The Con Man


John le Carré RIP

By Wayne Allensworth

David Cornwell, who wrote under the pseudonym John le Carré, has passed away at age 89.  What follows is an article I wrote for the January 2014 issue of Chronicles. I used the opportunity of the publication of his novel A Delicate Truth to review his life and career. He was, at his best, an extraordinary writer and a fascinating personality.  None of the criticisms in this piece should be taken as an attack on him. I did and do admire his literary achievements a great deal.

The Con Man

By Wayne Allensworth

The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”
  John le Carré
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

A Delicate Truth

By John le Carré

New York: Viking; 310 pp., $28.95

Fifty years ago, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold completed the most successful transformation of David Cornwell’s shape shifting life.  The son of a war profiteer and con man became the mysterious transmitter of messages from the Other Side, the “secret world” of his novels, John le Carré.  Le Carré has said that his books provided a needed “antidote” to the glamorous world of Ian Fleming.  His burnt-out agent runner, Spy’s Alec Leamas, told readers who the spies of Le Carré’s secret world actually were: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?  They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors…pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.  Do you think they sit like monks…balancing the rights and wrongs?” 

Near the end of Spy, Leamas summed up the precarious morality of the Cold War as great power expediency.  He explained that the spy masters needed murderous, amoral operatives like the novel’s double agent, Mundt, “so the great moronic mass…can sleep soundly,” a sentiment currently extant in hackneyed justifications for U.S. drone attacks (along with the inevitable “collateral damage”) and NSA domestic spying, all done to secure our “freedom.”  In the end, Alec Leamas didn’t believe it himself.  He “came in from the cold,” redeeming himself by his death at the Berlin Wall.  Self-sacrifice, the redemption of a failed romantic, and the rejection of Cold War morality by his doomed protagonists were to be recurring themes in le Carré’s novels, novels that nevertheless revealed his ambivalence about the dirty work of espionage that he thought might sometimes be unavoidable.  This ambivalence provides the tension that drives his narratives, forcing his troubled protagonists (Leamas in Spy; George Smiley in the trilogy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People; and, in his latest novel, A Delicate Truth, Toby Bell) to make moral choices that redeem and destroy them.

“Treason is very much a matter of habit, Smiley decided.”   Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

David Cornwell’s life has been one of duplicity, duplicity learned at an early age from a master.  David was born in 1931, the son of Richard (Ronnie) Cornwell and his wife, Olive.  His mother abandoned David and his brother, Tony, when David was five years old.  His boyhood was unstable, as he was shuffled from one boarding school to another, in and out of the home of his piously religious grandparents, and in and out of the presence of his father, a con artist and associate of the London underworld’s notorious Kray twins.  Ronnie, accompanied by his entourage of shady hangers on and dubious women, was a man always on the lookout for an easy mark. David observed strict secrecy about his father, by his own account not revealing to his grandparents or school masters the seamier portions of Ronnie’s life of racetracks, con games, jail terms and debts.  Ronnie later became “Rick Pym” in le Carré’s autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy.  When Ronnie died in 1975, David paid for a funeral but did not attend. 

According to le Carré, it was his father who inspired his fascination with secrets.  Le Carré further relates that it was his father who first recruited him as a spy in the world of the educated middle class.  Ronnie Cornwell intended that David and Tony make the leap into that class, rising above their origins.  The two boys were thus “dressed and groomed” and ultimately “launched” at Ronnie Cornwell’s preferred “target,” English middle class society, where “your speech is what you wear” and David, a gifted boy, if unhappy prep school student, picked up the appropriate knowledge, style, and speech.   Le Carré portrayed Ronnie, in his guise as “Rick Pym,” as a man who believed that that his sons’ success would be his crowning achievement as a con artist, justifying his duplicity and his life.  The son knew his father to be a fraud and has said that he thought everyone was.

“We have never lacked in this country for people with larcenous instincts and charming manners.”  John le Carré

David Cornwell found a refuge from his father at the University of Berne, where he studied languages, mastering German.   In 1950, he began his life in the secret world as a member of the British Army’s intelligence corps in Austria, using his language skills and considerable charm in interrogating people who had traversed the Iron Curtain from East to West.  Decades later, le Carré described the process of interrogation, which became a recurring element in his novels, and, indirectly, how it introduced him to the deceptive recruitments of the secret world: “I loved interrogation, I find that really fascinating. I did quite a lot of interrogation and it was always of the long, patient discussion [variety], the befriending and so on.”  Le Carré noted that “most people, if they want to confess something…need help.  They need compassion…a pastoral connection and an intelligent connection, not a bullying one.”

Le Carré may or may not have met a British intelligence officer posing as a diplomat (later rendered as “Jack Brotherhood,” the mentor of Le Carré’s fictional self, “Magnus Pym” in A Perfect Spy) who steered him into intelligence work while he was still a student in Switzerland.  Whatever the truth of the matter, after his stint in army intelligence he returned to England as a student at Oxford, where, as le Carré has described it, he “betrayed” leftist students he had befriended, covertly spying for the British domestic security service, MI5.  In 1960, he transferred to foreign intelligence, MI6, working in Germany under diplomatic cover.  Le Carré later said there was a “delicious voluptuousness” to secrecy, and that the “great secrecy” of his work had brought with it a sense of “great dignity.”

By his own account, le Carré was an anchorless young man who used the institutions (and, if his novels are any indication, his recruiters and mentors) in the secret world as a replacement for his parents. He would nevertheless find his real calling as a writer, publishing his first novel, Call for the Dead, in 1961.  A Murder of Quality followed in 1962, but it was Spy that gave David Cornwell fame, fortune and an alternative life as John le Carré.  He left MI6 in 1964, though the reasons remain vague.  Was it because his cover had been blown by the infamous traitor Kim Philby, portrayed as “Bill Haydon,” the villain of Tinker, Tailor? Was it because he wanted to make a career as a writer and he enjoyed his new found celebrity? Or was it because he was disillusioned with his work in the secret world, something he has alluded to more than once?   

“Secret services [are]…the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If le Carré actually was disillusioned, as some accounts have it, either by the recruitment of former Nazis by Western intelligence services or perhaps because of his fear that the covert operations of the Cold War were leading to a hot one, it was something that came late in the game to him.  Le Carré has described himself and his colleagues of the period as “patriots” who felt they were doing Britain’s necessary dirty work for the good of Leamas’s “moronic mass.”   His ambivalence toward “our game” became the powerful theme of his best work in the Smiley trilogy as the gentle, unobtrusive, scholarly Smiley relentlessly seeks the destruction of his nemesis, Soviet spymaster “Karla,” the man responsible for placing the “mole” Haydon in le Carré’s fictional secret service “the Circus,” thus rendering much of Smiley’s life’s work pointless.   It was the likeable, humane Smiley le Carré used to great effect in exploring the ambiguities of being “inhuman in defense of humanity…harsh in defense of compassion.”

At the end of Smiley’s People, le Carré’s protagonist has achieved a hollow victory: Smiley has used Karla’s mentally ill daughter to blackmail her father into defecting. Ironically, as le Carré has described the trilogy’s denouement, Smiley has given up part of his humanity even as the ruthless Karla has found part of his in protecting his daughter. In pursuing his ultimate aim, Smiley has become the mirror image of the foe he once described as a “fanatic.”  He is reminded by his ally in Circus intrigues, Peter Guillam, that “you won” as Karla crosses into West Berlin.  An unfulfilled Smiley answers, “Did I?”

“How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history.”

John le Carré

The characters in le Carré’s Cold War-era fiction frequently harbored a suspicion that the country they were defending had itself been corrupted, transformed by consumerist capitalism.  Smiley, for instance, loved an England that by the early 1970’s no longer existed.  In Tinker, Tailor, Circus operative Roy Bland, son of a “passionate trade unionist and Party member” explained current reality to a reluctant Smiley: “As a good socialist, I’m going where the money is; as a good capitalist, I’m sticking with the revolution, because if you can’t beat it, spy on it! Don’t look like that, George. It’s the name of the game these days. You scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag, right?”

A retired Smiley made his last appearance in 1991’s The Secret Pilgrim, lecturing Circus personnel and wondering what price was paid for Cold War victory.  In defeating the Soviet threat, the West, in Smiley’s (and le Carré’s) view, had succumbed to internal decay, perhaps hastened by the Cold War morality the Circus subscribed to.  Smiley tells his audience that “if the West chokes on its own materialism,” then it may turn out to have lost the Cold War. 

As a shabby, consumerist, post-imperial, junior partner to America, Britain haunts the Smiley books, while the slick, corporate pitchmen  “cousins,” the Circus operatives’ American counterparts, are presented as the embodiment of all that Smiley—and le Carré—fear will be the real victor in a post-Cold War world.  In making his exit from le Carré’s secret world in Pilgrim, Smiley tells the Circus’s new generation that their minds must be “reconstructed” in a post-Cold War world—and that they must also reconstruct “the over mighty modern State we’ve built for ourselves as a bastion against something that isn’t there anymore.  We’ve given up far too many freedoms in order to be free.” 

Nothing of the sort, of course, happened.  Le Carré expressed disappointment that a more just international order did not emerge following the collapse of the Soviet Union as he steadily veered further leftward.  In exploring the shady transactions and corruption of a practically borderless, globalizing world in books like The Night ManagerOur Game, Single and SingleThe Mission Song and The Constant Gardner, two things became obvious about post-Cold War le Carré: first, that his writing, while as stylistically elegant as ever, lacked the impact and compelling characterizations of his earlier work; and second, by the 2000s, the one-time Cold War liberal had absorbed the entire clichéd mantra of the post-modern left, including its obsessions with white guilt and homosexuals (there would be no more “pansies” and traitorous bisexuals, as Haydon had been portrayed in Tinker, Tailor, in his work). 

Le Carré’s outrage directed at the Bush White House and its Iraq war accomplice, the Blair “new Labour” government, finalized the change in his writing.  Polemics were in; nuance was out. The polemical tone of what mostly supportive critics dubbed the “angry” le Carré gutted his books of the ambiguity and insight of the past.  In his intense revulsion at the actions of Bush and Blair, le Carré had discovered what he thought of as moral clarity, a condition marred by leftist cliché: the Moslems of 2003’s Absolute Friends, 2008’s A Most Wanted Man, and his latest, A Delicate Truth are largely presented as one dimensional, idealized victims of Western exploitation, “Islamophobia,” and clumsy American brutality.  The slick “cousins” of the Smiley era are replaced in Truth by a Democracy Now!/Occupy Wall Street fantasy of Texas yahoos, evangelical power brokers, “far right” Republicans and their British enablers.  Not surprisingly, even though the novel takes place partly during Obama’s first term, no mention is made of the left’s Savior-in-Chief whose “war on terror” polices are hardly distinguishable from his predecessor’s.  

In Truth, we have a familiar le Carré protagonist, Toby Bell, a once idealistic, appropriately leftist diplomat who discovers that a joint British-American anti-terrorist operation (on the American side undertaken by a Blackwater-like mercenary firm) portrayed as a notable success was actually a disaster that resulted in the death of a Moslem woman and her infant child.  Bell intends to expose the cover up, but is persuaded otherwise by his Whitehall mentor.  Three years later, a discharged British commando, disturbed by the cover up and eager to blow the whistle on the disaster, contacts retired diplomat “Kit” Probyn and the wheels are set in motion for Toby to eventually risk his career and his life in telling the truth about “Operation Wildfire.” 

One anonymous reviewer, writing for Publisher’s Weekly, has gone where most main stream critics apparently can’t, describing le Carré’s latest book as veering “dangerously close to farce and caricature, particularly with the comically amoral Americans. His best work has been about the moral ambiguity of spying, while this novel feels as if the issue of who’s bad and who’s good is too neatly sewn up.” Le Carré should have stopped writing long ago, but like an over the hill boxer who can’t stay away from the ring, he keeps coming back to the arena—and likely damaging his long-term reputation each time he does.   If only he had stopped at A Perfect Spy, which summed up the concerns and insights of his best fiction.   Le Carré is coasting now, enjoying his celebrity, safely playing to the crowd, with far less introspection and insight.  The post 9/11 world offers as much fodder for a perceptive writer as the Cold War did, but le Carré has lost his touch along with his ability to ferret out the moral conundrums, contradictions, and real dangers of the “war on terror.”

Le Carré once said that writers are very much like spies, “trading off the people around them…they note things and report them,” depending on “the people they deceive.”   Both spies and writers have to be “entertainers,” charming the people they “recruit.”   In his press and television interviews, le Carré, especially since slipping into his “angry” persona, draws us in, befriends us, impresses us with appropriate moral outrage, and charms us, the lines between self deception, sincere belief, and one constant in le Carré’s life—role playing—once again blurred. He protests too much of his need for privacy, even as he doles out yet another “last” interview, claiming that a writer should “hold his tongue,” while ignoring his own advice.  In le Carré’s secret world the attraction of spying is that you can be someone else.  His novels could be interpreted as a sustained rumination on alienation in the modern, now post-modern, world, one bereft of boundaries, barriers, or fixed identities.  An interviewer once described le Carré’s career as a successful covert operation.  In his prime, David Cornwell was a fine writer.  He is also a conman.

  Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.  

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