John le Carré: 'I was a secret even to myself'

'Every interview I have faced since I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems designed to penetrate a truth that isn’t there' … John le Carré. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex Features

I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't.

As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world's press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.
Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.
But journalists of the time weren't having any of that. I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck. Meanwhile, I was receiving the sort of attention writers dream of. My only problem was, I didn't believe my own publicity. I didn't like it even while I was subscribing to it, and there was in the most literal sense nothing I could say to stop the bandwagon, even if I'd wanted to. And I wasn't sure I did.
In the 60s – and right up to the present day – the identity of a member of the British Secret Services was and is, quite rightly, a state secret. To divulge it is a crime. The Services may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may showcase an intelligence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their omniscience and – wait for it – openness. But woe betide a leaky former member.
And anyway I had my own inhibitions. I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary. Presenting myself to the press in New York a few months after the novel had made its mark in the States, I dutifully if nervously mouthed my denials: no, no, I had never been in the spy business; no, it was just a bad dream – which of course it was.
The paradox was compounded when an American journalist with connections told me out of the corner of his mouth that the reigning chief of my Service had advised a former director of the CIA that I had been his serving officer, and that he had told nobody but his very large retinue of best friends, and that anyone in the room who was anyone knew I was lying.
Every interview I have faced in the 50 years since then seems designed to penetrate a truth that isn't there, and perhaps that's one reason why I have become allergic to the process.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion. Fifty years on, I don't associate the book with anything that ever happened to me, save for one wordless encounter at London airport when a worn-out, middle-aged military kind of man in a stained raincoat slammed a handful of mixed foreign change on to the bar and in gritty Irish accents ordered himself as much Scotch as it would buy. In that moment, Alec Leamas was born. Or so my memory, not always a reliable informant, tells me.
Today I think of the novel as a not-very-well-disguised internal explosion after which my life would never be the same. It was not the first such explosion, or the last. And yes, yes, by the time I wrote it, I had been caught up in secret work off and on for a decade; a decade the more formative because I had the inherited guilt of being too young to fight in the second world war and – more importantly – of being the son of a war-profiteer, another secret I felt I had to keep to myself until he died.
But I was never a mastermind, or a mini-mind, and long before I even entered the secret world, I had an instinct towards fiction that made me a dubious fact-gatherer. I was never at personal risk in my secret work; I was frequently bored stiff by it. Had things been otherwise, my employers would not have allowed me to publish my novel, even if later they kicked themselves for doing so: but that was because they decided it was being taken too seriously by too many people; and because any suggestion that the British Secret Service would betray its own was deemed derogatory to its ethical principles, bad for recruitment, and accordingly Bad for Britain, a charge to which there is no effective answer.
The proof that the novel was not "authentic" – how many times did I have to repeat this? – had been delivered by the fact that it was published. Indeed, one former head of a department that had employed me has since gone on record to declare that my contribution was negligible, which I can well believe. Another described the novel as "the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked" – not true, but fun. The trouble is, when professional spies go out of their way to make a definitive statement about one of their own, the public tends to believe the opposite: which puts us all back where we started, myself included.
And if the spies hadn't had me at that age, some equally luckless institution would have done, and after a couple of years I'd have been digging my way out.
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