Archive for David Cornwell

R.I.P. John le Carré (1931-2020)

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , on December 14, 2020 by telescoper

I was very sad to hear the news last night of the death at the age of 89 of author John le Carré. I’m sure I’m not the only person who discovered his novels as a result of watching the 1979 TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I watched while still a schoolboy. I loved so many things about that series, including the Circus jargon (tradecraft, lamplighters, honey-traps, etc) and the code-names (Gerald the Mole, Source Merlin, Operation Testify). When I got around to reading the novel I realized that there was much greater depth to le Carré’s writing than I’d imagined. I was particularly impressed with the sympathetic way he handled the character of the traitor Bill Haydon who, after he is revealed as the mole says to George Smiley:

Do you know what’s killing Western democracy, George? Greed. And constipation. Moral, political, aesthetic.

I’m with him on that one. “Half-Devils against Half-Angels” is another phrase I remember as a description of the “wretched Cold War” the protagonists found themselves fighting.

I also remember this, from Smiley’s People:

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity. All I’m left with is me and thirty-odd years of Cold War without the option.

That’s true in fields other than espionage.

Anyway, having read Tinker Tailor I bought everything I could by John le Carré and devoured all the books avidly. Not all his early books were great, but The Spy who came in from the Cold is excellent as are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – the so-called Karla trilogy.

Most obituaries circulating today describe John le Carré as a “spy novelist” but I see him as a writer whose excellence as a writer transcended that genre. I think the same way of many great crime novelists, such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote great novels that happened to be about crime.

The last John le Carré book I bought was A Legacy of Spies (2017), which I haven’t yet got around to reading. I’ll put that on the list of Christmas reading, and drink a toast to an author who has given me so much to enjoy and to think about over so many years.

Rest in peace John le Carré (David Cornwell, 1931-2020).