The art of letter writing seems all but doomed in our age of digital communication, and one wonders where future literary biographers will turn for the singular insights that a writer’s correspondence affords. Scholars of John le Carré will have no such concerns. Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, who died in December 2020, was perhaps the most thoughtful and erudite purveyor of the spy novel in the second half of the 20th century, a crackerjack storyteller who elevated the thriller to literary heights. He was also a prolific correspondent, and in A Private Spy, Tim Cornwell has assembled a generous collection of his father’s letters spanning a lifetime.
Fans of le Carré’s fiction know the outline of his own story—how, when working for British intelligence, masquerading as a junior diplomat in postwar Germany, he began to publish espionage novels that precipitated the end of his budding career as a spy but rapidly brought him fame and unaccustomed wealth. The letters from this seminal period paint a portrait of an enthusiastic and ambitious young man not fully comfortable in his new garb. Some of that discomfort, we discern, stemmed from the lingering effects of an alienated childhood and his god-awful relationship with his huckster father, Ronnie, whose unwelcome presence, both real and psychic, hovers over much of le Carré’s early story. The letters also imply that another casualty of le Carré’s newfound success was his first marriage; but while Cornwell fills in gaps with helpful background commentary, the letters often skim the surface about this and other personal events. Not for nothing is the book called A Private Spy.
The sweep of le Carré’s formidable 60-year career resists easy encapsulation, but through these letters readers encounter a panoply of the interesting people he called his friends and colleagues: fellow MI6 agents; writers such as Graham Greene, Ian McEwan and Tom Stoppard; actors Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, who each portrayed le Carré’s best-known recurring character, George Smiley. There are many insightful letters to his stepmother, Jean, another survivor of the Ronnie long game, that reveal le Carré as a man who often contributed to his family’s well-being by assuming the roles of benefactor, confessor and substitute patriarch. Letters to publishing colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, while more formal than the personal missives, offer a window into a literary life pursued with meticulous and demanding professionalism.
“I hate the telephone. I can’t type. Like the tailor in my new novel, I ply my trade by hand,” le Carré once wrote. The engrossing letters in A Private Spy—curated with great affection and care by Cornwell, who sadly passed away in May 2022 before seeing the book published—are not unlike an exquisite bespoke suit crafted by a master: careful to both accentuate the assets and conceal the flaws.