A Private Spy

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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

1 thought on “A Private Spy”

  1. The revelations about David Cornwell’s sex life are not the sort of posthumous applause most would seek! Nevertheless I am glad to see John le Carré’s Night Manager is back in fashion in India and his private letters et al in A Private Spy have entered the public domain. In his lifetime, every time John le Carré published a new thriller most of his contemporary authors deemed it yet another masterpiece but John le Carré doesn’t have a record of being enamoured by his fellow authors let alone journalists.

    Le Carré, Ian Fleming and Len Deighton did meet one another from time to time but apparently their meetings ended in near nuclear arguments about who was best equipped to write realistic espionage novels. It’s a shame all three focused on fiction but of course not one of them had first-hand experience of being a secret agent notwithstanding Fleming’s experiences in the Admiralty and le Carré’s in Five and Six until Kim Philby outed all le Carré’s agents operating in Europe. Of course, Philby and Oleg Gordievsky both knew Col Alan Pemberton CVO MBE aka Mac, Bill Fairclough’s true life MI6 handler in The Burlington Files which is a must read for all espionage cognoscenti.

    Bill Fairclough, MI6 codename JJ, aka Edward Burlington, was the protagonist in The Burlington Files series of fact based spy novels and did have real life experience of being a secret agent albeit not focused so much on the USSR in the Cold War. Critics have likened Fairclough to a “posh or sophisticated Harry Palmer” which probably didn’t appeal to le Carré. We do know that Fairclough once contacted le Carré in 2014 to do a collaboration. Le Carré responded along the lines of “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?”

    A realistic response from a famous expert in fiction who lost his MI6 job after being deceived by Philby! After all, Pemberton’s People in MI6 even included Roy Astley Richards OBE (Winston Churchill’s bodyguard) and an eccentric British Brigadier (Peter ‘Scrubber’ Stewart-Richardson) who was once refused permission to join the Afghan Mujahideen. For more do see the news article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website.

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