John le Carré, the great chronicler of our age, has died

The author's novels topped global bestseller lists in each decade from the 1960s onwards. He won widespread international acclaim as a humanitarian, as well as a literary giant, winning the Olof Palme Prize in 2020.

A portrait of John le Carre
Photo: Nadav Kander

John le Carré, (the pen name of David Cornwell), died on Saturday night, 12 December, from pneumonia. He was 89 years old. He is survived by his wife of more than forty-five years, Jane, four sons, Simon, Stephen, Timothy and Nick, fourteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

John le Carré’s celebrated career as an author and chronicler of our age spanned fifty-eight years and his works topped global bestseller lists in each decade from the 1960s onwards. Although he began as an espionage writer, his works transcended the genre and he won widespread international acclaim as a humanitarian, as well as a literary giant. Most recently, in 2020, he won the Olof Palme Prize for "his engaging and humanistic opinion-making in the literary form regarding the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind." Many of his works were adapted into memorable films and TV series, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to The Night Manager.

Born David John Moore Cornwell to Ronald Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906–75) and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell, in Poole, Dorset, le Carré’s relationship with his father, "conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird" [The Pigeon Tunnel], would be the inspiration behind his most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy

"I remember little of being very young. I remember the dissembling as we grew up and the need to cobble together an identity for myself, and how in order to do this I filched from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies.’" [The Pigeon Tunnel]

Cornwell’s education began at St Andrew’s Prep School in Berkshire, then continued at Sherborne School, from which he ‘bolted’ in 1948 to study foreign languages at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

"It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother.’" [The Pigeon Tunnel]

In 1950 Cornwell joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Army garrisoned in Austria, working as a German language interrogator of people who crossed the Iron Curtain to the West. In 1952, he returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he worked covertly for the British Security Service, MI5, spying on far-left groups for information about possible Soviet agents. 

In 1954, Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, known as Ann. They would go on to have three sons: Simon, Stephen and Timothy. That same year Ronnie declared bankruptcy, and Ann and David left Oxford for him to teach at a boys’ preparatory school. However, a year later Cornwell returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a (First Class Honours) Bachelor of Arts degree. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years (in a 2018 interview he would describe Etonians as, ‘an absolute curse on the earth, leaving that school with a sense of entitlement and overeducated cultural posturing’) becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. 

Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as ‘John Bingham’), and whilst being an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Cornwell has identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for George Smiley, the spymaster of the Circus, the other being Vivian H. H. Green. As a schoolboy, Cornwell had first met Green when he was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School. The friendship continued after Green’s move to Lincoln College, where he tutored Cornwell. 

In 1960, Cornwell transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service, and worked under ‘Second Secretary’ cover in the British Embassy at Bonn; he later was moved to Hamburg as a political consul. There, he wrote the detective story A Murder of Quality (1962) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as ‘John le Carré’ - a pseudonym required because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish under their own names. 

As he wrote in a postscript to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

"I wrote The Spy who Came in from the Cold at the age of thirty under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. From the day my novel was published, I realised that now and for ever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it. The novel’s merit, then – or its offence, depending on where you stood – was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible".

Publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold would change the course of le Carré’s writing life forever – not only enabling him to live as a writer full-time but also providing an incredibly rich fictional seam to mine. He would go on to write the greatest novels of the Cold War, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, both of which were adapted by the BBC with Alec Guinness inhabiting the role of George Smiley - so much so that in the future it would be impossible for a certain generation to imagine Smiley without hearing Guinness’s inimitable voice. 

The end of the Cold War would not dim the acuteness of le Carré’s vision nor his range. He would go on to explore, among many other worlds, the role of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener (2001); the War on Terror in A Most Wanted Man (2008) and A Delicate Truth (2013); and the drugs and arms trade in The Night Manager (1993), which was adapted for television in 2016 by the BBC in a hugely successful series.

In 1972, after divorcing his first wife, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, known as Jane, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton; they had one son, Nicholas, a novelist, who writes as Nick Harkaway.  For more than forty years, they lived in a house on the edge of the cliffs of St Buryan, Cornwall, and in Hampstead, London. Jane was fundamental to David Cornwell’s work, with an unerring editorial eye and an intelligence that would become invaluable as the scale of le Carré’s success became ever more daunting. 

Many of le Carré’s books would be adapted for film or television  – some, such as Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, an unequivocal success; others, in le Carré’s eyes, less so. In many of the more recent adaptations the sharp-eyed viewer can catch a glimpse of a le Carré cameo appearance. 

In 2016, le Carré published a non-fiction book for the first time, his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, which, he said, could have been the title for many of his novels and offered a rare glimpse into the inspiration behind his writing life.  In 2017 he published his extraordinary novel, A Legacy of Spies, a work that not only returned to some of the most captivating characters from his Cold War novels but also reflects on the wisdom and pain of hindsight. It saw le Carré at the top of the bestseller charts in both the US and the UK at the same time. 

In September 2018, all of John le Carré’s backlist was published under the Penguin Modern Classics livery – one of the largest bodies of work by a contemporary writer on the Penguin Modern Classics list. In the same year his novel, The Little Drummer Girl (originally published in 1983) was adapted for television by The Ink Factory for the BBC and AMC. 

John le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was written ‘in a fever’ as le Carré described it, after the Referendum of 2016 and reflects on a generation of young men and women horrified by the current state of the country but with no movement to which they can attach themselves. Published to worldwide acclaim in October 2019 le Carré’s last novel was as prescient about our contemporary divided world as his early novels had been about the Cold War. 

In 2020 le Carré was awarded the Olof Palme Prize. The judges awarded him the prize in recognition of a body of work that engaged with ‘the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind’.

Over an extraordinary writing career le Carré proved himself to be the unsurpassed chronicler of our age. He was superb company: a man of great humour and curiosity, always alert to the frailties of the human condition. He was a wonderful mimic – in one moment inhabiting the character of his father, and the next a perfect Alec Guinness. One of his most compelling talents was to be able to get to the core of people very quickly. It was, perhaps, that skill that made his characters live so vividly on the page. It was also this clarity of thought that enabled him to understand and reflect our society with such precision and with prose that was, as the FT put it, ‘as recognisable as Dickens or Austen’. However, as much as Cornwell could be enormously lively company, he was happiest when in his study in St Buryan, working on his next book. 

Mary Mount, John le Carré’s editor at Penguin Random House for the last ten years of his life, said: "The death of John le Carré is a huge loss to all of us who loved and admired him at Penguin Random House and to the cultural and political landscape of this country. John le Carré was a writer who cared almost as deeply about his country as he did about his work. It was a huge thrill and privilege to work with him over the last ten years. The quality of his writing never waned across a truly enviable collection of novels and his capacity for hard work was extraordinary. He also made me laugh, a lot."

Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, said: "It has been a great honour for all of us at Penguin Random House to be John le Carré’s publishers. His contribution to this country cannot be overstated and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude. His work will be read and loved for many generations to come."

Jonny Geller, CEO of The Curtis Brown Group and le Carre’s agent said: "John le Carré was an undisputed giant of English literature. He defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power in the decades that followed. His work was read and loved all over the world for six decades. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963 made him the most famous spy writer in the world. His greatest character – George Smiley – appeared in several novels including the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy & Smileys People. I represented David for almost 15 years. I have lost a mentor, an inspiration and most importantly, a friend. We will not see his like again."

Below is a short statement on behalf of the family, who ask for privacy during this time:

“It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia on Saturday night after a short battle with the illness. David is survived by his beloved wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon. We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”’

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