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Artillery Row

A spy’s afterlife

John le Carré’s work and life still haunt British culture

Whenever David came into the office there would be a palpable air of panic among the staff at Hodder & Stoughton. David being David Cornwell better known as John le Carré. I worked at Le Carré’s long term publishers from 2001 until 2009 in which time we published five of his novels. I never worked closely with him, luckily, perhaps, but I got a fascinating ringside seat of a great writer in his later years still full of vigour and neurotically obsessed with his legacy.

It should have been a wonderful relationship. Hodder, then still a family firm, published Le Carré’s most successful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy almost 50 years ago today. Who can forget that famous first edition cover with the Russian dolls? Or Alec Guinness’s performance as George Smiley in the BBC TV series. The firm had gone on to publish all of le Carré’s work like A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, and The Night Manager. Most were bestsellers and when I joined we’d just published The Constant Gardener which was seen as a return to form, something of a theme of le Carré’s career. 

He hated being pigeon-holed as spy thriller writer alongside Len Deighton

The problem wasn’t the sales or publicity. When Le Carré spoke, the world listened, or at least readers of Die Spiegel and the Guardian did, which was what mattered. It was his literary standing. Despite writing what Philip Roth called “The best English novel since the war” in A Perfect Spy, le Carré had never been shortlisted for the Booker prize. He hated being pigeon-holed as spy thriller writer alongside Len Deighton (no bad place to be, in my opinion) when he should have been spoken off in the same breath as Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie. 

Not that he told me any of this directly, I picked this up from various senior people at the company. Everyone walked on eggshells when David came in. I remember one incident when an early draft of a press release went out to the media — you would have thought that someone had died the way everyone behaved. As a young and slightly wayward member of the publicity team, I was usually kept as far away from him as possible, in case I said something stupid. 

I was, however, a huge fan. In my early ‘20s I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the other two novels in the trilogy The Honourable  Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. From there I tore through his backlist. I read everything, I even loved the later post-Cold War books like Single & Single and Our Game.

When the proofs came in for a new novel Absolute Friends, I begged to be allowed a copy to read. The publicity director relented and I hurried home with my prize but quickly it became apparent that it was a stinker — filled with a crass anti-Americanism that was to plague many of his later books. Imagine A Perfect Spy rewritten after a long lunch with John Pilger, indeed Pilger is thanked in the acknowledgements. It also felt unreal, the characters cartoon-like as if le Carré’s world had drifted away from reality. 

Nevertheless I was starstruck when I was finally introduced to the great man. I brought my old hardback of A Perfect Spy, sadly not a first edition, and others. He seemed genuinely touched that I loved his work so much and wrote “thank you for reading me” on the inside. As he signed, he held forth on the idiocies of Bush, Blair and the War on Terror. Not that I disagreed necessarily, but he seemed consumed by it as you could tell from his increasingly polemical novels. 9/11 had ruined le Carré’s touch though I have a friend who thinks the rot set in much earlier with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

Eventually the nightmare scenario happened, Le Carré changed literary agents from Bruce Hunter to the more hard-nosed Johnny Geller. The writing was on the wall and not long afterwards the expected news broke that he was off to Penguin, a publisher with more literary heft. Ironically his last novel for Hodder, A Most Wanted Man (2008), was his best in years — a taut thriller with a War on Terror setting with none of lecturing that marred the previous two. 

With the change of publisher, Le Carré’s star glowed ever brighter, helped by the film adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy which came out in 2011 and featured a cameo from the author. His backlist was reissued as Penguin Classics, something he had longed for, with introductions from well-known writers such as  Dominic Sandbrook and he published three further novels including a new George Smiley book. There was Adam Sisman’s brilliant 2015 biography followed by Le Carré’s unreliable memoir The Pigeon Tunnel.

Le Carré isn’t going to disappear from the public memory any time soon

Things really took off with Le Carré’s death in 2020 when the truth came about his colourful love life. A review of Sisman’s The Secret Life of John le Carré in the Guardian was subtitled “the constant philanderer”. But this was nothing compared with the eye-watering sexual detail in his former mistress Sue “Suleika” Dawson’s book, The Secret Heart. There are things in there you just can’t unsee. And there’s more to come, a new series of The Night Manager (The Night Manager 2: Room Service — one can hope), a stage play of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and even a new George Smiley book by le Carré’s son Nick Harkaway. 

Le Carré isn’t going to disappear from the public memory any time soon. Dominic Sandbrook made the astute observation on the ‘le Carré Cast’, a podcast hosted by the aptly-named Jeff Quest, that George Smiley is part of our popular culture in a way rivalled by very few literary characters. Le Carré’s work is still widely read — something you can’t say about most “literary novels” from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1974, the year of Tinker Tailor…, the winner of the Booker Prize was Stanley Middleton’s Holiday (no me neither). In 1986, when A Perfect Spy was published, the prize was won by The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis — a much better-known work but not widely read today. Le Carré’s legacy is secure for the foreseeable future. The funny thing is that if we could have told this to the great man back in the 00s, he still would not have been satisfied.

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