In a 1993 foreword to his classic, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), Le Carree, who, in his role as an agent for the Secret Intelligence Service was stationed in Berlin when the Wall went up, declared it a symbol of “an ideology gone mad,” guarded by “brainwashed little thugs.” For those who knew of his works, this was startling, for his metier had always been the moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and Great Britain.
“Our methods since World War II have resembled the enemy,” says Control, the leader of British intelligence. This is echoed by master spy George Smiley, who in a conversation with his opposite number, Karla, says there is little difference between his country and the Russian’s. In the early 1960s, this was subversive stuff. The zeitgeist was an unquestioning acceptance of the Cold War foundations of the West, and, Pussy Galore and the sexual athletics she inspired to the contrary, spies were worthy of glamourization in the person of James Bond. Small wonder that Kim Philby, an embedded Soviet mole who fled to the Soviet Union, and now, disappointed by the Soviets, also embraced moral equivalence, saw enough kinship to warrant a meeting; Le Carre refused to meet who he designated a “traitor.”
But by the late 60s, the zeitgeist caught up to Le Carre aka David Cornwell. The CIA stood revealed as violating its domestic charter by experimenting with LSD on citizens and bank rolling the magazine Encounter, that was a cultural offensive by its members, liberal anti-communists all, against the propaganda of the Politburo. On the foreign front, as revealed by the Church Committee (1975) investigations into CIA activity in the early 60s, the Agency engaged in assassination schemes. Partnered up with the Mafia (who wanted their casinos back from the nationalization of them by Fidel Castro), the CIA attempted, with the covert blessing of then President John F. Kennedy and especially his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the assassination of El Commandante, via exploding cigars and poisoned wet suits; the latter to be given to Fidel as a “gift.”
The Spy garnered high praise, Graham Greene called it, “the best spy story I’ve ever read,,” while others christened it literature of the highest quality. As he accepted that he had elevated the spy story to literature, his books became heftier and pretentious and much more pulpy, without Ian Fleming’s saving grace of satire (the Bond movies dealt followed suit, retaining the double entrendre names of the bedmates, while adding throw-away jokes to lessen the impact of James’ wet-work). Le Carre’s novels also shared with the Fleming characters heroes and villains who were super-human in their intelligence. George Smiley, MI-6’s counterespionage expert, relegated to the sidelines in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, now was front and center. In Le Carre’s hands, the battle between Smiley and Karla assumed epic proportions (at the conclusion of An Honourable Schoolboy,, Smiley, just in time, reveals a thorough knowledge of Chinese naval engineering).
One of the achievement’s of Adam Sisman’s excellent biography is to risk anger by Le Carre, who, in a revealing slip of the tongue, has “blessed” this effort. He follows the author’s script as to how, in a sense, his background made him ideal for intelligence work. Abandoned by his mother at the age of 5, Le Carre/Cornwell was left to his devices thanks to his father, a traveling con-man. Although their relationship was difficult, Sisman shows how his father’s constant lying and secrecy fascinated the son. Taking the usual route for a spy which involved studying languages in college, Le Carre went from a stint in the regular army to its Intelligence branch. He spent the early part of the 1950s, serving as a German interrogator in Austria,where he interrogated escapees from the Iron Curtain. From there, he began, which was at first, a light relationship with MI-5, where he spied on far-left groups to uncover embedded Soviet moles. Le Carre joined MI-6 in 1960, and bore witness to what was perhaps the most shocking moment for the Service: the defection of Kim Philby, a Soviet mole who was in charge of the anti-Soviet division of British Intelligence. Le Carre was personally affected by this; his career as an intelligence officer ended when Philby betrayed the agents the author ran to the KGB.
Sisman shows how henceforth, Le Carre was obsessed with Philby and expressed his hatred of him in novels. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974), Le Carre engages in wish fulfillment: the Philby-character is outed by Smiley and then murdered by one of the British agents who the Philby character betrayed to the Russians.
But Sisman also shows the blemishes. Le Carre’s politics were bizarre. Cheering the demise of the Soviet Union, he called on the West to also dismantle their own weaponry; not the smartest move with Sept. 11th a mere decade away. He also championed the same kind of censorship he attacked the Russians for in the Salmon Rushdie affair. Rushdie, who wrote a satirical and critical examination of Muslim thought in the Satanic Verses, was targeted for assassination by Iran, who urged Muslims everywhere to kill the “blasphemous” author. While condemning the fatwa, Le Carre took the side of those who refused to sell the book: “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity” (Le Carre later regretted this action).
Sisman’s work is exemplary. It is a complicated look at a complicated and oft times frustrating writer.