Home Art & Culture John le Carré, a Master of Spy Novels Where the Real Action Was Internal

John le Carré, a Master of Spy Novels Where the Real Action Was Internal

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Mr. le Carré’s best-known spy, Smiley, is among the great literary characters of the 20th century. Alec Guinness played him in two BBC TV series, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” and he embodied Smiley’s plump and clammy constitution, which Mr. le Carré described in “Call for the Dead” this way: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

If Mr. Guinness made Smiley vaguely resemble the poet Philip Larkin, Gary Oldman gave him a bit more pained muscle in a 2011 remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mr. le Carré sometimes put a foot wrong, politically. He had a long-running feud with Salman Rushdie, which broke into the open in 1997 over Mr. Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” Mr. le Carré opposed the novel’s paperback publication, writing that he was “more concerned about the girl in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie’s royalties.” The two, Mr. le Carré told me when I profiled him in The Times Magazine in 2013, managed to patch up their spat.

That profile was out of the ordinary for Mr. le Carré. He disliked book tours and interviews, calling the latter “making bird noises.” He let the words roll from his tongue: “gruesome bird noises.”

He didn’t attend book parties. He did not compete for, nor accept, book prizes. In 2011, when he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, he asked that his name be withdrawn.

He had honors of a different sort. Philip Roth called Mr. le Carré’s autobiographical novel “A Perfect Spy” (1986) “the best English novel since the war.” That’s a crazy thing to say, but the novel is very good. The Times of London ranked Mr. le Carré 22nd on a list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945.

His privacy at his remote house in Cornwall was cemented by the fact that he owned a half-mile of the surrounding cliffside in either direction. Mr. le Carré’s essential solitude emerged often in his fiction. An early draft of “Tinker, Tailor,” he has written, began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside toward him.”

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