Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Le Carré, John (1931–)

British spy novelist of the Cold War. Born in Poole, England, on 19 October 1931, John Moore Cornwell (nom de plume John Le Carré) combined complex, cerebral plots with political intelligence and credible three-dimensional characters into literary masterpieces. Cornwell was educated in Sherborne School, the University of Berne, Switzerland, and Oxford, where he studied German and spied for Britain's internal security service (MI5). He taught for a few years at Eton before joining the British Foreign Office in 1959. He was second secretary in Bonn and political consul in Hamburg. Following the great commercial success of his novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), which presented for the first time the moral ambiguities and bureaucratic nature of espionage work in the context of the Cold War—an antithesis of the James Bond–style spy novels—Cornwell retired to be a full-time writer under the name of John Le Carré.

The Smiley novels— Call for the Dead (1961); The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977); Smiley's People (1979); and The Secret Pilgrim (1991)—as well as his other two Cold War spy novels, The Looking Glass War (1965) and A Small Town in Germany (1968), depict the British spy agency ("The Circus") as a bureaucracy where cynical internal intrigues are as effective as patriotism. Le Carré's spies are morally ambiguous, often tragic, figures. George Smiley, the cunning old spy who eventually wins his long contest with Karla, the Soviet spymaster who specialized in the placing of moles (double agents), is a self-doubting liberal intellectual whose beautiful wife is unfaithful.

The semiautobiographical A Perfect Spy (1968), Le Carré's biggest literary achievement, explores the nature of betrayal through the story of a British spy who works for two masters. Le Carré's father was a con artist after whom he fashioned the character of Richard Pim in this book. The fall of the Soviet Union was foreshadowed in The Russia House (1989). Le Carré's post–Cold War novels are complex enactments of left-wing conspiracy theories.

Aviezer Tucker


Further Reading
Bold, Alan, ed. The Quest for Le Carré. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.
 

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