John le Carré: novelist of the moral battlefield – The Property Chronicle
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John le Carré: novelist of the moral battlefield

The Guest Essay

A novelist in our post-God world where ideology has so often replaced faith, and where the very value of truth and what constitutes betrayal (that most Christian of themes) becomes a moral battlefield.

My favourite novel of le Carré’s is A Perfect Spy. There is one line in Magnus Pym’s beguiling and brilliant 20th century fictional confession that has long haunted me. I can remember quoting it once in a wounded love letter to a girlfriend I had loved very much who had dumped me – or rather “betrayed” our love as I thought narcissistically at the time. However much pain she caused, she managed to act in a way that seemed true to herself. “Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn’t good enough… Betrayal is love, as a tribute to our unlived lives.”

Perhaps only le Carré could write such a sentence. I met le Carré – or David Cornwell to use his real name – a few times, including when he visited his journalist son in LA in the nineties. The first was in November 1989 when he had published The Russia House and came to address the Cambridge Union on the fall of the Soviet empire. I managed to get an unlikely interview as the literary editor of Varsity, the university paper.

As we sat in the Union bar, I remember being struck at the immediate contrast between Cornwell the confident and successful author and his creation, the shy, tubby and bespectacled George Smiley, the clubbable head of MI6 (or the “Circus”) who lives in Chelsea and likes to spend money on clothes that don’t fit. In reality, Cornwell had a commanding presence, with a donnish drawl and clearly had an excellent tailor. “This sort of thing is very unusual for me,” he said, “I don’t go to blue-rinse literary parties. I rarely go out.”

His real theme isn’t politics or spying but rather each individual’s own unpredictable relationship with themselves and their moral universe

He preferred living in Cornwall where he wrote most of his twenty plus novels. As we drank some ropey house wine, he confessed to having an intellectual love affair with the Soviet Union, not denying identification with his latest protagonist, Scott Blair, a publisher-spy who falls in love with a Russian girl. Part of the attraction was that she seemed to represent something that was “unpolluted, almost virginal”; here he wasn’t talking about sexual innocence but rather a world – behind the Iron Curtain – that was still largely uncorrupted by the Western materialism and ideology.

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