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John le Carré – The author who called out government’s ‘patriotism’ as nationalism

David Cornwell, or John le Carré, photographed down at the docks in 1964 - Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection via

Despite his establishment credentials the author John le Carré remained an outsider all his life, says CHARLIE CONNELLY, and was increasingly radicalised by Europe and Brexit. 

There’s a broad perception that people become calmer politically as they grow older, the youthful firebrand activist gradually sensing the flames of radicalism dying down towards a dotage of faintly glowing embers at best. With John le Carré, who died on December 12 at the age of 89, it was the other way around. In his later years he didn’t just become more overtly political in his fiction and in his public statements, he got angry. He’d just turned 70 in 2001 when he told the playwright David Hare, “I am now so angry that I have to exercise a good deal of restraint in order to produce a readable book” and as far back as 2005 he was concerned at the direction in which the US in particular was heading.

“Mussolini’s definition of fascism was that when you can’t distinguish corporate power from governmental power you are on the way to becoming a fascist state,” he said. “If you throw in God power and media power, that’s where we are now.”

A vocal opponent of Brexit, he believed the road to the UK leaving the European Union had begun “in the big landed houses of England. That’s where the Brexit fantasy, the nostalgia for the suspicion of your German and your Frenchman and those chaps who weren’t much use in the war, that’s where all that was born”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking John le Carré was exactly the kind of establishment figure he was railing against. A public schoolboy who joined the British secret services and divided his time between a house in Hampstead and a substantial pile in Cornwall he appeared to have benefited from all the trappings of British privilege.

Yet le Carré was a far more complex character than those broad strokes suggest. He never really fitted in to the elite. He never really fitted in anywhere, in fact, living a life as enigmatic as those of his fictional protagonists. Whether he was undertaking espionage work in a Europe riven by the Cold War or eschewing the rounds of book launches and publisher parties embraced by most bestselling authors (when he was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2011 he immediately asked to be withdrawn), le Carré somehow combined being at the centre of events with remaining simultaneously on their periphery.

He wrote pacy novels about spies yet was never simply a thriller writer. “Thematically, le Carré’s true subject is not spying,” the European affairs commentator Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a New Yorker profile in 1999. “It is the endlessly deceptive maze of human relations: the betrayal that is a kind of love, the lie that is a sort of truth, good men serving bad causes and bad men serving good.”

His characters, from George Smiley to Martin Kurtz, Alec Leamas to Soviet spy chief Karla were about as far from the glamorous world of James Bond as it was possible to be: lonely, disillusioned middle-aged men no longer sure of their own motivations, blurring the line between good and bad until it was all but erased, so used to lying they’re not even sure what the truth is anymore and forced by their occupation to suspect the worst of anyone they meet.

“What the hell do you think spies are?” rants Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me.”

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published in 1963, was his masterpiece, a brilliantly constructed story of betrayal and futility set just after the construction of the Berlin Wall. The superb writing and evocative bleakness of the setting – an East Germany so cold the reader can almost feel it seeping into their bones – have enthralled successive generations in the near half century since publication.

Graham Greene called it “the best spy story I have ever read” while everyone from Margaret Atwood to Bernard Sumner has been captivated. Sumner picked up the book to pass the time on tour with New Order in 2013 and realised the monochrome sparseness of the atmosphere was exactly what he’d been trying to achieve with Joy Division.

“On finishing the book I understood what it is people see in Joy Division because it had that same intense, austere feeling, one you think would repulse you but actually draws you in,” he said. “I was gripped by the sheer coldness of it.”

The economy and spareness of the writing derived to a significant extent from le Carré’s love of the German language and its literature.

“When you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine,” he told an audience of German teachers in 2017, “and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.”

He’d become fluent after running away from boarding school at 16 and enrolling at the University of Bern, escaping a difficult childhood in which his mother left when he was a toddler while his father, an accomplished con artist, remained usually – but not always – one step ahead of the law. Switzerland provided a new start and fostered a love for Europe he would retain for the rest of his life.

Soon recruited to the British secret service, he was appointed to diplomatic posts in Bonn and Hamburg, cover for his espionage work until The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his third novel, put an end to his secret service career: its success led to his real identity – he was born David Cornwell – being revealed by a Sunday newspaper.

He never lost that love for Germany, its language and its literary heritage. While he turned down almost every honour offered to him throughout his life, in 2011 he accepted a Goethe Medal, awarded to non-Germans by the Goethe Institute for services to promoting German language and culture. Having chronicled the nation’s divided post-war 20th century with his characteristically paradoxical inside perspective of an outsider this was one award he felt able to accept.

Having lived through such a period of traumatic European division and witnessed at first hand the distrust and cynicism of the Cold War, all the while retaining a commitment to European unity and peacefully shared goals, le Carré’s frustration at Britain’s recent trajectory must have felt entirely justified. If his characters’ motivations and beliefs often operated in a fog of moral ambiguity, their creator’s couldn’t have been clearer.

“We worked with Europe for 47 years, and are espoused for better or worse to those 27 countries,” he said a year ago. “Now the government is trying to sell us the idea that we’ve got enemies. Excuse me, but this is not patriotism. This is nationalism.”

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