The spy novelist who [ mostly ] kept quiet. '' A Private Spy : The Letters of John Ie Carre. '' Edited by Tim Cornwell.

John Le Carre was, from the start, wary of attention. He withdrew in style from the world's political and literary chaos. He mostly maintained a dignified silence in his remote house on a cliff in Cornwall, England, hours from anywhere. He preferred to let his books do the talking.

With few exceptions, Le Carre [ 1931- 2020 ] didn't tackle with critics either. 

''There's no sillier fellow than the writer complaining about his critics, & I can't be another,'' he wrote in a 2004 letter, one of several hundred collected in a handsome and oversize new book, ''A Private Spy : The Letters of John Le Carre.''

Elsewhere in his correspondence, we witness Ie Carre pace the room about his notices anyway. His feathers were, it turns out, quite ruffleable.

When his breakthrough novel, "' The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,'' appeared in 1963, Ie Carre wrote that the reviews were good with the exception of ''some callow ape'' who panned it in The Times Literary Supplement.

When success arrived, he feared exposure to faultfinding because he was ''too rich, too pretentious, too much all the rest,'' as well as'' too fluent, too young and too capable.'' Orson Welles had this problem. Welles hated him because he looked successful.

Le Carre's enemies list came to include Tina Brown, George Will and Norman Rush, writes Tim Cornwell, this book's editor and the author's late son. But Ie Carre had special contempt for Clive James, who took aim in several pieces, including one in The New York Review of Books in 1977 that began, ''Le Carre's new novel is about twice as long as it should be.''

The author privately accused James of ''conducting a personal vendetta.'' He added, not without wit : ''I consoled myself with the thought than an expatriate Australian television critic from England who is trying to work his way into a new market has probably to jump about a bit.''

When his novel ''Single & Single'' was on the horizon, he complained to a friend in a 1998 letter about what he expected from the British press :

The 'Times' will give to their thriller man, the 'Observer' will trash it because I've been Ie Carre for too long, & the Guardian will as usual refuse to treat it as a novel at all, and -see last time- give it to one of their-investigative reporters who moves his lips when he reads anything but his own prose. On the other hand, I'll have my book, & they'' have their yellowing opinions!

He gave one of his sons, also a writer, this good advice : '' You just have to show up in the gym the next morning, & behave as if nobody knocked cold the day before. And there isn't anyone watching, or listening, not really.''

Those moments matter because they're among the few times Ie Carre, in his correspondence, lets his guard down.

'' A Private Spy '' is - how to put this gently? - not a good book of letters. If Ie Carre had close friendships, they're not on display here. His tone throughout is bluff but guarded and ambassadorial. Nearly everyone is kept at arm's length. He has an epistolary gift for writing much but saying little.

A typical letter from him read, no matter who he was addressing, something like :

''Thank you for X, the weather here is blustery and Y, I am deep into a new novel so I can't do what you are proposing, I have Z film projects in the works, I can't decide if Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman is the better George Smiley, come visit us or maybe let's lunch together in London in six weeks.'' Many are bread and butter notes, a hard form to shock to life.

The book is, to echo James, thicker than it should be, as if to justify its steep [$40] price point at Christmas-time. The margins are wide, the typeface large. There are many chapter breaks, and many pages with only a sentence or two on them. Le Carre's baronial address, repeated at the top of his letters, eats up a lot of space on nearly every page by itself :


St. Buryan



In his letters, Ie Carre did not write - indeed, he could not have written- about the intelligence work he did early in his career. But there are letters to some of the men who inspired his characters, and there are replies to spies of various sorts who, envious of his success, looked to him to help them become writers, too.

There are memorable details. Le Carre liked Avis rental cars, and proposed that his villains rent from Hertz. He hated Trump and Brexit, called Tony Blair a ''mendacious little showoff'' and Boris Johnson ''an Etonian oik.'' He changed editors and publishing houses often because he needed fresh people freshly excited about working with him.

The only time these letters got to me was at the end. Both Ie Carre and his wife had cancer during Covid lockdown. He wrote in an email, ''We're totally isolated here, but you might say we've been for 50 years, so what's the difference?''

What a time to die, he wrote, with the world going to hell. ''It's the feeling of going down with a sinking ship, piloted by lunatics and disaster addicts,'' he said. ''How did we ever get here in such a short order?''

There were medical Zoom calls, and a lot of hospitals. His marriage survived his infidelities and prospered. Shortly before his death he wrote,'' I am entering my 90 year, Jane is eight years behind, we have been married for half a century and never been closer.''

The World Students Society thanks author Dwight Garner.


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