John le Carré, author, 1931-2020

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In A perfect spy, his most autobiographical novel, John the Square describes its protagonist, morally compromised double agent Magnus Pym, as having an agile stride, “his body tilted forward in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class. In the same attitude, static or in motion, the English hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the decks of sinking ships.

Britain’s imperial decline, and the dubious strategies of the political classes and intelligence services to disguise this decline during the Cold War, form the backdrop for many of Le Carré’s 25 novels, which deceased at the age of 89. Espionage is the genre for which he is famous. But he used it as a platform to explore larger ethical issues and the human condition with such insight that many other writers and critics considered him one of the best English-language novelists of the 20th century.

Like the character of Joseph Conrad Charles Marlow and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, George Smiley du Carré returns in his novels, reminding readers of the author’s lingering concerns. Smiley, a middle-aged spycatcher, heavy but not unfriendly to troubled privacy, is the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who seduces women and dismantles infamous plots of enemies with the kind of flippant ease that made Le Carré laugh at him. like a “bandit“.

John le Carré in London in February 1964. He worked for MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and early 1960s © The LIFE Picture Collection via

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. The character returns in the novels of the Square

Le Carré had a keen sense of humor and spoke in sentences as elegantly constructed as his prose. “A good writer is an expert on nothing but himself,” he said once. “And on that subject, if he’s wise, he holds his tongue.”

Nevertheless, he put to use his first-hand knowledge of espionage, deception and the frailties of the human character.

Born in 1931 in Poole on the south coast of England, Le Carré’s real name was David John Moore Cornwell. His mother left the family home when he was five and his father was a “crook, fantasist, occasional prisoner,” as he wrote in his briefs, The pigeon tunnel.

In 1948, he left his private English school, Sherborne, and went to Switzerland to study languages ​​at the University of Bern. There he was inspired to “embrace the German muse as a surrogate mother”, delving into the works of Johann von Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist and Georg buechner.

Le Carré joined the British Army Intelligence Corps in 1950, interviewing Austrians who had crossed Communist Eastern Europe to the west. After a stint at the University of Oxford, he taught for two years at Eton, the British private school whose former students he described later as “an absolute curse on earth, to leave this school with a sense of entitlement and an overeducated cultural attitude”.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s he worked for MI5, the UK’s Home Intelligence Service, and then for MI6, his foreign counterpart, which sent him to Bonn and Hamburg. On his own, his duties were minor. But he gained enough experience to write three spy novels, the third of which, The spy from the cold, was an international bestseller and turned into a blockbuster film starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

Richard Burton and Robert Hardy in 'The Spy Who Came Out of the Cold'

Richard Burton and Robert Hardy in “The Spy Came Out of the Cold”. The book the film was based on was an international bestseller © Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock

In one of his last public appearances, at the German Embassy in London in March, Le Carré explained that the spy world of his novels – an arena of betrayal, shattered lives and corroded morality – came mainly from his own imagination. He broke new ground for the genre by stripping his characters of glamor and constructing storylines that resolutely avoided simple clashes between good and evil.

He was not a neutral observer of the Cold War, claiming that whatever weaknesses Western political systems may be, they should not be compared to one-party dictatorships. After Communism ended, however, he said: “The spies did not win the Cold War. They made absolutely no difference in the long run.

In his post-cold war novels, Le Carré has become a staunch critic of American and British foreign policy. Africa, Central America, the former Soviet Union and other regions have been the scene of novels that have dissected the arms trade, drug trafficking and the global pharmaceutical industry.

Le Carré married Ann Sharp in 1954 and the couple had three sons, Simon, Stephen and Timothy. After their divorce in 1971, he married Valérie Jane Eustace, who contributes to his work thanks to her editorial expertise. They had a son, Nicholas, a novelist who writes under the name Nick Harkaway.

tony.barber@ft.com

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