In 1997, George Plimpton interviewed John le Carré for The Paris Review. While discussing the ample subject matter sifted in his fiction after the Cold War ended, le Carré told Plimpton, “The one thing you can bet is that spying is never over.… It will go on and on and on.”
Now 84, le Carré seems blessedly eternal in his own right. Or write. To date, le Carré’s published writing life spans 55 years, with no discernible decline in quality.
His latest book, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, includes more than a few forbidding reflections on political machinations and incompetence among various governments, oddities such as a one-off lunch with media baron Rupert Murdoch, and several harrowing reflections on personal research missions that informed his many novels. Thus, we get a glimpse of le Carré securing an audience with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and indulging the late Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky the day Brodsky learns he has won the Nobel Prize.
Of Arafat, le Carré writes, “We enter an Arab embrace, left, right, left. The beard is not bristle, it’s silky fluff. It smells of Johnson’s Baby Powder. Releasing me, he keeps a hand possessively on my shoulder as he addresses our audience. I may walk freely among his Palestinians, he declares – he who never sleeps in the same bed twice, handles his own security and insists he is married to nobody but Palestine.”
Fans of le Carré probably know at least a bit of his personal biography. That his real name is David Cornwell. That he was a lower-level spy in Britain’s MI6 before quitting the service in 1963 after his third book – “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” – became that enviable literary combination of best-seller and critical darling. And, particularly for readers of “The Perfect Spy,” considered by Philip Roth, among others, to be le Carré’s magnum opus, that characters Rick and Magnus Pym are close to stand-ins for Ronnie Cornwell and his son, David.
In “Son of the Author’s Father,” le Carré delves into his real-life con man father’s misadventures.
He disdains and laments his father’s foolish and hurtful behavior while wondering how much of the father resides within the son. Gravitating toward the deceptive world of intelligence and spying must have sprung from the mistrust and deceit of childhood, le Carre’s posits.
And, as the author has often noted, lines long ago blurred between deceit, spy craft, and writing novels.
“Ronnie the common man could spin you a story out of the air, sketch in a character who did not exist, and paint a golden opportunity when there wasn’t one,” le Carré writes of his father. “He could blind you with bogus detail or helpfully clarify a non-existent knotty point if you weren’t quick enough on the uptake to grasp the technicalities of his con first time round. He could withhold a great secret on grounds of confidentiality, then whisper it to your ear alone because he has decided to trust you.”
Earlier in “The Pigeon Tunnel,” le Carré reflects on the benefit of spies-turned-authors. Graham Greene, a thriller writer who preceded le Carré as a novelist who took a dim view of the ethics and success of espionage, was also a former British spy who defected to the best-seller list.
“Compared with the hell we might have raised by other means, writing was as harmless as playing with our bricks,” le Carré asserts. “How much our poor beleaguered spies must be wishing that Edward Snowden had done the novel instead.”
Le Carré’s reminiscences include a dry wit embracing the futility of spy-world omniscience. In his own career, the novelist recalls plenty of occasions when a politician or another notable sought his expertise on some international episode or another.
Invariably, le Carré relates, he had no insight whatsoever. And, of course, in the actual practice of spying, the author witnessed and heard countless examples of ineptitude and botched intelligence.
In the days when le Carré joined MI6, intelligence services only recruited – and did not solicit – applicants.
“If you applied you could be enemy, whereas if you were spotted, you couldn’t possibly be. And we all know how well that worked.”
A comment which makes the perfect segue to the infamous British agent Kim Philby, who conveyed innumerable secrets to the enemy Soviet Union before defecting in 1963. (Philby died in Moscow at age 76 in 1988.) Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s close friend, was an MI6 officer who came under heavy criticism for not stopping Philby’s escape after hearing Philby’s confession.
In 1986, le Carré hosted Elliott at his home and they discussed the Philby affair.
The author came away unimpressed. Elliott, he writes, was a “dupe” if also “the most entertaining spy I ever met.” Elliott “was thin as a wand, and seemed always to hover slightly above the ground at a jaunty angle, a quiet smile in his face and one elbow cocked for the martini glass or cigarette.”
Such dilettantism loses its allure when one considers that Elliott’s “account is a fiction he has come to believe” and that the traitorous behavior of Philby combined with MI6 ineptitude led to “dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents” being “imprisoned, tortured and shot.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the late Yvette Pierpaoli, “a diminutive French provincial businesswoman” who improbably outwitted Pol Pot and other horrible people to rescue and feed and clothe suffering children in Cambodia, various parts of Africa, and Kosovo. Le Carré met and befriended Pierpaoli, who was killed helping refugees in Kosovo in 1999. She lives on as the heroine of one of le Carré’s most powerful books, “The Constant Gardener.”