John le Carré
John le Carré
John le Carré in Hamburg, 2008
|Born||David John Moore Cornwell|
19 October 1931
Poole, Dorset, England
former intelligence officer
University of Bern
|Alma mater||Lincoln College, Oxford|
|Notable works||The Spy Who Came in from the Cold|
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Honourable Schoolboy
A Perfect Spy
The Night Manager
The Constant Gardener
The Little Drummer Girl
(m. 1954; div. 1971)
David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931), better known by the pen name John le Carré (//), is a British author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works. Following the success of this novel, he left MI6 to become a full-time author. Several of his books have been adapted for film and television, including The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager. In 2011, he was awarded the Goethe Medal.
Cornwell was born on 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England. His father was Ronald Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906–75), and his mother was Olive Moore Cornwell (née Glassey, b. 1906). His older brother, Tony (1929–2017), was an advertising executive and former county cricketer (for Dorset), who lived in America. His younger half-sister is the actress Charlotte Cornwell. His younger half-brother, Rupert Cornwell, is a former Washington bureau chief for the newspaper The Independent. Cornwell said he did not know his mother, who abandoned him when he was five years old, until their re-acquaintance when he was 21 years old. His father had been jailed for insurance fraud, was an associate of the Kray twins, and was continually in debt. Their father/son relationship was difficult. A biographer reports, "His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion. This was one of the factors that led to le Carré's fascination with secrets."
Cornwell's schooling began at St Andrew's Preparatory School, near Pangbourne, Berkshire, and continued at Sherborne School. He proved to be unhappy with the typically harsh English public school régime of the time and disliked his disciplinarian housemaster, Thomas, and so withdrew.
From 1948 to 1949, he studied foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland. In 1950, he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army garrisoned in Allied-occupied Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West. In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents.
When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School; however, a year later he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins. Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as "John Bingham"), and whilst being an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Cornwell has identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for George Smiley, the spymaster of the Circus, the other being Vivian H. H. Green. As a schoolboy, Cornwell first met the latter when Green was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942–51). The friendship continued after Green's move to Lincoln College, where he tutored Cornwell.
In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy at Bonn; he was later transferred to Hamburg as a political consul. There, he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as "John le Carré" (le Carré is French for "the square")—a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names.
In 1964, le Carré left the service to work full-time as a novelist, his intelligence-officer career at an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents' covers to the KGB by Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five). Le Carré depicts and analyses Philby as the upper-class traitor, code-named "Gerald" by the KGB, the mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).
In 1954, Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp; they had three sons—Simon, Stephen and Timothy—and divorced in 1971. In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton; they have one son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway. Le Carré has lived in St Buryan, Cornwall for more than 40 years; he owns a mile of cliff near Land's End.
In 1998, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) from the University of Bath. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern. In 2012, he was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by the University of Oxford.
In 1964, le Carré won the Somerset Maugham Award (established to enable British writers younger than 35 to enrich their writing by spending time abroad).
He won the Olof Palme Prize in 2020.
Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), le Carré's first two novels, are mystery fiction. Both feature a retired spy, George Smiley, investigating a death: first, the apparent suicide of a suspected communist; second, a murder at a boy's public school. Although Call for the Dead evolves into an espionage story, Smiley's motives are more personal than political. Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works; following its publication, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer. Although le Carré intended Spy as an indictment of espionage as morally compromised, audiences widely viewed its protagonist, the alcoholic spy Alec Leamas, as a tragic hero; in response, le Carré's next book, The Looking Glass War, was a satire about an increasingly deadly espionage mission which ultimately proves pointless.
Most of le Carré's books are spy stories set during the Cold War (1945–91) and portray British Intelligence agents as unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged more in psychological than physical drama. The novels emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence. Moreover, they experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible. The recurring character George Smiley, who plays a central role in five novels and appears as a supporting character in four more, was written as an "antidote" to James Bond, a character le Carré called "an international gangster" rather than a spy and whom he felt should be excluded from the canon of espionage literature. In contrast, he intended Smiley, who is an overweight, bespectacled bureaucrat who uses cunning and manipulation to achieve his ends, as an accurate depiction of a spy.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (The Karla trilogy) brought Smiley back as the central figure in a sprawling espionage saga depicting his efforts first to root out a mole in the Circus and then entrap his Soviet rival and counterpart, code named Karla. The trilogy was originally meant to be a long-running series that would find Smiley dispatching agents after Karla all around the world. Following the success of the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor, le Carré no longer felt that he could properly write Smiley, feeling he had gone from a literary character to an English icon. Smiley's People marked the last time Smiley would feature as the central character in a le Carré story, though he would bring the character back for supporting roles in The Secret Pilgrim and A Legacy of Spies.
A Perfect Spy (1986), which chronicles the boyhood moral education of Magnus Pym and how it leads to his becoming a spy, is the author's most autobiographical espionage novel, reflecting the boy's very close relationship with his con-man father. Biographer Lynndianne Beene describes the novelist's own father, Ronnie Cornwell, as "an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values". Le Carré reflected that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised". Le Carré's only non-genre novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), is the story of a man's postmarital existential crisis.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, le Carré's writing shifted to portrayal of the new multilateral world. His first completely post-Cold War novel, The Night Manager (1993), deals with drug and arms smuggling in the murky world of Latin American drug lords, shady Caribbean banking entities, and western officials who look the other way.
As a journalist, le Carré wrote The Unbearable Peace (1991), a nonfiction account of Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (1911–1992), the Swiss Army officer who spied for the Soviet Union from 1962 until 1975.
In a September 2010 TV interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, le Carré remarked on his own writing style that, since the facts that inform his work were widely known, he felt it was his job to put them into a context that made them believable to the reader.
Credited by his pen name, le Carré appeared as an extra in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, among the guests at the Christmas party in several flashback scenes. He records a number of incidents in his autobiographical The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from My Life (2016) from his period as a diplomat; including escorting six visiting German parliamentarians to a London brothel and translating at a meeting between a senior German politician and Harold Macmillan.
In January 2003, The Times published le Carré's essay "The United States Has Gone Mad" criticizing the buildup to the Iraq War and President George W. Bush's response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calling it "than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War" and "beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams." Le Carré contributed it to a volume of political essays titled Not One More Death (2006). Other contributors include Richard Dawkins, Brian Eno, Michel Faber, Harold Pinter, and Haifa Zangana.
In 2017, le Carré stated,
I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it’s contagious, it’s infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary. There’s an encouragement about.
- Call for the Dead (1961), ISBN 0-143-12257-6
- A Murder of Quality (1962), ISBN 0-141-19637-8
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), ISBN 0-143-12475-7
- The Looking Glass War (1965), ISBN 0-143-12259-2
- A Small Town in Germany (1968), ISBN 0-143-12260-6
- The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), ISBN 0-143-11975-3
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), ISBN 0-143-12093-X
- The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), ISBN 0-143-11973-7
- Smiley's People (1979), ISBN 0-340-99439-8
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983), ISBN 0-143-11974-5
- A Perfect Spy (1986), ISBN 0-143-11976-1
- The Russia House (1989), ISBN 0-743-46466-4
- The Secret Pilgrim (1990), ISBN 0-345-50442-9
- The Night Manager (1993), ISBN 0-345-38576-4
- Our Game (Hodder & Stoughton 1995), ISBN 0-345-40000-3
- The Tailor of Panama (1996), ISBN 0-345-42043-8
- Single & Single (1999), ISBN 0-743-45806-0
- The Constant Gardener (2001), ISBN 0-743-28720-7
- Absolute Friends (2003), ISBN 0-670-04489-X
- The Mission Song (2006), ISBN 0-340-92199-4
- A Most Wanted Man (2008), ISBN 1-416-59609-7
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010), ISBN 0-143-11972-9
- A Delicate Truth (2013), ISBN 0-143-12531-1
- A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017), ISBN 978-0-735-22511-4
- Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019), ISBN 1984878875
- The Good Soldier (1991), collected in Granta 35: The Unbearable Peace
- The United States Has Gone Mad (2003), collected in Not One More Death (2006), ISBN 1-844-67116-X
- Afterword (2014), an essay on Kim Philby, published in A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
- The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016)
- "Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn?" (1967), in Saturday Evening Post, 28 January 1967
- "What Ritual is Being Observed Tonight?" (1968), in Saturday Evening Post, 2 November 1968
- "The Writer and The Horse" (1968), in The Savile Club Centenary Magazine and later The Argosy (and The Saturday Review under the title "A Writer and a Gentleman")
- "The King Who Never Spoke" (2009), in Ox-Tales: Fire, 2 July 2009
- The Incongruous Spy (1964), containing Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality
- The Quest for Karla (1982), containing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People (republished in 1995 as Smiley Versus Karla in the UK; and John Le Carré: Three Complete Novels in the U.S.), ISBN 0-394-52848-4
- End of the Line (1970), broadcast 29 June 1970
- A Murder of Quality (1991)
- The Tailor of Panama (2001), with John Boorman and Andrew Davies
- The Tailor of Panama (2001)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
- A Most Wanted Man (2014)
- The Night Manager (2016)
- Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
- The Little Drummer Girl (2018)
- The Little Drummer Girl (1984), as David Cornwell
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), as John le Carré
- Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
- The Night Manager (2016), as David Cornwell
After many years of working with various producers who made film adaptations of his novels, two of Cornwell's sons, Simon and Stephen, founded the production company Ink Factory in 2010. This was to produce adaptations of his works as well as other film productions. The Ink Factory has produced the films A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor, and the TV series The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), directed by Martin Ritt, with Richard Burton as the protagonist, Alec Leamas
- The Deadly Affair (1966), an adaptation of Call for the Dead, directed by Sidney Lumet, with James Mason as Charles Dobbs (George Smiley in the novel)
- The Looking Glass War (1970), directed by Frank Pierson, with Anthony Hopkins as Avery, Christopher Jones as Leiser, and Sir Ralph Richardson as LeClerc
- The Little Drummer Girl (1984), directed by George Roy Hill, with Diane Keaton as Charlie
- The Russia House (1990), directed by Fred Schepisi, with Sean Connery as Barley Blair
- The Tailor of Panama (2001), directed by John Boorman, with Pierce Brosnan as Andy Osnard, a disgraced spy, and Geoffrey Rush as the emigre English tailor Harry Pendel
- The Constant Gardener (2005), directed by Fernando Meirelles, with Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, set in the slums in Kibera and Loiyangalani, Kenya; the poverty so affected the film crew that they established the Constant Gardener Trust to provide basic education to those areas (John le Carré is a patron of the charity)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley
- A Most Wanted Man (2014), directed by Anton Corbijn and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman
- Our Kind of Traitor (2016), directed by Susanna White and starring Ewan McGregor
- The Russia House (1994), BBC Radio 4, featuring Tom Baker as Barley Blair
- The Complete Smiley (2009–2010) BBC Radio 4, an eight-part radio-play series, based on the novels featuring George Smiley, commencing with Call for the Dead, broadcast on 23 May 2009, with Simon Russell Beale as George Smiley, and concluding with The Secret Pilgrim in June 2010
- A Delicate Truth (May 2013), BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, recorded by Damian Lewis
- Abridged excerpts from The Pigeon Tunnel, broadcast as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week, commencing on 12 September 2016
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), BBC seven-part television series, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley
- Smiley's People (1982), BBC television series, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley
- A Perfect Spy (1987), BBC television adaptation directed by Peter Smith, with Peter Egan as Magnus Pym and Ray McAnally as Rick
- A Murder of Quality (1991), Thames Television adaptation directed by Gavin Millar, with Denholm Elliott as George Smiley and Joss Ackland as Terence Fielding
- The Night Manager (2016), BBC and AMC series, adapted by screenwriter David Farr and directed by Susanne Bier, with Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine and Hugh Laurie as Richard Onslow Roper
- The Little Drummer Girl (2018), BBC and AMC series, directed by Park Chan-wook, with Michael Shannon as Martin Kurtz, Alexander Skarsgård as Gadi Becker and Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross
In 2010, le Carré donated his literary archive to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The initial 85 boxes of material deposited included handwritten drafts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener. The library hosted a public display of these and other items to mark World Book Day in March 2011.
Awards and honours
- 1963, British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- 1964, Somerset Maugham Award for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- 1965, Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- 1977, British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for The Honourable Schoolboy
- 1977, James Tait Black Memorial Prize Fiction Award for The Honourable Schoolboy
- 1983, Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize for The Little Drummer Girl
- 1984, Honorary Fellow Lincoln College, Oxford
- 1984, Mystery Writers of America Edgar Grand Master 
- 1988, British Crime Writers Association Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1988, The Malaparte Prize, Italy
- 1990, Honorary degree, University of Exeter
- 1990, Helmerich Award of the Tulsa Library Trust.
- 1991, Nikos Kazantzakis prize
- 1996, Honorary degree, University of St. Andrews
- 1997, Honorary degree, University of Southampton
- 1998, Honorary degree, University of Bath
- 2005, British Crime Writers Association Dagger of Daggers for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- 2005, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France
- 2008, Honorary doctorate, University of Bern
- 2011, Goethe Medal of the Goethe Institute
- 2012, Honorary doctorate, University of Oxford
- 2019, Olof Palme Prize
In October 2008, a television interview on BBC Four was broadcast, in which Mark Lawson asked him to name a "Best of le Carré" list of books; the novelist answered: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener.
In September 2010, le Carré was interviewed at his house in Cornwall by the journalist Jon Snow for Channel 4 News. The conversation involved several topics: his writing career generally and processes adopted for writing (specifically about his latest book, Our Kind of Traitor, involving Russia and its current global influences, financial and political); his SIS career, discussing why – both personally and more generally – one did such a job then, as compared to now; and how the earlier fight against communism had now moved to the hugely negative effects of certain aspects of excessive capitalism. During the interview he said that it would be his last UK television interview. While reticent about his exact reasons, those he was willing to cite were that of slight self-loathing (which he considered most people feel), a distaste for showing off (he felt that writing necessarily involved a lot of this anyway) and an unwillingness to breach what he felt was the necessarily solitary nature of the writer's work. He was also wary of wasting writing time and dissipating his talent in social success, having seen this happen to many talented writers, to what he felt was the detriment of their later work.
A week after this appearance, le Carré was interviewed for the TV show Democracy Now! in the United States. He told the interviewer, Amy Goodman, "This is the last book about which I intend to give interviews. That isn't because I'm in any sense retiring. I've found that, actually, I've said everything I really want to say, outside my books. I would just like—I'm in wonderful shape. I'm entering my eightieth year. I just want to devote myself entirely to writing and not to this particular art form of conversation."
In the February 2013 edition of Sunday Morning, at the end of his conversation for CBC's Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel, le Carré told her, "You do it better than anyone I know" and that this would be his last interview.
When interviewed by Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1 on 26 October 2019, le Carré stated that he has taken an Irish passport; qualifying through his grandmother Olive Wolfe who was born in Rosscarbery.
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- John le Carré on IMDb
- John le Carré discography at Discogs
- 1966 BBC TV interview with Malcolm Muggeridge
- Transcript of interview with John le Carré by Ramona Koval, The Book Show, ABC Radio National, on A Most Wanted Man, 19 November 2008
- Interview, People Magazine, issue 13 September 1993
- "John le Carré's allegiances": a review in the TLS by Michael Saler, September 2006
- BBC George Smiley site
- The Mission Song Reviews at Metacritic.com
- Petri Liukkonen. "John le Carré". Books and Writers
- 1989 NPR Interview of le Carré
- "Colorful Crime Boss Inspires Le Carre's Traitor", NPR story, 8 October 2010.
- 1964 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Interview of le Carré
- John le Carré on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, and the Exploitation of Africa – video interview by Democracy Now!
- Le Carré interviewed on CBC Radio's Writers and Company (2010): Part 1 Part 2
- John le Carré interviewed on Charlie Rose