As The Spy Who Came In From the Cold turns 60, a reassessment of John le Carré and the forces that shaped the writer and the man

Mar 2, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: The Atlantic (by Ben Rhodes).

Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” John le Carré once wrote. “Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal. Those of us who have been inside the secret tent never really leave it.” Le Carré’s enigmatic gift as a writer wasn’t simply that he could draw on his experience of having once been a British spy. He brought a novelist’s eye into the secret world, and the habits of espionage to his writing. Far more than knowledge of tradecraft, this status—at once outsider and insider—enabled him to uncover truths about the corrupting nature of power: His novels are infused with the honesty of an outsider, but they could only have been written by a man who knows what it is like to be inside the tent.

In the worlds le Carré created, truths are rarely self-evident. So it was in his own life, as we learn in a recently published book of his letters. On the surface, he progressed naturally from his youth to the inner sanctum: His adolescence was spent in English public schools immediately after World War II, where the boys did military training in uniform, jingoism was the norm, and—at least for one final generation—empire was an inheritance. He studied foreign languages. He served in the British army’s Intelligence Corps. He attended Oxford. He taught German at Eton. By the time he joined MI5 in 1958, his biography read, well, like a lot of other recruits’.

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