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People Top 5
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- September 13, 1993
- Vol. 40
- No. 11
John Le Carre
The Spy Novelist, Abandoned by His Mother, Disillusioned by His Father, Learned Life's Bleak Lessons Early
Like the shadowy world of espionage that his characters inhabit, Corn-well has led a life of closely guarded secrets. Only recently has he finally admitted that he had indeed been a Cold War spy for MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. For years he had denied it out of loyalty to his profession, he says, but felt "released from that after a chain of former spooks had written their memoirs and thrown my name around."
The phenomenally successful author of such books as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley's People (1980) has in recent years felt compelled to speak openly about his long-repressed rage toward his father,a high-living con man who drove his wife to abandon her family when Corn-well was a child. "I think that my great villains have always had something of my father in them," Cornwell says. His 1986 novel, A Perfect Spy, was a not so thinly veiled story about a son who decides to come to terms with his father's flimflam life and, as a result, must own up to his own amoral persona. In The Night Manager, the battered hero, Jonathan Pine, confronts a charming arms smuggler in the hope, says Cornwell, "of extracting some confession—I am evil, I do wrong, I kill people.' I always had the desire to hear the truth from my father for once—'I sinned, I steal. That's what I do for a living.' That's what I wanted most."
Cornwell was born in Poole, Dorset, in the tranquil coastal countryside that was the setting for Thomas Hardy's grim novels. His father, Ronnie, engaged in all sorts of shady real estate ventures—that is, when he wasn't squandering his money in Monte Carlo casinos or playing the horses in Ireland. Constantly in debt, he was jailed for insurance fraud, which inspired the boys' mother, Olive, to run off with a business associate of her husband's when David was 5 and his brother, Tony, was 7. From then on, Ronnie shunted David and Tony (now a retired advertising executive living in Taos, N.Mex.) between relatives and boarding schools. Under Ronnie's casual direction, the family moved often. "Tony and I never kept our friends, and I still have few today," says Cornwell. During holidays, a succession of his father's women friends looked after the boys—"proxy mothers," Cornwell says disdainfully. "Many lovelies."
At 16, David also ran away—to Switzerland, where he lied about his age to get into Bern University. To support himself he worked at "ridiculous occupations," he says, such as washing elephants at a zoo. For a few weeks—once when he was 16 and again when he was 22—he entered an Anglican monastery in Dorset for "contemplation" and even thought of becoming a monk. After two years at Bern, he was called up for service by the British Army in 1950 and assigned to the intelligence corps because of his fluency in German. Based in several Austrian cities, including Vienna, Cornwell interviewed World War II refugees and ran low-level agents into Russian-occupied Austria.
But his mother's desertion never stopped haunting him. At 21, Cornwell set out to find her. After locating Olive through her brother and sending her a letter, he arranged to meet her on a train station platform in Ipswich. "I didn't recognize her until she stepped forward, suddenly and quite eerily resembling my brother," he recalls. Of their two days together, Cornwell says only that Olive left him and his brother behind because she feared that otherwise their father would follow her. That explanation left him bitter and unsatisfied. "How could she do such a thing and just walk away forever? Can you explain it?" he says. "I don't have the answer." Cornwell saw his mother only a few limes after this reunion, though he took care of her financially in the years before her death in 1989.
After the army, Cornwell attended Oxford, where he met his first wife, Ann Sharp, and graduated with a first-class-honors degree in modern languages in 1956. (A natural linguist, he is also a crack mimic whose characters include Truman Capote, Margaret Thatcher and Alec Guinness, whom he met while Guinness was playing Corn-well's most successful character, George Smiley, on television.) Corn-well says he "cannot confirm, deny or refute" rumors in the press that he worked for army intelligence while at Oxford. But after two years of leaching at Eton, he did enter Her Majesty's secret service in 1958. "I had had a taste of the secret world," he says, "and it drew me back."
Cornwell refuses to disclose just what he did for MI6 during his three years in West Germany, except to say that it was "terribly undramatic." Perhaps, but the work did provide the grist for his writing. His spy masters allowed him to publish his first novel, Call for the Dead (1960), provided he use a pseudonym. He chose John le Carre (in French, "the square") because it was "optically seductive" and "in the spirit of intrigue" to have a three-piece name with a Continental ring. A Murder of Quality came out two years later, but it wasn't until 1963's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold that Le Carre became a sensation. (Graham Greene, himself a master of the genre, called it "the best spy novel I have ever read.")
Spy earned Cornwell enough money to quit MI6 and write full-time. But while his career progressed, his marriage crumbled. He and Sharp divorced in 1971, and he married Jane Eustace, now 53, who worked at his publishing house, in 1972. In addition to three children from his first marriage—Simon, 36, a television entrepreneur in London; Stephen, 33, a film director in Los Angeles; and Timothy, 30, a freelance journalist in Washington—he and Jane have a son, Nick, 20, at Cambridge. "Having absolutely no example of parenthood, 1 was a raw father at first," says Cornwell. "So it was a kind of intellectual discovery. But we have all stuck together and are great buddies."
Writing hasn't been quite as arduous. Good plots come fairly easily to Cornwell, though he subjects himself to rigorous self-discipline. Manager consumed a year's worth of globe-trotting research into the international arms trade and one year of writing. He begins each day in his study at 6:30 a.m.—or 4:30 "if the bricks are laid and the characters are sitting up and behaving, ordering me about:" At lunch he has a couple of glasses of wine, then lakes a 90-minute hike along the Cornish cliffs near Land's End. Meantime, Jane types his morning's work into a computer, and Corn-well reads it after having a shower and a Scotch. "Often some small character is trying to be bigger than he is, and you'll think, 'Shut up and we'll find a way of giving you a bigger and better life in a new book.''
One character who would not shut up was his father. His roguish traits and Cornwall's unresolved rage drove the author to unleash Ronnie's dominating figure fully in A Perfect Spy. "I tried for a long time to write about him," he says. "Finally, I was able to address it. When it was over, I fell an altered person. I felt as if I'd taken myself through some kind of wonderful, refreshing therapy."
Cornwell describes The Night Manager as "a story of an attempted patricide," but in the end he let the evil Roper, who represents his father, survive. "I fought with myself, and may have put the wrong ending on," he says. "You can never make people own up to what they are. But that's the way I think life is." (That seems to have been the case with Ronnie, who, after David became famous, began asking for loans and even ran up bills pretending to be his son. Conwell refused to attend his father's funeral in 1975, but he did pay the expenses.)
In addition to his town house in London's fashionable Hampstead, Cornwell is thinking of buying a place in ("you'll swoon") Miami or, perhaps, Washington, D.C., to be nearer to his children. Other than some "uninformed" birdwatching along the cliffs and drawing caricatures while telling stories to his five grandchildren, he doesn't act like a man with retirement in mind. "I feel very bouncy. I'm not thinking, 'Oh, crikey, how do I get out of bed in the morning?' " he says. "I think much more of getting the books in while I've still got lime, while the yeast is still working."
Meantime, it seems the Master is finding some surcease from his furies. "This feeling that you can never dismantle monstrosities was bred in me from childhood," he says. "I began life as a pretty ruthless person, but now I feel more confident. I'm much more at ease with myself."
JOHN WRIGHT in Cornwall
- John Wright.
January 31, 2015
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