Magazine | October 24, 2016, Issue

Inside the Circus

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, by John le Carré (Viking, 320 pp., $28)

‘Walking the Cornish cliffs, I am overtaken with surges of gratitude for my life,” writes John le Carré in this witty, charming, and self-deprecating memoir, and the reader has no trouble understanding why. In the isolated splendor of his Cornwall estate, at a desk “built into the attic of a granite barn built on a cliff edge” overlooking the Atlantic, he has mined the rich seams of his life and imagination to produce perhaps the most consistently superb and compelling fiction of any living writer. His novels have been adapted and readapted for film and television, with often brilliant results. For all this he has been lavishly rewarded with wealth and fame, and, as he gratefully observes, “the writing kept me relatively straight and largely sane.”

It could all have been very different. He was born in 1931 to a wan, distant mother who soon abandoned him, and the dominant presence in his life was Ronnie Cornwell, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father.” Young David Cornwell (his real name) lived a life of intermittent privilege, sometimes being chauffeured in a Bentley and shadowing Ronnie in the glittering casinos of Monte Carlo, and sometimes waking to find his father had “fled the country” to escape the bailiffs. Despite their eventual estrangement, le Carré in later life attempted the occasional rapprochement with the incorrigible old crook, but, as he wryly puts it, “When we buried the hatchet we always remembered where we’d put it.” Le Carré relates Graham Greene’s assertion that “childhood is the credit balance of the writer,” and observes that “by that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.” Surely, few spy novelists have had such rich and extensive training in deceit and subterfuge as he.

Despite this rackety upbringing, he passed with ease and distinction through Eton and Oxford and, after a spell as a language teacher, entered the secret world of British intelligence. First in MI5, the domestic-security service, and then in MI6, the foreign-intelligence service soon to be glamorized by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, le Carré briefly became a bit player in the vast drama of the Cold War, of which he would eventually become the most famous fictional chronicler.

The dimly lit pathways of le Carré’s life have been traversed before, by Adam Sisman in his 2015 authorized life and before that by le Carré himself in the semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy. The Pigeon Tunnel is something very different: a series of vignettes, some of them briefer than a page (and several of them previously published), of his improbable life and career. It appears he has yet to exorcise his father’s ghost: The chapter on Ronnie is by far the longest.

But the book ranges far beyond domestic strife. From a Laotian opium den, to a raucous New Year’s Eve party with the odious Yasser Arafat (whose beard, he discovers during their embrace, “is not bristle, it’s silky fluff”), to Moscow in the twilight of Communism (where, just for old times’ sake, he is tailed by two KGB watchers, to whom he refers as “Muttski” and “Jeffski”), he has traveled widely, and sometimes dangerously, for the sake of research. Further adventures in Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya, and East Congo attest to his ceaseless curiosity and make for entertaining and sometimes harrowing reading.

We are introduced to a colorful cast of figures, versions of whom end up in the novels. His greatest character, the brilliant, diffident George Smiley, was partly inspired by his Oxford mentor, Vivian Green, rector of Lincoln College. A Czech actor and aspiring physician whom le Carré helped to gain asylum in Britain is transformed into the half-Chechen protagonist of A Most Wanted Man. And while he professes an icy contempt for the most notorious of British traitors, he admits that, “when I came to write Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it was Kim Philby’s murky lamp that lit my path.”

Despite the grim realism that characterizes his novels of espionage, and the fact that he coined many of the terms later adopted by Western intelligence services (“mole,” “lamplighters,” “scalphunters”), le Carré seems genuinely mystified as to why he might be considered a fount of wisdom on the subject of intelligence. Summoned to dine with the president of Italy “in a medieval penthouse of celestial beauty,” he only later realized that the dark-suited men seated around the table were leaders of the Italian spy services, gathered to glean wisdom from their distinguished British visitor. Utterly ignorant of the workings of Italian intelligence, he had little to share, yet recalls that “every time the president fired a question at me, the grey army around us stopped eating and raised their heads as if to the command of a conductor’s baton, only resuming when I had ground to a halt.”

Another humorous incident occurred at a luncheon with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, when the prime minister introduced the novelist to her Dutch counterpart, the delightfully named Ruud Lubbers. After airily insisting that he must know of the writer John le Carré, Mrs. Thatcher received a polite demurral. Not to be deterred, she chided the Dutch leader and said that surely he’d heard of the author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. As le Carré recalls: “Lubbers, nothing if not a politician, reconsidered his position. Again he leaned forward and took another, longer look at me, as amiable as the first, but more considered, more statesmanlike. ‘No,’ he repeated.”

Particularly entertaining is a rueful chapter about aborted collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sydney Pollack, each of whom expressed a desire to adapt le Carré’s work and spirited him off to exotic destinations for intense but ultimately fruitless consultations. After a flurry of scriptwriting at Coppola’s Napa Valley winery, le Carré briefly foresees another cinematic triumph: “Harrison is really going to love this, Coppola said. He means Harrison Ford. In Hollywood, surnames are for outsiders only.” Alas, it was not to be: Even weeks later, “Harrison has not as yet responded. And to this day, so far as I shall ever know, Harrison still hasn’t. Nobody does silence better than Hollywood.”

But Richard Burton and Alec Guinness, who brought, respectively, Alec Leamas and George Smiley to vivid life on the screen, were far from silent in their dealings with le Carré. Indeed, along with the director of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, le Carré wonders how to put Burton’s “beautiful, thunderous, baritone Welsh voice . . . back into its box.” The writer and the actor discuss this and other matters over vast amounts of whiskey on the film’s Dublin set, the drabness of which is occasionally enlivened by the glamorous entrances of Burton’s then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor. And Guinness, after lunching with le Carré and former MI6 chief Maurice Oldfield, peppers the author with questions about Oldfield’s questionable dress sense, wondering whether it’s representative of the profession.

Le Carré’s politics have long been left-wing, and though he was never a fellow traveler, his jaundiced view of the Cold War was suffused with moral relativism. This detracted little from his stellar early work; the superb “Karla” trilogy, after all, was set in drab 1970s Britain, when capitalism was at its lowest ebb. And his latent anti-Americanism was typical of a Foreign Office mandarin. But the 2003 Iraq War drove him to extremes; he published an article in the Times of London that year titled “The United States of America Has Gone Mad,” written with all the subtlety of a fulminating campus radical. This strident tone displaced his customary urbanity and marred some of his later novels, especially Absolute Friends (2003). But perhaps he has mellowed; he keeps politics, for the most part, to one side in The Pigeon Tunnel, with the exception of a swipe at the American detention camp for terrorists at Guantanamo.

“Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” le Carré observes, but they may not make for a reliable memoirist. As he admits, he was “born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.” But suspicion of embroidery shouldn’t put the reader off; le Carré is a peerless prose stylist whose life is of large proportions, and The Pigeon Tunnel is an immensely enjoyable read.

– Mr. Bishop is the corporate-communications manager of Strategic Investment Group. He has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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