John Le Carre: The cat sat on the dog’s mat

John Le Carre

John Le Carre once said, ” ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’.” He knows how to hook a reader. Yesterday, on his 85th birthday, I opened his very first book, Call for the Dead, published 55 years ago, in 1961.

The story begins:

“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

“This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. 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. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that ‘Sercom was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester’. And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.”

Le Carre knows how to get a story going. He had wanted to be a graphic artist, taught at Eton, graduated from Oxford and been a spy — experience he put to good use with considerable artistry in his spy thrillers.

George Smiley

George Smiley the secret agent, his most famous creation, was based on two people Le Carre knew:

  • John Bingham, his boss at MI5, who also wrote thrillers, and
  • Vivian Green, who was chaplain of Sherborne School, where Le Carre was a student, and who later became a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, where he tutored Le Carre.

In his introduction to Call for the Dead, Le Carre recalls how he began writing while working for the security service (from MI5 he went to MI6).  He used to write before going to work, on the way to work, at lunchtime:

“I wrote in penny notebooks. On the train to and from Great Missenden, in lunch hours, in the grey morning hours before going off to work. Ann, my wife at the time, typed the stuff out; we were broke, but we risked an Olivetti portable on hire purchase at a few shillings a week. I pitched straight into the story, no messing with outlines, skeletons or flow charts. I hadn’t the smallest idea where I was going. But I had Smiley. ..”

How John Cornwell became John Le Carre

He says how John Moore Cornwell (his real name) became John Le Carre. He used the pen name from his first novel, Call for the Dead, published in 1961. He recalls:

“When I had written the book, I feared that my troubles had just begun. I had talked to no one about the proprieties of writing a spy story while still inside the spy business, and nowadays, I am told, new entrants have to sign away their literary lives before they are allowed to join. Certainly I knew enough about the subterranean connections to my service not to publish without official consent. So I sent the book to the Legal Adviser, Bernard Hill, who had always seemed to me to be the dullest old stick in the whole outfit, and he returned it a couple of days later with a note saying how much he had enjoyed it. He asked for one change and I made it. Not for security reasons: he thought it might be libellous. He also asked me to use a pseudonym. He thought it wiser and, sucking on his pipe, he wished me luck.

“When Victor Gollancz accepted the book, I asked Victor what sort of pseudonym I should choose. He recommended two Anglo-Saxon monosyllables – something like Chunk Smith or Hank Brown. I chose Le Carre. God alone knows why, or where I had it from, but I didn’t like Victor’s advice. When people press me, I say I saw the name on a shop front from the top of a London bus. I didn’t. I just don’t know. But never trust a novelist when he tells you the truth.”

So that’s how he became John Le Carre though he can’t remember or won’t say how he got the name. He loves to tease. Note he says, “never trust a novelist when he tells you the truth”.

Le Carre gave up his job and became a full-time writer after his third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, became a bestseller. It also had Smiley — but in a minor role, not in the major role he had in the first two novels,  Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. Smiley would be back in the main role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Le Carre has written several other novels, but I like it best when he writes about Smiley.

‘I love writing’

Now 85, Le Carre still enjoys writing, he says in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, published this year. Here’s what he says in the introduction:

“I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern University.

“If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard,’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to myself to get the best out of my success, and by and large, however good or bad that was, that was what I did.

“And I love writing. I love what I’m doing at the moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a black-clouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive till lunchtime.

“I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafes, then scurrying home to pick over my booty.  I have only ever written by hand. Arrogantly perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanized writing. The lapsed graphic artist actually enjoys drawing the words.

“I love the privacy of writing, which is why I don’t do literary festivals, and, as much as I can, stay away from interviews, even if the record doesn’t look that way.”

And then he writes about facts and memory:

“These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what me delicately call the evening of his life? To the lawyer, truth is facts unadorned. Whether such facts are ever findable is another matter. To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts but in nuance.

“Was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we’re being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self-serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap. Or it does for me, after a lifetime of blending experience with imagination.”

Le Carre, at 85, has spent a lifetime indeed as a novelist, his first novel, Call for the Dead, now more than half a century old.

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