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...
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