John le Carré’s Letters Show the Author at His Witty, Erudite and Pugilistic Best
A prolific correspondent and artful curator of his own life, the British novelist John le Carré left behind a trove of personal letters when he died, age 89, at the end of 2020. There were letters to family members, to politicians, to actors, to fellow novelists, to current and former spies, to star-struck strangers seeking advice, to lifelong friends and to Jane, his wife of 48 years who died, of cancer, two months after he did.
Tim Cornwell, the third of le Carré’s four sons, took on the mammoth task of organizing this unwieldy mass. The result, “A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré,” published by Viking on Dec. 6, shows the author, one of the last great practitioners of the increasingly obsolescent art of letter-writing, at his erudite, opinionated, pugilistic, witty and self-reflective best.
In a cruel twist, Tim Cornwell, 59, died of a blood clot in May, just as he was putting the finishing touches on the book. “This project was so dear to his heart,” Tim’s brother Nick Cornwell, who writes novels under the name Nick Harkaway, said in a phone interview. Nick is the only child of le Carré’s marriage to Jane; his three older brothers were the author’s children with his first wife, Ann.
“All of us were knocked sideways by our father’s and my mother’s dying,” he said. “Tim was the one who was prepared to go into that space of recollection and memory.
The brothers debated what sort of analysis to include alongside the letters. Tim, a journalist, argued that the material should speak for itself, while Nick believed that the reader should be alerted when, for instance, le Carré was being deliberately, and characteristically, self-mocking or pompous.
In the end, Nick said, he honored his brother’s views. “It remained Tim’s choice, Tim’s ethos, Tim’s book,” he said. “The book is compendious and revelatory, a statement of the man in his own words, and I found myself knowing my father in new ways through these letters.”
Some of the letters came from an archive that le Carré kept at home in Cornwall. Others were gathered from libraries, agents, publishers, friends and relatives. They begin in 1945, when le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, is 14 years old, and writes to his future boarding-school housemaster to say he is looking forward to school. It ends shortly before le Carré’s death; the second-to-last item is an email to his literary agent, Jonny Geller, from the hospital where he was dying. “In case we don’t get to talk, thanks for all of it,” it begins.
There are touching letters to le Carré’s stepmother, Jeannie Cornwell, whose consistent love helped counter the harm done to le Carré by the chaotic narcissism of his flamboyantly unscrupulous, larger-than-life father, Ronnie Cornwell, the model for the monstrous Rick Pym in “A Perfect Spy.” There is just one letter to Ronnie, written after Ronnie attacks his increasingly famous son for speaking publicly about the past.
“You must understand that I have a very difficult hand to play in answering journalists’ questions about my family background and about yourself,” le Carré writes to his father. “Any newspaper has in its archives enough clippings about you to make a far more embarrassing picture than the one I painted.”
As le Carré’s writing career takes off, his circle of correspondence widens. There’s an embarrassment of riches in the book. Letters to the writers Philip Roth, John Cheever, Ian McEwan and Tom Stoppard. A smattering of correspondence with Graham Greene, whom le Carré praised to his face but sniped about behind his back. “I never knew anyone who tended his image more carefully than Graham,” le Carré writes to a friend, adding that another novelist, Anthony Powell, “loathed him.”
There’s a sweet response to 10-year-old Nicholas Greaves, who in 1988 asks le Carré for tips on becoming a spy. “To be a spy, you need first to know what you think about the world, whom you would like to help, whom to frustrate,” le Carré responds. “Also, you have to decide how much you are prepared to do by dishonest means.”
There is both openhearted regret and righteous defensiveness in several letters to Stanley Mitchell, a left-leaning friend with ties to the Communist Party whom the author secretly spied on for the British security services as an undergraduate at Oxford University. There are deep, bitter criticisms of politicians like Tony Blair and George Bush, and thoughtful discussions of the war on terror with le Carré’s friend Dr. August Hanning, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency.
There are playful notes to the writer Al Alvarez. There are multiple letters to agents, publishers and film executives about myriad projects. There are irate, dripping-with-high-dudgeon complaints to various magazine and newspaper editors about articles le Carré has taken exception to.
In 2001, he declines, in scathing tones of barely contained fury, an invitation to speak to the employees of the pharmaceutical company Novartis, whose industry he attacked in his novel “The Constant Gardener.” “I think I struck a nerve, and made you angry,” le Carré writes. “Which, believe it or not, is one of the most useful functions that a free writer can perform in an era of insufferable corporate arrogance.”
There is warm correspondence with the actors Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, who played his uber-spy George Smiley in different films. There’s a thoughtful, encouraging letter to the actor Stephen Fry after a distressing incident in which Fry dramatically abandoned the West End production he was starring in and fled. (He later said he was suffering from bipolar disorder.)
There is one striking omission. Though le Carré was chronically unfaithful to his wives, behavior he attributed to the unstable childhood that had imbued in him a chronic propensity for secrecy and selfishness, the book contains very few letters to his many lovers. “He was as scrupulous in keeping his romantic correspondence covert as he was in recording the rest,” Tim Cornwell writes in the introduction.
“A Private Spy” touches on but doesn’t delve into this topic. In the interview, Nick Cornwell said that his mother, Jane, elected to stay with her husband despite his womanizing. She also worked closely with him, typing his manuscripts, organizing his schedule, serving as the first editor of his work.
“She had every opportunity to decide she didn’t want to carry on, and she chose, over and over again, to preserve the marriage,” Nick said. “I think she saw each of these situations as a victory. I’m sure it was hard and it hurt like hell, but let it not be said that she was a victim in her own marriage. She chose it, defined it, held on and emerged victorious at the finish line.”
He added that when his mother was dying, his wife asked her how she had put up with the infidelities. And Jane, he said, responded: “I just never left — and sooner or later, they did.”
The very last piece of correspondence is a facsimile of an undated, handwritten note from le Carré to Jane, scribbled, apparently in haste, on a notepad. She had it with her while being treated for her cancer in December 2020 at the Royal Cornwall Hospital — the same hospital in which her husband was dying of pneumonia. Because of Covid, the two were not allowed to see each other.
“You are the only woman,” the note begins. And then, perhaps in reference to the Covid lockdown, or to their long life together, it adds that “Our year was extraordinary, but we didn’t say goodbye to it properly: so much effort, at such cost, such reward.”