The Complex Man Who Writes as John Le Carré
Granite cliffs rise some 100 feet from the roiling sea to the house; around it lie rock and salty scrub. A cold mist is borne in by tearing winds from the English Channel where the dark galleons of the Armada once sailed. The view from the desk of David Cornwell is as gray and bleak as that of the novels of espionage he writes under the name “John Le Carré.”
A visitor gets to Penzance—as far away as one can get from London and still be in England—by train. The 7:30 a.m. from Paddington arrives six hours and ten minutes later. The author is waiting at the station in his anonymous gray Saab. Six miles away at Saint Buryan, on the grim coast of Cornwall, stands his retreat, Tregiffian, three farmworkers’ cottages that he has built into a dream house. Around it he owns 28 acres, with a mile of shorefront. He also has a chalet in Switzerland and a newly acquired townhouse in London, made possible by the international success of his novels—The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, The Looking-Glass War, A Small Town in Germany and now Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—which have made David John Moore Cornwell, at 42, a millionaire several times over.
The cheerful house is replete with every modern convenience and a discordant mix of contemporary and antique furniture and stark modern paintings. Jane, 36, David’s wife, is welcoming. Drinks are poured and introductions made to David’s son Stephen, 14 (by a previous marriage) and to a chirrupy Nicholas, 2. Cornwell, a handsome, physically rugged man with thick reddish hair and an educated, resonant voice, is a genial host and a writer who is unusually articulate about his work. But as with his characters who operate in the dirty, unglamorous and very real world of espionage, his revelations about himself are many-layered, cluttered with ambiguities and contradictions.
Questions about Cornwell’s credentials as a spy-writer are familiar; politely he discusses his five years of service for the British Foreign Office in Germany: “I was second man in the embassy’s internal political section. I spoke German, had my own sources and covered political meetings all over West Germany. I was engaged in overt intelligence activities, as are all diplomats and journalists. I was not a spy.”
“John Le Carré” emerged because the foreign office will not permit a serving officer to write under his own name. In the past, Cornwell was reported saying he had plucked his nom de plume from a London shop front which had caught his eye from a passing bus. What kind of shop, in what section of London? “A shoe store in Battersea,” he obliges, filling in details previously unrecorded. Then blandly: “I suspect the story is a lie.” Oh? “Maybe it’s a lie I’ve come to believe.”
Cornwell’s grandfather was the sometime mayor of Poole, an English seaside town in Dorset. What about his father? What business was he in? “Can’t we leave that one?” Well, people are curious.
At that a very gifted storyteller takes over, reluctantly at first, with asides, hesitations. What emerges is pure Le Carré, notes toward a character—two characters, actually—at once embroiled with and alienated from society, forged in loneliness, tempered by a fierce determination to succeed. The self-portrait which Cornwell, who once dabbled at art, helps fill in is not the sort of image usually brought to mind by the jacket blurbs about the public school and Oxford-educated chap who became a Master at Eton before matriculating into the foreign service and eventual fame.
Cornwell’s childhood memories range from hobnobbing with prominent personalities in business, politics—his father once stood for Parliament—and sports, to being walked by his mother past a prison so that he could wave to his father. There are other recollections: of cars hidden in the garden to avoid being taken away by debt collectors; of being picked up by a chauffeur at boarding school and never knowing where he would be taken home; of vacations in scruffy hotels. His mother walked out one day. “I was never told that my mother had gone. She was just not there.” He speaks of the “sheer ruthlessness” of his childhood, his “familiarity with the sources of duplicity.” Elaborating, he says, “If I write knowledgeably about gothic conspiracies, it’s because I had knowledge of them from earliest childhood. And is it surprising that I write about people who are emotionally exhausted?” Perhaps his bitterest memory concerns his father’s decision to separate David from his two years older brother Tony, on the ground that he had “become too dependent on Tony.” “Tony was the only stable relationship that I had,” laments David today. “I never accumulated friends, because we were never anywhere long enough. I had to develop emotional self-sufficiency, which tells you why I’m a loner.”
The searcher after John Le Carré has been given a telephone number and an address in London. They are no longer current, but a little scouting locates Ronald Cornwell, 68, the novelist’s father, whom the son describes as “like Gatsby.” The father’s initial response is one of perplexity: why has his estranged son suggested, or at least concurred, in this visit? David has an international reputation; people are interested in him. Ronald Cornwell acquiesces: “The whole story will have to be told some day. David can never escape the fact that he is my son and I his father.”
Ronnie (“No one calls me Mr. Cornwell”) says his own father, a nonconformist lay preacher, was in the motorcoach-building business. Ronnie left school at 14 to become an insurance broker’s clerk at 15 shillings a week. At 21, he was making £1,500 a year—”a fortune in those days”—and married the sister of a Liberal Member of Parliament. Ronnie and Olive Cornwell had two sons: Tony, now age 44 and employed by a New York advertising agency, and David. When David was five, Olive went off to live with a real estate agent with whom her husband had been doing business. David rarely saw his mother thereafter.
The breakup of his marriage was not the only early setback for Ronnie Corn-well. The ambitious young entrepreneur was jailed for fraud. He says now that he had repaid the money before the case came to court, and he speaks of the episode simply as “the disaster.”
Heading for London, Ronnie plunged into real estate. Between 1945 and 1950 alone, he acquired more than 4,000 properties and formed more than 60 companies. By 1954, 19 bankruptcy petitions had been presented against him, and his contingent liabilities were declared in London bankruptcy court to be £1,359,000. “I am as I am, a loner,” Ronnie reflects (the refrain ringing like a hereditary tocsin in the Cornwell line). “For a loner, I was trying to do too much.”
Ronnie Cornwell left Britain in 1963 and for four years “wandered around the world,” chasing the big deal that would clear his debts and put him on top again. He never caught it.
While Ronnie was languishing in Singapore he received a handwritten letter from his son David, dated Dec. 28, 1965, asking if Ronnie wished to return home—”Can you?”—and the sums involved. It went on, “Knowing you, I suspect you want to return as a conquering hero rather than merely a solvent citizen—but surely there are things to be said for a less ambitious plan, if one can be devised. Will you lift the veil a little?”
With some financial help from his sons, Ronnie finally returned to Britain in 1967 and resumed business as a property and financial consultant. He says that the completion, two months ago, of a land deal begun in 1958 will soon enable him to clear his debts and get the bankruptcy order lifted. Retirement is the furthest thing from his mind. A few years ago, David offered to support him if only he’d go off quietly. Ronnie retorted: “I am not going to be paid by you to sit on my ass.”
Ronnie Cornwell appears to want deeply to heal the schism with David. “I don’t intend to be there, but if I were in the gutter, David would be the first to get me out,” says Ronnie. “But that is not enough. I would like him to be as proud of his father as his father is of him.”
Later David—who has seen his father only sporadically over the past 25 years—comments, “You reach the point of emotional bankruptcy; the only thing you can do is walk away from it.”
Cornwell’s present lifestyle, if not his mind, is far removed from the lonely and unhappy years of his youth. One of the rare rich English writers who, under crushing income taxes, chooses to make England his permanent home—”I keep about four percent of what I earn”—he does so because he wants his children to grow up there. He lavishes on them the companionship and care that he missed in his boyhood. Cornwell has three sons, aged 11 to 17, by his first wife, Ann—who divorced David and married a diplomat—and baby Nicholas by his present wife, Jane. She is a dentist’s daughter who left an executive position with Hodder and Stoughton, publishers of Le Carré’s last two books, and married him in 1972.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has scaled the top of the best-seller lists in both Britain and America. Its success is especially pleasing since Cornwell’s previous book, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, his only “straight” or non-espionage novel, was not enthusiastically received by critics or public. (It was in fact a roman a clef which was Cornwell’s riposte to the novel Some Gorgeous Accident by his former close friend, the late James Kennaway. Both books deal with tangled affairs in which two fast friends are in love with the same woman.)
Tinker is the complex story of portly, aging, loveless but loyal George Smiley returning to the “Circus”—Le Carré’s splendid term for the British Secret Service—to winkle out a double agent at the highest level. The next Le Carré novel of espionage will be set in southeast Asia where he has made two fact-finding trips this year.
Cornwell’s greatest test lies ahead: whether he can come to grips in literary terms with the core of his own life—his relationship with his father. “He is still too close to it, encroached by it, to put it down with detachment and wit,” says his wife. That essential detachment may determine whether John Le Carré will fulfill every writer’s ambition: to produce the great novel he must believe is in him.