'He Makes Us Love George Smiley:' Robert Harris On The Legacy Of John Le Carré

Dec 14, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 8:09 pm

John le Carré, master of the spy thriller, has died at the age of 89.

Born David Cornwell, he grew up with a colorfully criminal father whose repeated stints in jail left him in a succession of boarding schools. As an adult, he joined MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, and went on to write highly celebrated novels like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which, though he swore it was "sheer fiction," was so realistic that critics dubbed it the real thing — and after a few more books, actual spies began picking up some of his lingo.

In 2004, he told NPR's Robert Siegel that "the one thing that marks most writers is the condition of unhappiness and alienation. I went to my first boarding school at the age of five, and I think it just drove me in upon myself and made the fictitious world the real one for me, that the imaginative world was a refuge that I could retreat to when life became incomprehensible."

Robert Harris, a fellow British fiction writer, had been planning a biography of le Carré, and spent time with him in his home in Cornwall.

"And we had a very good time," he remembers. "At the end of it, I didn't really want to write the biography and he really didn't want to have one written, so it was an ideal relationship."


Interview Highlights

On his most memorable le Carré story, which the author shared with him about his time at boarding school

When he was sent away at the age of five — because his mother had left him, abandoned him — his brother was also at another school. And on a Sunday, so lonely, they used to get on a train and meet in a field midway between the two of them and just hold one another, he said. His eyes welled up with tears as he was describing this story, and I remember thinking, "ah, well, that's why you're always writing novels about betrayal. And that's why you feel so angry, quite often, about society and the British establishment." It all went back, I think, to the trauma of his childhood, which he indicated.

On the short, balding, unassuming spy George Smiley, and why people are so drawn to this character

I think that character works because he's lit with love from within by the writer. He makes us love George Smiley. - Robert Harris

I think he was a sort of gentle, decent father he never knew himself. He was based on a man called John Bingham, who was an intelligence officer, who looked exactly like that. And I think that character works because he's lit with love from within by the writer. He makes us love George Smiley. That's a rare gift, and Smiley's one of those characters, I think, who will live on for decades actually in the public imagination.

On how le Carré is viewed by current British spies

There were some that thought he'd left and blabbed out a lot of secrets. Latterly, though, he did used to go to MI6 and talk to the young officers there. You know, the Tinker Tailor novel which is about a hunt for a mole in British intelligence, who's been recruited by the Russians, was pretty close to the bone when it appeared — because he was actually revealing a secret that almost nobody knew, which was that there was a feeling that the head of MI5 [at the time], Roger Hollis, was actually a Russian spy. And this tied British intelligence or security service in knots. He likely fictionalized that. That I think did cause a bit of trouble.

This story was produced for radio by Mallory Yu and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back in 2004, the writer David Cornwell, aka John le Carre, came on the show to talk about the novel he had just published, "Absolute Friends." He was in a pensive mood, and he talked about what drew him early on to fiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN LE CARRE: The one thing that marks most writers is the condition of unhappiness and alienation. I went to my first boarding school at the age of 5, and I think it just drove me in upon myself and made the fictitious world the real one for me, the imaginative world that was a refuge that I could retreat to when life became incomprehensible.

KELLY: John le Carre went on to join Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6, and then to become perhaps Britain's most celebrated writer of spy novels - "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." He died this weekend at age 89. To reflect on his life and work, we wanted to bring in another celebrated British writer of fiction, Robert Harris.

Welcome.

ROBERT HARRIS: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you.

KELLY: So you knew him rather well. You went and stayed with him at his home in Cornwall because you had a plan that you were going to write his biography. Is that right?

HARRIS: Yes, that's right. We went off and spent three or four days together down in Cornwall in his home, and we had a very good time. By the end of it, I didn't really want to write the biography, and he really didn't want to have one written.

KELLY: (Laughter).

HARRIS: So it was an ideal relationship.

KELLY: If you had written it, what would have been your lead? What's your best John le Carre story?

HARRIS: The clip you just played. He told me about that, and he added something which was almost too painful for him ever to talk about. He said that when he was sent away at the age of 5 because his mother had left him, abandoned him, his brother was also at another school. And on a Sunday - so lonely - they used to get on a train and meet in a field midway between the two of them and just hold one another, he said. His eyes welled up with tears as he was describing this story. And I remember thinking, oh, well, that's why you're always writing novels about betrayal, and that's why you feel so angry quite often about society and the British establishment. It all went back, I think, to the trauma of his childhood, as he indicated.

KELLY: That's an extraordinary thing. And it makes you wonder if that's, of course, what also might have drawn him to a life at MI6 and serving in the intelligence services and having to keep everything compartmentalized.

HARRIS: Yes. I mean, I think he was a watchful, wary schoolboy, which is a figure that recurs in his novels, especially in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which is his masterpiece, in my view. He was indeed. He was recruited into British intelligence very young. He spied on his fellow students at Oxford for MI5, passed on details of left-wing students who he befriended. He was rather ashamed of that activity. He then went to Eton and was a teacher there in modern languages for a while and then to MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, and then to MI6. So he had this extraordinary background, this sense of betrayal and yet all the establishment things you could have in England. And that's really what made him a novelist.

KELLY: He poured all of this into his most famous character, George Smiley, who anyone who's read these novels knows was - George Smiley's the opposite of James Bond - this short, balding, unassuming man. Why do you think it was such a compelling character - so many of us are drawn to him?

HARRIS: Well, I think he was a sort of gentle, decent father he never knew himself. It was based on a man called John Bingham, who was an intelligence officer who looked exactly like that. And I think that character works because he's lit with love from within by the writer. He makes us love George Smiley. That's a rare gift. And Smiley is one of those characters, I think, who will live on for decades, actually, in the public imagination.

KELLY: I noticed that among those paying tribute today to le Carre is the current chief of MI6, Richard Moore, who tweeted that le Carre's a giant of literature and added condolences from all of us at the River House - the river house being a reference to MI6 headquarters on the banks of the River Thames. Do we know how le Carre is viewed by current British spies? Do they read him?

HARRIS: There were some that thought he'd left and blabbed out a lot of secrets. Laterally, though, he did use to go to MI6 and talk to the young officers there. You know, the "Tinker Tailor" novel, which is about a hunt for a mole in British intelligence who's been recruited by the Russians, was pretty close to the bone when it appeared because he was actually revealing a secret that almost nobody knew, which was that there was a feeling that the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was actually a Russian spy. And this tied British intelligence or security service in knots. He lightly fictionalized that. That, I think, did cause a bit of trouble.

KELLY: Robert Harris - his latest book is titled "V2." He was speaking there about David Cornwell - pen name John le Carre - who died over the weekend at the age of 89.

Robert Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.