with intelligence agents. In fact, some of the espionage jargon Le Carré created for his books has found its way into Scotland Yard. British agent George Smiley, reintroduced in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), is based on two real-life people: Lord Clanmorris, who wrote novels under the name John Bingham and worked for MI5, and Vivian Green, Le Carré’s teacher at Oxford.

In 1986, Le Carré published one of his favorite books, The Perfect Spy, drawing heavily on his own relationship with his domineering father. Reflecting the changes in international politics and the end of the Cold War, the villains in The Night Manager (1993) and Our Game (1995) are international dealers in drugs and guns. In Single & Single (1999), Le Carré transcends the spy novel genre, finding intrigue in a new setting: the sinister world of international finance. The story explores the corrupt liaisons between criminal elements in the new post-Soviet states and the world of legitimate finance in Europe.

Excerpt from Single and Single (1999)
This gun is not a gun.

Or such was Mr. Winser’s determined conviction when the youthful Alix Hoban, European managing director and chief executive of Trans-Finanz Vienna, St. Petersburg and Istanbul, introduced a pallid hand into the breast of his Italian blazer and extracted neither a platinum cigarette case nor an engraved business card, but a slim blue-black automatic pistol in mint condition, and pointed it from a distance of six inches at the bridge of Mr. Winser’s beakish but strictly nonviolent nose. This gun does not exist. It is inadmissible evidence. It is no evidence at all. It is a non-gun.

Mr. Alfred Winser was a lawyer, and to a lawyer facts were there to be challenged. All facts. The more self-evident a fact might appear to the layman, the more vigorously must the conscientious lawyer contest it. And Winser at that moment was asconscientious as the best of them. Nevertheless, he dropped his briefcase in his astonishment. He heard it fall, he felt the pressure of it linger on his palm, saw with the bottom of his eyes the shadow of it lying at his feet: my briefcase, my pen, my passport, my air tickets and travelers’ checks, my credit cards, my legality. He did not stoop to pick it up, though it had cost a fortune. He remained staring mutely at the non-gun.

This gun is not a gun. This apple is not an apple. Winser was recalling the wise words of his law tutor of forty years ago as the great man spirited a green apple from the depths of his frayed sports coat and brandished it aloft for the inspection of his mostly female audience: “It may look like an apple, ladies, it may smell like an apple, feel like an apple”—innuendo—”but does it rattle like an apple?”—shakes it—”cut like an apple?”—hauls an antique bread knife from a drawer of his desk, strikes. Apple translates into a shower of plaster. Carols of laughter as the great man kicks aside the shards with the toe of his sandal.

Winser’s reckless flight down memory lane did not stop there. From his tutor’s apple it was but a blinding flash of sunlight to his greengrocer in Hampstead, where he lived and dearly wished himself at this moment: a cheery, unarmed apple purveyor in a jolly apron and straw hat who sold, as well as apples, fine fresh asparagus that Winser’s wife, Bunny, liked, even if she didn’t like much else her husband brought her. Green, remember, Alfred, and grown above ground, never the white—pressing the shopping basket on him. And only if they’re in season, Alfred, the forced ones never taste. Why did I do it? Why do I have to marry people in order to discover I don’t like them? Why can’t I make up my mind ahead of the fact instead of after it? What is legal training for, if not to protect us from ourselves? With his terrified brain scouring every avenue of possible escape, Winser took comfort in these excursions into his internal reality. They fortified him, if only for split seconds, against the unreality of the gun.

This gun still does not exist.

Selected Work
Single and Single (1999)
The Tailor of Panama (1996)
Our Game (1995)
The Night Manager (1993)
The Secret Pilgrim (1991)
The Russia House (1989)
A Perfect Spy (1986)
The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
Smiley’s People (1980)
The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1978)
The Honorable Schoolboy (1977)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
A Small Town in Germany (1968)
The Looking Glass War (1965)
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)
A Murder of Quality (1962)
Call for the Dead (1961)

Links
Interview with Le Carré on Salon.com
New York Times archive for John le Carré