ShareThis Page
Books

Review: Spy novelist le Carre relates stories from his life

| Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, 2:27 p.m.
Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, at his home in London, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Author John Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, at his home in London, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008.

Of stories to dine out on, David Cornwell has an abundance. Or should we say John le Carre has? Cornwell's pen name overshadows the title on the cover of this, his first memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel.” The name “John le Carre” attracts the audience, but it's David Cornwell confiding in us here, as if over dinner, then chatting long into the evening over snifters of brandy, or, as he unspools memories of Russia, glasses of vodka.

He is nearing his 85th birthday, so he reflects on his brief stint as a British spy during the Cold War and long career as a revered espionage novelist who does his own fieldwork. Fans of le Carre's fiction will use this as a code book where they will match up characters from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Little Drummer Girl” and other titles to the real people who inspired them.

To research the Palestine-Israel conflict for “Drummer Girl,” for example, Cornwell works his way into the world of Palestinian liberation fighters and eventually wins an audience with Yasser Arafat. He interviews a Russian mafia boss to gather material for “Our Kind of Traitor.” For “The Mission Song,” he seeks out warlords in east Congo.

Film offers came early, so there are actors and directors to befriend. When hard-drinking Richard Burton, cast as the hard-drinking lead in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the 1965 film adaptation of le Carre's early best-seller, needs a pal to keep him steady, it is Cornwell whom director Martin Ritt summons to the set.

Sober-minded Alec Guinness, who plays George Smiley in two BBC miniseries versions of le Carre novels, encounters an actor showing up drunk and “the poor man might as well have gone to sleep on sentry duty,” Cornwell recalls. But Guinness' anger gives way “to an almost desperate kindliness.”

When Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick call, Cornwell jets off to discuss impossible projects. “One day, I trust, it will be recognized that the best films of my work were the ones that were never made,” he laments.

The title “The Pigeon Tunnel” comes from a much earlier memory. His con-man father (the inspiration for le Carre's autobiographical novel, “A Perfect Spy”) has taken him on a gambling spree in Monte Carlo, Monaco. At a sporting club, the teenager David sees “well-lunched sporting gentlemen” shooting pigeons. He learns the surviving birds fly back to their home on the casino roof where they are doomed to be trapped in the tunnels that lead them again into shotgun fire.

It's a troubling image. Does it haunt him into his 80s because he's trapped by his own inherited nature? His father, Ronnie, looms, at last fully formed, in “Son of the Author's Father,” a chapter saved for late in the book. Roguish Ronnie cheats, lies, runs cons, sends others to prison for his crimes, beds women, goes to prison himself and still manages to send his sons to the best schools. Later in life, Ronnie takes advantage of his son's fame.

In these pages, Cornwell becomes one of his most fascinating characters — the son who learns to dissemble at his father's knee, joins the British intelligence service and rounds out his life creating false worlds as a novelist.

“Sometimes I walk round him, sometimes he's the mountain I still have to climb,” he writes of Ronnie. We listen and nod, sipping with pleasure, intoxicated by his words.

Carla K. Johnson is an Associated Press writer.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me