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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

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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 Office in London, he wrote his first novel, Call for the Dead (1960). Because Foreign Service officials were not supposed to publish novels under their own names, he acquired his pseudonym, le Carré, translated as “the square” in French. From 1960 to 1963, he served, officially, as second secretary in the British embassy in Bonn while following Germany’s internal politics for British intelligence; during that time, he wrote his second novel, A Murder of Quality (1962).

After the modest successes of his first two books, le Carré’s initial best seller came in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, written while he commuted to work in Bonn. In addition to selling more than twenty million copies, the novel won several awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1965. It also enabled le Carré to quit his job and write full time.

Le Carré has three sons, Simon, Stephen, and Timothy, by his first marriage. After his 1971 divorce, he married Valerie Jane Eustace, an editor for his English publisher, in 1972, and they have one son, Nicholas. In 1984 he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1988 he won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger lifetime achievement award.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1423

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.

Le Carré is fond of quoting Graham Greene’s observation that “a writer’s capital is his childhood.” In his own case, the circumstances of his childhood led him to accept the “condition of subterfuge” as a way of life. In an interview with Melvyn Bragg that was published in The New York Times Book Review in 1983, le Carré spoke again of the manner in which his childhood contributed to his secretive nature; he “began to think that [he] was, so to speak, born into occupied territory.” Like the boy Bill Roach in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré is the perennial clandestine watcher, observing, noting, analyzing, and piecing together the parts of the puzzle.

In 1954, le Carré married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp, daughter of a Royal Air Force marshal. He has three sons from this marriage, which ended in divorce in 1971. In 1972, he married Jane Eustace, formerly an editor at his British publisher, Hodder & Stoughton; they have a son, Nicholas.

In 1960, le Carré entered the British Foreign Service and served as second secretary in Bonn from 1960 to 1963 and as consul in Hamburg from 1963 to 1964. Le Carré has been reticent about discussing his actual work in the Foreign Office and has been noncommittal about whether his Bonn and Hamburg posts were covers for duties as a secret agent. As Melvyn Bragg has stated: “He used to deny having been a spy, but now it’s out. He gives in gracefully—caught but too late for it to matter. His new line is a line in charming resignation, an admission of nothing very much.” The tension, the drama, and the intense human conflict that pervade all le Carré’s novels undoubtedly derive from his “insider lore.”

Le Carré experimented with writing while he was a student at Sherborne, but abandoned it because he was discouraged in his creative attempts. After getting married and living in Great Missenden, he once again started writing. Frequently, he used the two-hour train journey he had to make every day to London to plot his stories and overcome his “restlessness as a diplomat.” He chose the pseudonym “John le Carré” in order to satisfy the regulation of the British Foreign Service that forbids its employees to publish under their own names. Appropriately, the origin of le Carré’s pseudonym is itself obscured in mystery and possible deception. Long ago, le Carré told interviewers that he had seen the name “le Carré” (“The Square”) on the window of a London shop, but diligent researchers have been unable to find any record of such a shop in the registry of London’s businesses.

Le Carré’s first two novels, Call for the Dead, which makes use of his German experience, and A Murder of Quality, which draws upon his Eton experience, had moderate success. It was with his third novel, however, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that le Carré won both fame and financial security. He gave up his job in the Foreign Office and became a full-time writer.

Le Carré leads a very private life in an elegantly furnished cliff house in Cornwall, near Land’s End. He is a slow but eclectic reader and avoids novels in his own genre. He follows no writer as a model, but he admires and enjoys good prose, clear, lucid, and full of subtle nuances. Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and V. S. Naipaul are among his favorite authors.

Le Carré emerged from the shadows somewhat in the 1990’s, making himself available for interviews and addressing public issues. Of his time as a member of the secret world, he said in 1996: “I did nothing of significance.I didn’t alter the world order.” He continues to travel extensively while researching his novels. When at home, he writes in the early morning and often walks along the beaches of Cornwall in the afternoons. He has grappled with the problem of writing novels about espionage in a post-Cold War world and has wondered how much he was affected by the great ideological clash of the superpowers—a clash that he helped to mythologize in his novels.

Concurrent with the release of his 1996 novel The Tailor of Panama, le Carré treated the British reading public to a vituperative literary feud with the novelist Salman Rushdie. Speaking about his book to the Anglo-Israel Association in 1995, le Carré defended himself against charges of anti-Semitism, claiming that he “had become the victim of a witch-hunt by zealots of ’political correctness.’” Rushdie said that he wished le Carré had voiced a similar concern when Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses (1988) prompted the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa, or decree, of death against him. Both writers quickly directed very personal attacks against each other in the letters section of the venerable British newspaper The Guardian. Le Carré wrote that “there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Le Carré added in a later riposte that Rushdie’s comments were “cultural intolerance masquerading as free speech.”