The Other Tradecraft

Writing, more than espionage, is the subject of le Carré’s memoir—all the better for his fans.

“These are true stories told from memory,” John le Carré writes in his introduction to this wide-ranging collection of personal anecdotes drawn from a lifetime of living and writing. But, he cautions, “was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we’re being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self-serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap.”

There is a certain charm in watching a master storyteller set himself up as the unreliable narrator of tales from his own life. But do we, his die-hard fans, really care? Most of us would agree with him that “real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance.” And after all, it is his mastery of nuance that turns his novels of espionage, intrigue and corporate skullduggery into more than mere thrillers.

As its subtitle suggests, this new book—his 24th—is neither autobiography nor memoir, and I suspect he has written it partly in response to Adam Sisman’s John le Carré: The Biography, published last year with le Carré’s hesitant approval. (“I know it’s supposed to be warts and all,” he told Sisman part way through the process, “but so far as I can gather it’s going to be all warts and no all.”) Inevitably, Sisman found discrepancies in some of le Carré’s oft-told anecdotes, and felt duty bound, as he put it, to “spoil a fund of good stories” with more accurate versions. But while there are faint suggestions of rivalry here, The Pigeon Tunnel is neither a grudge match nor an attempt to set the record straight. Rather, in instances where the two books overlap, le Carré says he was pleased to be able to “reclaim [the stories] as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.”

Regarding his personal life, le Carré displays the reticence of a good double agent under interrogation. “I love best the privacy of writing,” he says, “which is why I don’t do literary festivals and, as much as possible, stay away from interviews … First, you invent yourself, then you get to believe your invention. This is not a process that is compatible with self-knowledge.”

It is no surprise, then, that there are not a lot of personal revelations in this book. What we get instead are a string of brilliantly crafted glimpses into le Carré’s “tradecraft” as a hard-working, celebrated writer. Many of his stories are about his “serio-comic” encounters with some of the people who are drawn to him and his work: famous politicians (Margaret Thatcher), press barons (Rupert Murdoch), movie directors (Fritz Lang, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick) and actors (Alex Guinness, Richard Burton). Others concern people he has sought out in the course of his research: insurgency leaders (Yasser Arafat), Russian mobsters, war correspondents, mercenaries, Jewish Nazi hunters, German terrorists and ex–Guantanamo Bay ­prisoners. He compares notes with Soviet spymasters and endures the castigations of old MI5 and MI6 colleagues who believe he has revealed far too much, or not nearly enough, about their secret world (as David Cornwell, he worked for both British intelligence services from 1956 to 1964 before turning to writing full time).

Of that early life as a spy le Carré says little, except for the poignant story of “Harry,” a mole he ran inside the British Communist Party, who betrayed his comrades not for money but from conviction. (“Someone has to clean out the drains, don’t they?” Harry would say.) To keep Harry’s morale up, the spy and his handler fantasized, almost as a novelist would, about his future role in the underground resistance. “If those Reds ever do come, Harry,” he would tell him, “and you happen to wake up and find yourself the Party’s grand poo-bah for your district—that’s when you’ll become the link man for the resistance movement that’s going to have to drive those bastards back into the sea.”

Often, le Carré gets to meet people because they believe he knows more about espionage than he actually does. It is a tribute to his realism, but it sometimes leads to embarrassment or comedy, or both. On the pretext of wanting a signed copy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the president of Italy summoned him to a grand dinner, along with “a misty grey army” of men who listened intently as the president solicited the author’s opinion on the state of Italy’s intelligence services, about which le Carré says he knew nothing “worth a bean.” Only later did he learn, to his chagrin, that this grey army had been a gathering of Italy’s top spooks, roped by the president into a pointless exercise to improve their game.

What le Carré does know beans about is writing. In passing, he reveals the kind of details fans love to discover. “I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafés, then scurrying home to pick over my booty.” He writes only by hand: “The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.” On field trips, he seldom uses a camera. “When I write a note my memory stores the thought,” he says. “When I take a photograph, the camera steals my job.” When he is researching a new novel, he takes the characters he has in mind along with him as “secret sharers,” and takes notes as if they, not he, were the observer.

Le Carré’s remark that “spying and novel writing were made for each other” can apply to many writers, but few have the visceral, elemental grasp of that truth that le Carré does. In a sense, he was born to it. “Spying did not introduce me to secrecy,” he writes. “Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood.” Which brings us to the author’s father, the roguish schemer, womanizer and con artist Ronnie Cornwell, a man who drove le Carré’s mother to abandon her family when he was five years old, and who appears in le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy. Later in life, Ronnie tried to claim that his successful son owed him everything, and in a way, it was true, although not as the father meant it. “Ronnie the conman could spin you a story out of thin air, sketch in a character who did not exist, and paint a golden opportunity where there wasn’t one,” le Carré writes. “He could withhold a great secret on the grounds of confidentiality, then whisper it in your ear alone because he had decided to trust you. And if that isn’t part and parcel of the writer’s art, then tell me what is.”

On Kim Philby, the high-ranking British intelligence official and long-time Soviet mole whose betrayals caused countless deaths and inspired Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré has a contrarian take. Many who had worked with Philby, including Graham Greene, forgave him, or at least excused him, on the grounds that a man is entitled to act on his most deeply held convictions. Le Carré is having none of that. On the contrary, he says, “Philby’s motive for betraying his country smacked … of an addiction to deceit.” On le Carré’s first visit to Moscow, in 1987, he was invited to meet the ailing Philby, who had defected in 1963 and may have been angling for le Carré to help him with his memoirs. Following his own deeply held convictions, le Carré turned the invitation down.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, many critics wondered what a writer whose work was so deeply imbued with the ambiance of the Cold War would write about now. They need not have worried. Le Carré has written half his work—including some of his best novels, such as The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man—since 1989. His strength as a novelist did not come from the accidental ­backdrop of four decades of superpower stand-off, but from the fearlessly researched realism of his work and his skill in finding a compelling subject—the sins of giant multinationals, arms dealers, money launderers and warriors on terror—and turning it into dramatic fiction. Often dismissed as a mere genre writer whose reach exceeds his grasp, le Carré belongs in the pantheon of realist storytellers such as Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, Joseph Conrad or Sinclair Lewis. Like them, le Carré is a moralist who has taken a nasty, invisible aspect of the world we live in, and transformed it through fiction into something that feels utterly real and ­comprehensible.

For me, le Carré’s most revealing anecdote involves his encounter with a young Czech movie star, Vladimír Pucholt, who portrayed disaffected young men in two of Miloš Forman’s early films, Black Peter and A Blonde in Love, movies that were partly responsible for my own decision to live for a time in communist Czechoslovakia. Shortly after the Soviet invasion of that country in 1968, Pucholt came to England on a visitor’s visa that was soon to expire. He had no intention of trading in on his fame as an actor; he simply wanted to study medicine. The problem was that he refused to claim refugee status, since that would have endangered family and friends back home. Taken with the young man’s obvious sincerity, le Carré was not only able to arrange permission for him to stay, but also loaned him the money for medical school. Today, Dr. Pucholt is a well-known pediatrician in Toronto, which means that hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadian children owe some small measure of their well-being to the perspicacity and generosity of David Cornwell.

Many years later, le Carré drew on Pucholt to create Issa, the tortured Chechen refugee in A Most Wanted Man, whose only wish is to become a doctor. “Sooner than I could have believed possible,” le Carré writes, “Vladimír repaid every penny … What he didn’t know—and neither did I until I came to write A Most Wanted Man—was that he had made me the non-returnable gift of a fictional character.”

John le Carré turned 85 this month. “An old writer’s memory is the whore of his imagination,” he writes. That may be. But who’s complaining?