As a covert operation, it has been a complete success. For 50 years, John leCarre has anatomised Britain in the most searching state-of-the-nation novels of our times, cunningly disguised as what in other hands is often the most escapist of subgenres: the spy story.
His preoccupation with the intelligence world may seem like a narrow focus, but this is deceptive. Le Carre, you feel, would at least partly echo the declaration made for a very different reason by the traitor unmasked at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: that "secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious".
He has found time to chronicle the state of other nations just as perceptively, notably Germany (where he once served as a diplomat – for which, read: intelligence officer) and Russia; and more cursorily, with the air of somebody poking something nasty he has found under a rock, the US.
His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, again focuses on Britain and is about deception and skulduggery at the highest levels of government and the secret service, naturally, but also casts its eye over more low-level hypocrisies. There is a telling moment when one of the book’s heroes, former diplomat Sir Kit Probyn, surveys the "Annual Fayre" held in the Cornish village to which he has retired: "It's Merrie bloody England, it’s Laura bloody Ashley, it's ale and pasties and yo-ho for Cornwall, and tomorrow morning all these nice, sweet people will be back at each other's throats, screwing each other's wives ... the wrapping is prettier than what's inside."
Speaking to le Carre over the telephone, I ask him if he thinks duplicity is a fundamental part of English life. "Yes. I mean, you have a fairly good picture of my social background from my voice and I of yours. We’re branded on the tongue," he says, in what one would indeed hazard were the beautifully modulated tones of a former public schoolboy. "It's very odd. There's no other nation like this where someone can pick up the phone and think, ah, he's one of us. And to that strange background, this tribalism written into our society, there belongs a huge amount of duplicity. We're a nation that is given to such extraordinary subtext in its communications with itself that duplicity is almost written in."
It is the job of those who work for the intelligence services, he says, to fine-tune the aptitude for duplicity into an art form. And there is no shortage of candidates: "We have never lacked in this country for people with larcenous instincts and charming manners."
The young le Carre – real name David Cornwell, born 1931 – developed his own larcenous instincts at his father’s knee: Ronnie Cornwell was an ebullient conman and frequent jailbird. If his father’s example was useful when he came to join MI5 in 1958, the absence of his mother – she abandoned the family when he was five – may have contributed to his decision to do so. "I ... desperately needed the embrace of big institutions, as many people do who go into the secret world," he suggests.
In the 1960s, by which time he was working for MI6, he began to publish fiction pseudonymously. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), was hailed by Graham Greene as the best spy story he had ever read and is still championed by some readers as his masterpiece. For a public used to Ian Fleming's Bond fantasies – in which, as Kingsley Amis once pointed out, "nobody English does anything evil" – there was something wonderfully transgressive about a spy story in which senior British officers concocted unpalatable plots in order to further the greater good.
Le Carre is still tickled by the collective barking up the wrong tree of critics who thought the author was spilling the beans about the secret service. "It demonstrates two things: the limits of critical imagination, that’s number one, and, second, it's a great compliment, because the whole art of writing is to be credible, not to be authentic."
Nevertheless, it delights him that "people have embraced my secret world and tried to persuade themselves it’s the real thing". Indeed, much of le Carre's invented jargon has passed into use among actual intelligence workers, especially in the US (he cannot recall whether the now-ubiquitous use of "mole" for a double agent was his own coinage, but The Oxford English Dictionary has not found a plausible alternative).
Le Carre became disillusioned with life in MI6 and left in 1964; since when he has lived by his pen. Le Carre once wrote of his friend Sir Alec Guinness, also a victim of an appalling childhood, that the theatre was for him a "precious other world where life has meaning, form and resolution" as distinguished from "the indignity and disorder of his early years"; one does wonder if leCarre sought the same thing and found it in writing fiction after it failed to manifest in the intelligence world.
He brought order of a sort to the Cold War in the trilogy of novels widely regarded as his greatest achievement: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979). These are the books in which he explored the morality of being "inhuman in defence of humanity ... harsh in defence of compassion" through the figure of the nondescript serial cuckold and would-be-retired master spy George Smiley (brilliantly played on television by Guinness and on film by Gary Oldman) as he winkles out Kim Philby-type traitors and devises schemes to ensnare his Russian opposite number, Karla.
When I ask le Carre if he has a favourite among his novels, he chooses A Perfect Spy (1986), "which was about my papa and me". The date is significant: the novel could only have been written once he had moved on from the Cold War and Smiley, his idealised surrogate father figure. It is one of le Carre's finest works: like Dickens, he transforms the father who caused him pain into an unforgettable character, the monstrous, compelling Rick Pym.
"When I began writing it, I wrote about my pained childhood, my mother's disappearance and all that, it was a weepie, and I thought this is ludicrous, I can’t publish this. And then the solution was to make the son, the me figure, much worse than the father. Then it worked like a charm." So he made it less autobiographical? A pause. "Maybe. More self-accusatory, anyway."
Le Carre, although born only two years after John Osborne, was never an Angry Young Man: for all the talk in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold about spies being "people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives", he was not cynical – "I did think ... that I was doing the very best I could for my country. And as everybody in the secret world likes to believe, getting my hands dirty so that other people could sleep at night.’’ In the post-Thatcher era, however, he has found more to disapprove of in the way the world is run, and his recent novels are, if not exactly polemical, less morally ambiguous.
Islamophobia is a theme that has preoccupied him in both A Most Wanted Man (2008), now being filmed with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and A Delicate Truth. It is nurtured, he says, by the wilful ignorance of politicians.
‘‘When you start talking about terror, there are no excuses but there are reasons, and the reasons are historical and perfectly clear ... The thing one has to understand in all geopolitical matters is that the victims remember, the victors never do. In any event, what we’re dealing with, with terror, is not a sudden eruption of hatred, it is the consequence of what’s gone on in the past, which we can’t fix. But at least we should try to understand where it came from.’’
Le Carre is at his most Swiftian in the new book with his portrayal of the shadowy contract defence firm Ethical Outcomes, Inc. ‘‘I think we are seeing the privatisation of war,’’ he explains. ‘‘And that is very alarming ... The wars of the future won’t be fought by our sons and daughters. It’ll be cyber wars, wars fought from inside a bubble. They’ll be wars which, in Western eyes, in the eyes of the victors, are no-casualty wars, which means no casualties in our own society, just in other people’s. But delegation to technology of the conduct of war, the delegation to private industrial firms, really is very frightening.’’
There is unmistakable anger in leCarre’s voice, but it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way he works, he says, to suppose that he is driven to write his novels by overpowering righteous indignation.
‘‘It’s an absurd comparison, but people who really read Dostoyevsky can tell to the year and almost to the month what the social environment was around him. Like that, I try to remain, at least in terms of the atmosphere and the background of a novel, and indeed the outcome, some kind of chameleon that responds to his surroundings. And at the moment, the alienation of people from the authority that is supposed to run the state is very substantial.’’
It is a typically clear-eyed comment from le Carre, a man who has now perfected the ability to separate appearance and reality that he was compelled to acquire three-quarters of a century ago. He is one of Britain’s greatest living novelists, and hidden in his books, like Russian dolls inside his examinations of political duplicity, we may find delicate truths about the country.
A Delicate Truth is published by Viking, $29.99.