John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England, the son of Ronald Thomas Archibald Cornwell and Olive Glassy Cornwell. His father was an extravagant businessman who ran for Parliament as a Liberal, and as A Perfect Spy (1986), le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, makes clear, he was also a confidence trickster who went to prison for fraud. Because his parents divorced when he was five, young David experienced no consistent family life: He did not see his mother from the time he began school until he was twenty-one. “I think a great part of one’s adult life,” he has said, “is concerned with getting even for the slights one suffered as a child.”
The lonely little boy sought an outlet for his frustrations in writing. Although his literary efforts were discouraged at Sherborne School in Dorset, Cornwell won the school’s prize for English verse. He attended Berne University in Switzerland for a year and served in the Army Intelligence Corps in Vienna before reading German at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp in 1954 and received a first-class honors degree from Oxford University in 1956. After teaching for two dismal years at Eton College and trying unsuccessfully to become a freelance illustrator of children’s books, he found a position in the Foreign Service in 1959.
While commuting by train from Buckinghamshire to the Foreign...
John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell, the son of Ronald and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell, on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England, “in a mouldering, artless house with a ’for sale’ notice in the garden.” He went to Sherborne School—where the 1939 film adaptation of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) was filmed—but did not like Sherborne and attempted to run away. “I was not educated at all,” le Carré states in a 1977 essay titled “In England Now,” in which he speaks of his school as a prison. He spent much of his time “planning escapes across moonlit playing fields,” thereby finding release from “those huge and lonely dormitories.” He remembers the severity of the school crystallized in his being “sprawled inelegantly over the arm of the headmaster’s small chair” to smart under blows from a small riding whip. Since young le Carré’s father seldom paid the school fees, he was singled out even more for punishment. He was struck by the hand as well as whipped, and le Carré attributes his “partial deafness in one ear to a Mr. Farnsworth,” a teacher in school at that time. The school atmosphere was violent: Rugby wars were fought “almost literally to death,” boxing was a religious obligation, and instructors drummed into their pupils the notion that “to die in battle” was the highest achievement to which they could aspire.
Le Carré’s father was determined to make his two sons grow up independent, so he sent them to schools thirty miles apart. Young David and his brother Tony, two years his senior, made arduous journeys to meet each other on Sundays to find the emotional nourishment they so desperately needed. Le Carré quit Sherborne two years later.
Le Carré’s father had dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and ever after, le Carré said in a 1977 interview with Time magazine, “lived in a contradictory world,” full of credit but no cash, with a “Micawberlike talent for messing up his business adventures.” He finally ended up in prison for fraud. Le Carré’s mother abandoned the children to live with a business associate of her husband. Le Carré did not see his mother again until he was twenty-one. His father died in 1975 without reconciling with his sons. Without the support of his parents, le Carré had to depend on his elder brother. As children, they were ignorant of the whereabouts of their parents, and the young le Carré often wondered if his father was a spy on a crucial mission for England. False promises by his father made him distrustful of people, and he confesses that “duplicity was inescapably bred” into him. His childhood was therefore traumatic, and he drew on this painful experience in writing The Naive and Sentimental Lover, in which Aldo Cassidy, one of the heroes of the novel, tells Shamus how his mother abandoned him when he was a child. The loss “robbed him of his childhood,” denying him “normal growth.”
Le Carré’s father was angry that his son had left Sherborne and, to punish him, sent him to Berne University, Switzerland; le Carré was sixteen at the time. At Berne, he studied German, French, and skiing. After completing his military service in Vienna with the army intelligence corps, he went to Lincoln College, Oxford, and studied modern languages, taking an honors degree in 1956. From 1956 to 1958, he taught languages at England’s most prestigious public school, Eton.
John le Carré (luh kah-RAY), the pseudonym of David Moore Cornwell, was born in the town of Poole in Dorsetshire, England, on October 19, 1931, the son of Ronald Thomas Archibald Cornwell and the former Olive Glassy. His mother deserted the family when John was a little boy; his father had numerous mistresses who created emotional confusion in the boy’s life by serving as unreliable transient mothers. The early loss of his mother may explain why betrayal is the major theme of all le Carré’s fiction. Le Carré’s semiautobiographical novel A Perfect Spy (1986) paints a picture of a lonely, hypersensitive boy whose father was a philanderer, a heavy drinker, and a flamboyant con artist who once served a term in prison for fraud. Le Carré was sent to prestigious English boarding schools but felt out of place because he did not belong to the same social class as the majority of the students. His father caused him humiliation by paying the tuition with bad checks. His precarious situation left him with ambivalent feelings toward the upper class; he was taught to share their values but did not identify with them. These feelings are evident in many of his novels, but particularly in A Perfect Spy.
Le Carré attended Berne University in Switzerland for a year, where he perfected his knowledge of German. He has stated that “the strongest literary influence was all that German literature that I devoured either compulsorily or voluntarily.” Because he was fluent in German, he spent his obligatory period of military service as an intelligence officer in occupied Austria in the aftermath of World War II. Le Carré became a retiring and secretive man, reticent about his activities as...
John le Carré s early experiences fitted him for a career as a spy novelist. He had the creative genius to see that the spy, living from day to day in paranoid terror, was the ideal symbol of the alienated modern individual living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. Le Carré elevated the spy thriller to the level of enduring literature. His best novels will outlive many more pretentious contemporary literary works and will reveal to future readers more about the psychological and moral issues of the Cold War than any number of scholarly history books. His post-Cold War novels have not been as popular, neither among general readers nor among most critics.
The engrossing espionage thrillers of John le Carré (leh kuh-RAY) are in reality complex character studies disguised as spy novels, a fact that has won him a degree of critical acclaim quite rare in a field dominated by plot and action rather than moral complexity. Le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell, the son of Ronald and Olive (Glassy) Cornwell. His father was a charming swindler and confidence man who sometimes used his young son as a front for his illegal schemes; this childhood experience would form the basis for le Carré’s highly autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy. Like Magnus Pym, the novel’s troubled central character, le Carré was reared by his father in a world of limousines, private schools,...