‘An enduring example to us all’: Our authors pay tribute to John le Carré

William Boyd, Nina Stibbe, Ben Macintyre and others reflect on the legacy and impact of the author, who died this week.

John le Carre
John le Carré at his home in north London, 1983. Photo: Getty.

Earlier this week the world learned that John le Carré, the man who redefined espionage fiction and became one of the leading novelists of his age, had died.

Within hours le Carré's name was trending on social media, and newspaper front pages around the world were carrying his obituary. For fans of his novels, which topped global bestseller lists in each decade from the 1960s onwards, a writer of unparalleled gifts had been lost.

Here we ask several of our leading authors, some of whom knew le Carré personally, all of whom have been influenced by his writing, to reflect on his life and work.

Ben Macintyre, author of Agent Sonya

I first met le Carré /Cornwell at Ascot 20 years ago, in a hospitality box he had hired for the day.  I was about to embark on my first non-fiction book about spying, and his editor, an old friend of mine, had squeezed me onto the invitation.

As we settled into our seats, le Carré turned to me and said: “I used to come here as a boy, when my father was banned from the course for various dodgy deals, to place bets and run messages on his behalf.” There followed a string of reminiscences about Ronnie Cornwell, the charming conman, bankrupt and jailbird whose feckless fathering, pathological lying and double lives informed so much of his son’s fiction.

'Writing is a lonely business, and in le Carré I found an ally of the pen like no other.'

A year later, I sent him the manuscript of my book, thinking he would have forgotten me.  But le Carré was a spy.  He forgot nothing, and something about the book’s main character, a crook-turned-spy named Eddie Chapman, roguish, irresistible and wholly dishonest, touched a chord.  Two days later, he replied on cream notepaper with an astonishingly generous blurb and a note in parenthesis: “John le (lower case) Carré (acute).” Here was benediction, but also precision.

Writing is a lonely business, and in le Carré I found an ally of the pen like no other. We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.  But from either side of that divide, we revelled in many of the same things, the great sprawling canvas of the secret world, a cracked mirror to British class, character, humour and hypocrisy.

Whenever things went wrong in my life, his advice was simple: write more, write better.

Nina Stibbe, author of Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m stopped in my tracks by news of John le Carré’s death and realise with sadness that I have taken him for granted almost my entire life. Le Carré has been a kind of thread connecting my family and all the people I’ve encountered along the way. My mother, her mother, every one of my teachers, my bosses over the years, colleagues, everyone in my past and future have this one thing in common. My teenage son tells me that le Carré understands the limits of capitalism; people over the years have introduced me to dogs called Smiley and kittens named Magnus Pym.

I was first recommended his novels when I was in my late teens and it was his physical descriptions that always struck me - the way he could get a character down in just the shape of their suit or the pinkness of their cheeks. We could see his characters immediately, walking down a grubby Camden street or sitting in a gloomy office shrouded in cigarette smoke.

When I was about twelve I remember my mother describing the man who would one day become my stepfather, a devoted le Carré fan himself: "Oh, he’s uncompromising, self-contained, honourable, slightly inscrutable," she said, "he could almost be from le Carré!". And, even then, I knew exactly what she meant.

John le Carré
John Le Carre in 1980. Photo: Getty.

William Boyd, author of Trio

I think I have read almost all of John le Carré’s novels over the years – and re-read a good few, as well. I’m drawn to them by their very difficulty, by the fact that you, the reader, have to make an intellectual effort to decrypt the significance of the story, to second-guess the direction of the narrative. Le Carré makes real demands on you; you have to pay attention. Reading le Carré novel is a hugely stimulating engagement between reader and author.

I never met him, though I spoke to him a few times on the phone, strangely. Starting out as a devoted reader, I soon became a writer on him. I think I have written more pieces about le Carré than any other writer apart from Evelyn Waugh and Anton Chekhov. Writing reviews, analysing the novels, the films -- and the biography and the autobiography – brings an extra proximity to the writer you admire. I almost feel I know him.

'He was a master at writing humanity.'

The piece I’m most pleased to have written is an introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It was the first le Carré I ever read – I must have been in my early twenties -- and I didn’t really understand it at the time, I confess. However, re-reading it for the introduction, I think I managed to solve its beguiling mysteries – a piece of literary sleuthing that I hope the author would approve of. John le Carré became a hugely influential figure in the British literary landscape. He reinvigorated and reinvented the serious novel of espionage.  He was a tireless professional: engagé, disputatious, worldly. He is an enduring example to all novelists.

Helen Macdonald, author of Vesper Flights

Over the years the books I’ve turned to most often for refuge, reassurance, delight and inspiration have been by John le Carré. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my first. I bought it off a market stall assuming it was the usual kind of thriller. After the first page I knew it wasn’t. Two pages later I was completely in love. The story ticked and turned and uncoiled with the precision and complexity of a Swiss watch mechanism. It’s not hyperbole to say that his books have become part of who I am, and not only as a writer. He had an astonishing ability to conjure real and recognisable characters out of little more than a sentence or two of description or dialogue, and evoked landscapes with similar economy and ease: a tennis court ankle-deep in frosted leaves; wintry west country school fields; a bay and honey and oil-scented Gibraltar night. Most of all I treasure his extraordinary quality of attention. The attention he paid to the smallest material details of a scene. His wider attentiveness to the structures of wealth and class, entitlement and power,  the nefarious workings of overt and covert politics. And always, always, his fierce attention to the foibles, fears, loves and weaknesses in human hearts. He was a master at writing humanity, and the compassion in his books is as sustained and powerful as their rage against injustice. His passing is a deep, deep sorrow. 

John Banville, author of Mrs Osmond

He was an exemplar, a bookman to his fingertips, serious but unsolemn, attentive to his readers, accommodating to all. The fact that he chose to write within the confines, the seeming confines, of the espionage novel was for him not a hindrance but an inspiration. And if the genre inspired him, in return he inspired it, breathed life and energy and intelligence into it, and in his finest work showed how irrelevant is the very notion of ‘genre’.

When he began his writing career, the spy novel was clamoured after by the public but grandly despised by many in the guild who considered themselves loftily superior to such a shoddy form. He knew better. He sold books, and made money—and delighted in it. He was ever a democrat, and would have no truck with the effete ones, the clever ones, who from the eminence of their self-satisfaction deigned to lean down and urge him to use his talents to write a ‘real’ novel. Such piffle amused him.

He knew better.

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