The Escape Artist: On John le Carré’s “A Private Spy” and Suleika Dawson’s “The Secret Heart”

John Phipps reviews two highly revealing new books about the late John Le Carré.

The Escape Artist: On John le Carré’s “A Private Spy” and Suleika Dawson’s “The Secret Heart”

A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré by John le Carré. Viking. 752 pages.The Secret Heart: John le Carré; An Intimate Memoir by Suleika Dawson. Mudlark. 352 pages.

“I AM IN an extremely equivocal position,” wrote David Cornwell, alias John le Carré, to his publisher in 1968. “A thriller-writer with pretentions? A novelist who hasn’t the guts to drop the thriller form? An FO smoothie doing his upper-class PR and inviting the establishment he lampoons … and so on.” After the breakaway success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), critics had rounded on le Carré’s follow-up novel, A Small Town in Germany (1968). Afterwards, the author wrote a letter that blurred the line between self-assurance and self-reassurance as he tried to explain away his mixed fortunes in the world of letters. “I am one of those writers whose imperfections are a great deal more interesting than their virtues,” he went on. “For critics, you must try and realise, I am simply too much altogether: too fluent, too young, and too capable.”

It may be the sense of fluency, above all, that defines le Carré as a writer of prose. It’s not just the size of his corpus; it’s the way the voice unfurls with total confidence in its own continuing powers. If some people talk like writers, le Carré wrote like a marvelous talker—which by universal repute he was. His voluble brilliance is on display in the collection of effusive, guarded, witty, tortured, ebullient, terse, sniffy, pompous, needy, generous, phony, moving, and highly entertaining letters published late last year as A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré, each page of which reads as though it were written without a blotted word.

I wonder if that facility didn’t limit le Carré, allowing him to write entire pages without stopping to wonder if what he’d written was true. His working method of rewriting entire books over and over—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) went through at least four full redrafts; the opening sentence of The Night Manager (1993) was rewritten 17 times—speaks to a lopsided balance between raw capacity and better judgment. In the later novels especially, the political broadsides and aphoristic passages read like the work of a man seduced by the pleasures of his own voice. Fluency was the gift he couldn’t get beyond, the one that fashioned both the pleasures and the defects of his novels.

The question of le Carré’s “equivocal position” never fully went away, and the futile debate has trundled dully on for half a century. The positions are as follows. The hawkish side holds that if he wrote lively words in an exciting order, he never wrote the best words in the best order, and more obviously, he wasn’t even trying. The doves reply that le Carré is to the Cold War what Dickens was to Victorian London, that he could outplot any living writer without bogging down in complexity and losing his reader, and that he commanded a turn of phrase whose ease and artistry never flagged in 60 years of writing.

My own view is that, like J. R. R. Tolkien or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, le Carré is not a genre author so much as an author of genre. What I think of as the spy novel—its intricacy, jargon, whiff of despair, and bleak moral worldview; its Manichean personal dramas, office knife-fights, and monochrome political superstructure—is in many respects something that sprang from the brain of David Cornwell. Granted, there were precedents: Rudyard Kipling, Erskine Childers, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, Graham Greene, and Len Deighton. But the “secret world” of espionage is le Carré’s creation, right down to its own romantic nomenclature. Le Carré took the spy story and gave it the grain and texture his times demanded. He made the secret world gray, and the achievement is so far-reaching that we often take it for granted. The word “mole,” meaning a double agent, is his coinage.

Yet, for all that gray—the gray suits, gray filing cabinets, gray skies, gray food, gray childhoods, gray marriages—le Carré’s novels still have glamor, a way of enticing us that imparts a corresponding blindness. “[T]o the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive,” a character reflects in The Little Drummer Girl (1983). “Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its centre.” Le Carré knew that the mask of secrecy imparted allure to the man who wore it. His characters spoke a private language that readers were flattered to find they could understand. His plots are both murky and brilliant, like being guided down dark corridors by a faint light coming in and out of view 20 paces up ahead. And all that competence! A senior British spy said of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that it featured “the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked.” Once considered a public embarrassment in intelligence circles, le Carré’s work has turned into the best advert that MI6 could ever hope for. Because it turns out that, though they were intended as condemnation, these stories of sad bureaucrats playing toy soldiers in the ruins of imperial Britain have acquired, with time, an inviting touch of faded grandeur.

Those picturesque ruins were a milieu the author knew well. A half century on, le Carré’s peripatetic early life looks like a grand tour of the English establishment as it failed to reckon with the end of empire. Born in Dorset in 1931, David Cornwell was educated at boarding schools before a sudden ditch-out at 16 for language study and skiing in Bern, Switzerland, where a nice couple from the embassy tapped him for a conversation about his “political views.” He did national service, then went up to Oxford, where he joined both conservative and communist student societies, with an occasional quick poke around the rooms of any left-leaning chums. Soon, he was off to Eton as a young master, wife and child in tow, to see “how the pointy-nosed, chinless and gooseberry-eyed British lords are brought up,” arriving just in time for the Suez Crisis. After two years, he left for MI5, the United Kingdom’s drab domestic intelligence service, before joining its racier sister service, MI6, a few years later. By then he had published two short thrillers, both well regarded. In 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released. It spent 35 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller chart, making him famous and rich, forever.

There was a darkness beneath this series of midday flits. The far-fetched misery of le Carré’s childhood began in earnest at the age of five, when his mother fled the house taking only a white Harrods suitcase. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a serial bankrupt, wife beater, philanderer, fantasist, and conman. (He would be vividly fictionalized in A Perfect Spy, the 1986 novel that connoisseurs sometimes call le Carré’s real masterpiece. The claim is preposterous: le Carré’s best book is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Ronnie’s schemes involved setting up dozens of front companies, fleecing neighbors for all they had, then pouring the money into champagne, fast cars, and slow horses before the walls closed in. He beat his children as he did his wives and girlfriends. Occasionally jailed when his debts were called in, the abuse resumed when he returned. The family’s outwardly prosperous life hid the knowledge—unbearable for anyone, let alone a motherless child—that home was built on an ever-growing sinkhole. Le Carré said they lived like “millionaire paupers.”

What le Carré later called the “hugless years” of his childhood had a debilitating emotional effect. “We were frozen children, & will always remain so,” he wrote to his brother Tony four decades later in a rare unguarded letter.

The only poetry we remember is the stuff we learned as kids, & it’s not much different with love. You chase after it, act it, imitate it, and eventually, if you’re old & lucky, you believe in it, but it comes hard, it’s flawed, & we fake it a lot, like religion, in the hope that one day we’ll have it for real.

He learned secrecy, the art of keeping himself secure from prying eyes. He learned to lie, to fear the exposure and disgrace that was only ever a solicitor’s letter away. He also learned about institutions and the ways they could be studied and mastered. At age 13, he wrote to his future housemaster at Sherborne School asking, “Could you please tell me some of the routine and coustoms [sic] of your house, so that I shall be sufficiently prepared for next term.” He was well liked at school, popular as a teacher, and successful and admired within the world of intelligence, yet from the age of 16, he moved from institution to institution with unsentimental frequency. Was he searching for a surrogate father and a place where he would finally belong? Or trying to prove once and for all that, for him, this kind of belonging was impossible?

Perhaps what he discovered was that, while we think our institutions love us and we run them, the reverse is more often true. Le Carré’s fiction pays loving attention to the eccentricities of institutional life, yet it returns over and over to the way these second homes remake us in their own image. In The Secret Pilgrim (1990), the retiring narrator looks in the mirror to discover “the face of a spy branded by his own deception.” At dinner with old colleagues, he says, “I can actually look round the room and see how the secret stain has come out in every one of us. I see the overbright face or the underlit one, but inside each I see the remnants of a life withheld.”

That habit of secrecy and fabrication stayed with le Carré throughout his life. As a man in his early twenties, he would sleep on a mattress in front of his stepmother’s door, clutching a golf club, to try and prevent the savage beatings Ronnie would deal out when he came home plastered. In The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016), a memoir he published as a hasty counterlife after the release of his official biography, he revised this scene so that it took place when he was a young child. The significance of the change is ambivalent, perhaps double-edged: it heightens the Dickensian pathos and the impossibility of the situation, but it also spares le Carré from the shame, which must have burnt in him his whole life, of just how long it took him to break with his wicked father.

In the last years of his filial subservience, le Carré was acting as nice-young-man bait at one of Ronnie’s business lunches when he met a woman called Ann Sharp. From secret service training camps and Swiss apartments, he went on to write her a series of passionate letters. “I love you, my darling—you seem to have become my life-blood, the foundation of all my hopes and ambitions,” he wrote in 1950. “It must all be an illusion,” he wrote of their happiness a year later, “but I claim for both of us the right to dream until we wake.” Though he was not yet the philanderer he would become, the romanticized note of impending doom was growing louder as marriage hovered into view. Le Carré’s studied evasiveness, his talent for loosening attachments while seeming to pledge fidelity, first came to the fore in this period. “Sometimes I’m worried,” he wrote in 1952, “for there must be shadow where there is light; and sometimes I am even frightened by how much you know about me! But you know that I love you.”

By his own telling, though, his sexual life truly began in September 1965—almost 11 years after his marriage to Ann, two years after his ascent to fame and fortune, immediately after his disastrous affair with Susan Kennaway, at the very moment that his marriage was finally falling apart—when he went to bed with a Swedish student, after a lecture delivered at Lund University, and had his first entirely joyous intimate encounter. Shortly afterwards, he returned to London and spent six months drunk, sleeping with any woman he could. With protracted inevitability, his marriage ended.

By that time, le Carré had begun a new affair with Valerie Jane Eustace, always called Jane. When he invited his old university mentor Vivian Green—one of the models for le Carré’s recurring hero George Smiley—to stay at his Swiss chalet, le Carré noted: “I may have a girl staying here, formerly in publishing, now girlfriend, assistant & what have you—I am fairly sure you will like her, and she cooks.” The more you read that last sentence, the more dizzying the sexism becomes. Few love letters to Jane are recorded in the correspondence, though affectionate notes of gratitude and apology appear occasionally.

It is with his marriage to Jane that the pieces of the tripartite corpus of le Carré material—the novels, the letters, and the biography—begin to diverge, and the matter they diverge on is sex. The novels, beginning with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), increasingly feature passionate (if somewhat abstract) love affairs chopped roughly into the plot. The letters give fragmentary evidence of a few affairs, in the form of some correspondence with an American curator and the occasional apologetic notes mentioned above. And after Jane’s entrance into Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of the writer, the emotional portcullis slams shut. Thereafter, the reader makes do with a recital of advance numbers, book sales, and research trips: to Southeast Asia for The Honourable Schoolboy, to Russia for The Russia House (1989), to Panama for The Tailor of Panama (1996), and so on. For a long time, it was le Carré’s early life that was shrouded in mystery; today, it’s the second half that looks full of holes. Or rather, it has one big hole, right in the middle, where the life should be.

A third of the way through Sisman’s biography, there is a curious passage about the infidelities that marked the novelist’s second marriage:

Jane understood that David’s work was sacred to him. If the truth had to be lived to be discovered—as it did for Faust—then live it, and pay the price. In Jane, David had found a helpmeet, a companion, who would support and encourage him in his writing for the rest of his days. She recognised from early in their life together that she would have to share him with other women.

Last year, Sisman published an article in The Telegraph stating that these words were written by le Carré himself, who presented them to his biographer as a nonnegotiable insertion. It’s hard to say what is more extraordinary: the self-serving comparison with Faust, the dishonesty of speaking for his scorned wife in Sisman’s persona, or the fact that, having manufactured a chance to describe his wife in his own biography, le Carré described her as a “helpmeet.” He later made Sisman and Jane sit down for a painful, humiliating interview, where she repeated the same story back to him. It’s probably not the most manipulative thing le Carré ever did in the service of his infidelity, but it must rank up there.

We now know a little more about what John le Carré got up to on his “hols,” thanks to the pseudonymous Suleika Dawson’s The Secret Heart: John le Carré, a memoir of jaw-dropping indiscretion that I read with my eyes out on stalks. Recounting her two affairs with the author, which took place 15 years apart, the book bills itself as an “intimate memoir,” though this turns out to be a serious understatement: “Our clothes lay in an incontinent heap on the floor, fastenings gaping wantonly”; “David said how amazed he was by the amount of seminal fluid he produced with me”; “David threw us both onto the living-room couch and drove himself into me like a ploughshare.”

From Dawson’s book, we learn a few flattering, and a lot of not particularly flattering, things about le Carré. We learn that, like Fabrice de Sauveterre in Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, his way of enchanting women was buying them jewelry, champagne, caviar, and flowers; that he was well hung and sexually thrilling; that he had a habit of acting out domestic scenes he would later transcribe into his novels; that he claimed to have turned down two knighthoods and to have told his agent, preemptively, to decline the Nobel Prize if it came his way; that he set his mistresses up in safe-house apartments; that he found them helpmeet-like employment as his researchers; that, when he was away from Jane, they acted as his first readers; that, when they visited his house in Cornwall, they slept with him in the marital bed; that he was a dogged worker; that he used writing as a way of controlling daily life; that he claimed to use former spies as covert travel agents; that he wrote his mistresses’ addresses down using codes he himself sometimes forgot how to decipher; that he claimed his intelligence training had given him control of his central nervous system; that he let his lovers know his affection could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice; that he told them they were the one, the only one, he had ever truly loved. Most of all, we learn that if you once loved him, you can write a whole book full of sentences like “Nothing at all in his self-serving ‘theatre of the real’ acknowledged the truth of my existence” and still believe, on some level, that you are narrating a great love story.

Dawson obviously watched le Carré like a hawk, and the portrait that comes through here is the most vivid I have encountered of her subject. She records a few of le Carré’s prior lovers, whom he seems to have taken at the alarmingly regular pace of one per book. (Graham Greene had personally recommended that he find a new woman for every new novel.) She certainly has a story to tell. The problem is that she can’t work out what kind of story she is telling: a valediction of love or a good old-fashioned revenge memoir. The result is a passionate insistence that all is true, peppered with brutal asides intended to settle old scores (including, ungenerously, with her lover’s wife, whom she barely met).

Le Carré, on the other hand, has his story straight from the get-go. Ronnie, school, the spooks, writing, a terrible marriage, an inability to love, a heart shaped by spying, buckets of cash, and, apparently, impending Nobel honors. He knows his lines. When she asks his opinion on contemporary authors, he says, “There’s just nobody out there. That’s why this book has to be my best, you see. I’ve only my own act to beat.” When she asks what he would tell his wife if she discovered their affair, he replies: “I’d deny you—I’d deny you utterly.” Twice, 10 years apart, he replies to her letters by praising her prose with the words, “That one doesn’t go in the shredder.” Neither letter has survived.

What all this means for le Carré is simply that the otherwise well-documented pattern of his working habits is still incomplete. In the second half of his life, each book followed the same pattern: a long research trip to somewhere far-flung and dangerous, intensive interviews with experts in a field to find out their “routines and coustoms,” and then multiple rewrites until the book came true. The missing piece of the puzzle—the emotional element—may well be a new affair: a new immersion in secrecy, ambivalence, torturous guilt. An undercover venture into the whole moral imaginary of his own fictional world. Then the complex management of the peeling off, the choice between maintaining good relations or making a clean break. Was it a cynical pattern? Did he know what he was doing? It’s impossible to be sure. He certainly wasn’t getting shot of whatever he felt he was fleeing. Le Carré often joked that his whole life had been a series of escapes from one institution to another. But what is the compulsive escape artist if not a man with a genius for constructing prisons? He knew this as well as anyone. “I’m a born architect of slammers,” he tells Dawson more than once.

As for the secret world, it did him proud. With age, le Carré leaned into his spy persona more and more. At the beginning of his career, he denied having ever been a spy; by the end, he claimed, with an inscrutable level of irony, to have privately averted a third world war. If in doing so he swapped one face-eating mask for another, then the new mask was a useful one. It suited his mystique, likely bolstered his love life, and definitely helped his sales. Oxymoronically but undeniably, John le Carré was the most famous former spy in the world. As a writer, he created the spy as a moral category for his times. As a man, he became that category’s chief exemplar, conducting his friendships, trysts, and love affairs in rhythm with a mystique of his own invention. It’s a hell of an achievement when you think about it: running your own game like that for decades on end. Enough time, surely, for the thought to occur that the game might also be running you.


John Phipps is a freelance writer. He lives in London.

LARB Contributor

John Phipps is a freelance journalist. His reporting has been recognized for its quality on both sides of the Atlantic; his cultural criticism appears in many publications. He writes an occasional Substack about old master paintings and lives in London.


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