John le Carre has gone underground again, leaving a bare handful of clues gathered in futile efforts to flush him out.
Among them are transcripts of a few carefully controlled interviews for British radio and newspapers after publican of his most recent spy novel, "Smiley's People," and the TV dramatization of "Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy."
In question-and-answer formats, broadcast and published verbatim, without embellishment or interpretation, Le Carre touched on his difficult childhood, class-conscious education, intelligence work in the British army and truncated diplomatic career, from which sprang the chillingly credible plots and shifting reality of his spy mysteries and their melancholy overtones of betrayal, moral ambiguity and societal decay. Like his written prose, his spoken words were carefully chosen, spare and dispasionate, even then conveying apparently strong feelings.
More recently, in a rare television appearance from the study of his home near the edge of spacious Hampstead Heath in north London, Le Carre talked eagerly and with evident respect and affection about Graham Greene, one of his favorite writers and greatest influences.
Le Carre is lanky, large-limbed, warmly handsome, dignified and gentle-looking. He speaks softly and intently, emphasizing some points by swinging, one of his big hands through the air or knitting the bushy eyebrows that overhang his deep-set eyes. Referring to Greene, but using words that also describe his attitude toward himself, Le Carre said, "I'm extremely protective of him as a writer." He is also extremely protective of his privacy; Le Carre is a pen name for David John Moore Cornwell.
At the time of the public unmasking of a real-life Soviet spy in London, upper-class British are historian Anthony Blunt, who was art curator for the queen, Le Carre agreed to a brief telephone interview strictly limited to speculation about the Blunt affair and British and American fascination with spies and spy stories. "Spying obseses us because it is the front line of the loyalty business," he aid, "where one's loyalties are most directly challenged."
Then, finally, in response to repeated inquiries, came a handwritten note from David Cornwell in his remote, cliff-top country home near land's end on the southwestern tip of England. In it, Cornwell politely and painstakingly explained why he will not submit to any more intrusive "persistent questionings" about himself or his work as John le Carre, especially while he is writing a new novel.
He has said that it will be his second attempt to depart from the spy genre with which he so closely identified and has had so much success. His first try at something different a decade ago produced "The Naive and Sentimental Lover." Its "awful reception" shattered Cornwell and nearly wrecked his writing career after the heady years of fame and fortune following the sudden, enormous success of the third of his nine books, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."
Cornwell's first marriage, which had produced three sons, broke up at about the same time. He withdrew from his brief fling with celebrity, backing off from the critics and the press, eventually shielding his second family form public attention after his transition from obscure diplomat to best-selling author.
To reclaim himself from what he later recalled as the "rather desperate mood I was in, needing to hack out some solution to a very confused time in my life," Cornwell returned to the roots of John le Carre. He methodically set out to produce the "crude trilogy" of intricate spy stories -- "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People" -- plotted around the retired and retiring spymaster and anti-hero, George Smiley. After "destroying in despair" two ealier versions, he finally completed "Tinker, Tailor," -- "the most difficult book I ever wrote" -- and was back on his way.
Like the bemused, reclusive Smiley, Cornwell now shies away from the limelight, preferring unobtrusive and pentrating observation of others rather than being the subject of close scrutiny himself. He particularly fears any inquiry that threatens to pierce the acquired pen name persona of John Le Carre and reach the inner thoughts, experiences and memories of 49-year-old David John Moore Cornwell.
He has admitted to protecting himself with artful double-agent evasions in the past, especially during the ordeals he suffered on American television talk shows. He even told cover stories about the origin of his pen name.
"I've told so many lies about where I got the name from, but I really don't remember," he insisted to a British interviewer earlier this year. "The one time I did the celebrity circuit in America, I was reduced to inventing the fiction that I'd been riding on a bus to the foreign office and abstrated the name from a shoeshop. But that was simply because I couldn't convince anybody it came from nowhere." Deception crept into Cornwell's life almost at the very beginning. After his parents separated when he was very young and his mother disappeared from his life, he and a brother were raised by their father, a charlatan, according to Cornwell, who tried to bilk his way from lower-middle-class birth to the rich upper crust. Cornwell said his father was always in financial and legal trouble, and once even landed in prison.
"He was a macabre character who always managed to spend twice as much as he earned -- or twice as much as he obtained," Cornwell told an interviewer for the Sunday Observer newspaper in London. "He was a fantasist, perhaps a schizophrenic. He liked using several names."
Cornwell said they often lived in the style of "millionaire paupers," knowing that most of the bills and household staff went unpaid and that "there was a lot to hide: women, the past, the present."
He and his brother went off to exclusive and expensive private boarding schools "to the be turned into fake gentry." For this, Cornwell said, "my father always said he was prepared to steal, and I'm afraid he did. And so we arrived in educated middle-class society feeling almost like spies, knowing that we had no social hinterland, that we had a great deal to conceal and a lot of pretending to do."
Cornwell, speaking as Le Carre, has pointed out that George Smiley also appears as a rootless refuges from Britain's still-formidable class system. "In the very first book, the very first chapter, he's described as somebody who travels without labels in the van-guard of the social express," Le Carre said on BBC radio. "His school is never named, any more than his provenance, his parents or anything of that sort."
But Smiley is surrounded at "the circus," the insiders' name Le Carre gives the British secret service, based on its fictional location at Cambridge Circus in central London, by people whose parentage, class and schooling are obvious and important to everyone else and help determine where they fit in the hierchy.
David Cornwell, who has had made clear his belief that the resistance of the British class system to change is one important reason for the country's seeming inability to arrest its steady decline, first experienced it as a frightened outsider at Sherborne School, founded in the 16th century. He says he was repelled by its reinforcement of class prejudices, racism and anti-Semitism, the alleged sadistic beatings by the headmaster and the furtive homosexuality, the smug wartime assurances about the opportunities there would again be to help run the empire once peace was restored.
After a lonely year finishing school at the war's end in Switzerland, where he learned German and delved deeply in German literature and its "moral search," Cornwell served two years as an intelligence officer in the British army of occupation in Austria before attending Oxford and teaching briefly at Eton. By then he was able to take a somewhat more detached view of the class system and began storing up impressions that would permeate his writing.
His "experience of the British ruling class," at Eton in particular, he later recalled, "probably colored by writing more than any other experience. People who rail against the English upper classes don't know how awful they really are."
After tiring of Eton, Cornwell went into the diplomatic service, working as a second secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and as consul in Hamburg. "It was the time of the Berlin wall, the Cuba crisis, the Adenauer-De Gaulle love affair, the end of the Adenauer government -- a time of tremendous activity and tension," he recalled. "And you couldn't have been there without being aware of the shadow of an enormous intelligence apparatus."
Because, as John le Carre, he began writing his spy stories at that time -- by hand in notebooks and on scraps of paper in the early morning, at lunch and on trains -- he has often been asked whether he was a spy in British army intelligence or the diplomatic service. He bristles at such suggestions, but will not offer much of an alibi because of government strictures against saying too much about his work in either job.
Foreign Service officers also were expected, if they wanted to write a book of any kind, to adopt a pseudonym. His first publisher, he said, "was all for a couple of strong monosyllables like "Chuck Smith." But I thought that to break up a name and give it a slightly foreign look would have the effect of printing it on people's memories.
Cornwell did pick up from his military and diplomatic service the familiarity with locations, language and feel of the cold war that permeate his early novels. He also mastered the good young diplomat's techniques of on-location reporting, like those of a journalist, and he has steeped all his stories with the vivid if less lushly described scene-setting atmosphere he admires in the work of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.
For "The Honourable Schoolboy," the middle book in the George Smiley trilogy, he traveled throughout the rapidly disintegrating Southeast Asia of the mid-1970s, shadowing newspaper correspondents from seedy hotel bars to risky war zones to supposedly clandestine CIA headquarters, taking copious notes and photographs wherever he went.
The reporters he met remember the David Cornwell his friends enjoy in private a "witty and wonderful raconteur and mimic," according to one newsman, who remembered that Cornwell liked to toss around real and imagined intelligence jargon and lore. "He has such a literate, intelligent funny mind," said BBC producer Jonathan Powell. "The ideas he threw out in conversation about details for the filming of 'Tinker, Tailor' were marvelous."
Cornwell as John le Carre has said that he made up most of the authentic-sounding jargon that personalizes the circus and its spy business bureaucrats -- terms like "scalp hunters," "baby-sitters," "lamp-lighters" and "pavement artists." He said he borrowed "mole" from the KBG and is pleased that it has quickly become part of the real spy language of the West.
He has credited the tightly disciplined British Foreign Service technique of drafting diplomatic cables for teaching him the need for repeated rewriting and paring down, and for " a great sense of responsibility about what you put on paper."
He has also acknowledged spending most of his time as a British army intelligence officer in Austria "interrogating for various purposes" displaced persons from behind the closing iron curtain in postwar refugee camps. Some of these emigres have reappeared in John le Carre's novels.
But more important, his books are filled with expertly crafted, cerebrally suspenseful, ultimately insightful interrogation scenes. In "Tinker, Tailor," as in much of Le Carre before and after, interrogation is the primary vehicle for the book's action and the revelation of its plot. It is also a handy device for putting the characters under sufficient mental and emotional strain to explore the moral dilemmas that lie at the heart of his stories.
"Because of my father," he told the Sunday Observer in his frankest exploration of his childhood's effect on his writing, "I've always been aware that there is only the narrowest membrane between the legal and illegal, between the light side and the dark side."
He saw more evidence of this in the grown-up world and the conduct of nations and their foot soldiers, especially spies. "There is a constant moral ambiguity" in his novels "as there is in most things in our lives," Le Carre has said, "and of course it resides in the basic paradox that we are in the process of doing things in defense of our society which may very well produce a society which is not worth defending, and we're constantly asking ourselves what is the price we can pay in order to preserve a society, yet what sort of society is preservable?"
Le Carre, who says he votes "socialist" (meaning the British Labor Party) but would like to be able to vote social democratic (the less class-oriented choice elsewhere in Europe), is clearly disturbed that Britain has been unable to replace the stilted class society of the days of empire with something more just and adjustable to the demands of the day. He remains loyal to his country, refusing to become a tax exile and educating all four of his sons by his two marriages at English schools (private schools -- "you don't experiment with kith and kin"), but he broods about its gloomy future.