From The Wall Street Journal:
‘A Private Spy,” a 630-page collection of the letters of John le Carré—David Cornwell in real life—is not as revealing of this secretive, canny man as Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography or as engaging as le Carré’s own episodic memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” published a year later, partly in response to that “intrusive” biography. But what makes the letters so fascinating is their real-time immediacy, most palpable in the earlier years. Here is a man, not yet renowned as John le Carré, trying to find a way in the world, from student in England and Germany, to impoverished married man and father, would-be commercial artist, schoolmaster, diplomat (spy) and—before “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”—middling novelist. Even when fame arrived, he could not know its eventual upshot, that countless journalists would dig into his past, eventually outing him as a former spy for both MI5 and MI6, or, indeed, that his celebrity—though not his fortune—would become a scourge culminating, as he wrote to Ian McEwan in 2013, in “a kind of exhaustion at being asked for the last fifty years whether Mossad is better than the CIA, what it’s like—oh Christ!—to be a spy.”
The book has been superbly edited and introduced by le Carré’s son Tim Cornwell, who, unhappily, died before it went to press. Extensive though it is, it is only a selection of le Carré’s correspondence. Most of the letters he undoubtedly wrote to his many lovers are missing, destroyed or withheld—a wise choice judging from the embarrassing few that are present. Many letters known to have existed are lost, some of which we would dearly have liked to read. They include, according to Tim Cornwell, a “‘tortured’ sixteen-page letter” le Carré wrote to Timothy Garton Ash on “the morality of spying,” and a couple of dispatches le Carré claimed he sent as a boy to Stalin, one advising the Supreme Commander of his support for opening a second front, the other complaining about his school.
So much for what’s absent. The first letter here finds 13-year-old David Cornwell writing optimistically in June 1945 to his future housemaster at Sherborne School, a place he would leave before finishing. The last was written in November 2020—two weeks before he died—to his old friend, journalist and guide to war-torn regions, David Greenway. Among the hundreds of letters written during the intervening 75 years are loving letters to both of his wives, his children, his brother Tony and half-sibling Charlotte, and Jean Cornwell, his father’s second wife, who had instilled in him a love of books.
There are letters to fellow writers, actors, directors, old British spies—and one former Soviet one—agents, publishers and friends. There are a couple of excruciatingly fulsome letters of gratitude, one to Philip Roth, who had described “A Perfect Spy” as “the best English novel since the war.” And another to Graham Greene, whose praise for “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (“the best spy story I have ever read”) helped make the book a bestseller. Later, Greene’s defense of Kim Philby blew up into a public slanging match between him and le Carré. And though the two put it behind them, le Carré, shortly before he died, admitted to writer Ben Macintyre that Greene “still spooks me.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal