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Cornwell was born on 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England. His father was Ronald Thomas Archibald (Ronnie) Cornwell (1906-75), and his mother was Olive Moore Cornwell (née Glassey, b. 1906). His older brother, Tony (1929-2017), was an advertising executive and former county cricketer (for Dorset), who lived in America. His younger half-sister is the actress Charlotte Cornwell. His younger half-brother, Rupert Cornwell, is a former Washington bureau chief for the newspaper The Independent. Cornwell said he did not know his mother, who abandoned him when he was five years old, until their re-acquaintance when he was 21 years old. His father had been jailed for insurance fraud, was an associate of the Kray twins, and was continually in debt. Their father/son relationship was difficult. A biographer reports, "His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion. This was one of the factors that led to le Carré's fascination with secrets."
Rick Pym, Magnus Pym's father, a scheming con-man in A Perfect Spy, was based on Ronnie. When his father died in 1975, Cornwell paid for a memorial funeral service but did not attend it.
When his father was declared bankrupt in 1954, Cornwell left Oxford to teach at Millfield Preparatory School; however, a year later he returned to Oxford, and graduated in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages. He then taught French and German at Eton College for two years, becoming an MI5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, conducted interrogations, tapped telephone lines and effected break-ins. Encouraged by Lord Clanmorris (who wrote crime novels as "John Bingham"), and whilst being an active MI5 officer, Cornwell began writing his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961). Cornwell has identified Lord Clanmorris as one of two models for George Smiley, the spymaster of the Circus, the other being Vivian H. H. Green. As a schoolboy, Cornwell first met the latter when Green was the Chaplain and Assistant Master at Sherborne School (1942-51). The friendship continued after Green's move to Lincoln College, where he tutored Cornwell.
In 1964, le Carré left the service to work full-time as a novelist, his intelligence-officer career at an end as the result of the betrayal of British agents' covers to the KGB by Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent (one of the Cambridge Five). Le Carré depicts and analyses Philby as the upper-class traitor, code-named "Gerald" by the KGB, the mole George Smiley hunts in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).
In 1954, Cornwell married Alison Ann Veronica Sharp; they had three sons--Simon, Stephen and Timothy--and divorced in 1971. In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Jane Eustace, a book editor with Hodder & Stoughton; they have one son, Nicholas, who writes as Nick Harkaway. Le Carré has lived in St Buryan, Cornwall for more than 40 years; he owns a mile of cliff near Land's End.
In 1998, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) from the University of Bath. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Berne. In 2012, he was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by Oxford University.
In 1964, le Carré won the Somerset Maugham Award (established to enable British writers younger than 35 to enrich their writing by spending time abroad).
Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), le Carré's first two novels, are mystery fiction. Both feature a retired spy, George Smiley, investigating a death: first, the apparent suicide of a suspected communist; second, a murder at a boy's public school. Although Call for the Dead evolves into an espionage story, Smiley's motives are more personal than political. Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), became an international best-seller and remains one of his best-known works; following its publication, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer. Although le Carré intended Spy as an indictment of espionage as morally compromised, audiences widely viewed its protagonist, the alcoholic spy Alec Leamas, as a tragic hero; in response, le Carré's next book, The Looking Glass War, was a satire about an increasingly deadly espionage mission which ultimately proves pointless.
Most of le Carré's books are spy stories set during the Cold War (1945-91) and portray British Intelligence agents as unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged more in psychological than physical drama. The novels emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence. Moreover, they experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible. The recurring character George Smiley, who plays a central role in five novels and appears as a supporting character in four more, was written as an "antidote" to James Bond, a character le Carré called "an international gangster" rather than a spy and whom he felt should be excluded from the canon of espionage literature. In contrast, he intended Smiley, who is an overweight, bespectacled bureaucrat who uses cunning and manipulation to achieve his ends, as an accurate depiction of a spy.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People (The Karla trilogy) brought Smiley back as the central figure in a sprawling espionage saga depicting his efforts first to root out a mole in the Circus and then entrap his Soviet rival and counterpart, code named Karla. The trilogy was originally meant to be a long-running series that would find Smiley dispatching agents after Karla all around the world. Following the success of the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor, le Carré no longer felt that he could properly write Smiley, feeling he had gone from a literary character to an English icon.Smiley's People marked the last time Smiley would feature as the central character in a le Carré story, though he would bring the character back for supporting roles in The Secret Pilgrim and A Legacy of Spies.
A Perfect Spy (1986), which chronicles the boyhood moral education of Magnus Pym and how it leads to his becoming a spy, is the author's most autobiographical espionage novel, reflecting the boy's very close relationship with his con-man father. Biographer Lynndianne Beene describes the novelist's own father, Ronnie Cornwell, as "an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values". Le Carré reflected that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised". Le Carré's only non-genre novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), is the story of a man's postmarital existential crisis.
Italian cover of The Russia House (1989)
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, le Carré's writing shifted to portrayal of the new multilateral world. His first completely post-Cold War novel, The Night Manager (1993), deals with drug and arms smuggling in the murky world of Latin America drug lords, shady Caribbean banking entities, and western officials who look the other way.
As a journalist, le Carré wrote The Unbearable Peace (1991), a nonfiction account of Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire (1911-1992), the Swiss Army officer who spied for the Soviet Union from 1962 until 1975.
In 2009, he donated the short story "The King Who Never Spoke" to the Oxfam "Ox-Tales" project, which included it in the project's Fire volume.
In a September 2010 TV interview with Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, le Carré remarked on his own writing style that, since the facts that inform his work were widely known, he felt it was his job to put them into a context that made them believable to the reader.
Credited by his pen name, le Carré appeared as an extra in the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, among the guests at the Christmas party in several flashback scenes. He records a number of incidents in his autobiographical The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from My Life (2016) from his period as a diplomat; including escorting six visiting German parliamentarians to a London brothel and translating at a meeting between a senior German politician and Harold Macmillan.
I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it's contagious, it's infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary. There's an encouragement about.
The Quest for Karla (1982), containing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People (republished in 1995 as Smiley Versus Karla in the UK; and John Le Carré: Three Complete Novels in the U.S.), ISBN0-394-52848-4
After many years of working with various producers who made film adaptations of his novels, two of Cornwell's sons, Simon and Stephen, founded the production company Ink Factory in 2010. This was to produce adaptations of his works as well as other film productions. The Ink Factory has produced the films A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor, and the TV series The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
The Complete Smiley (2009-2010) BBC Radio 4, an eight-part radio-play series, based on the novels featuring George Smiley, commencing with Call for the Dead, broadcast on 23 May 2009, with Simon Russell Beale as George Smiley, and concluding with The Secret Pilgrim in June 2010
In 2010, le Carré donated his literary archive to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The initial 85 boxes of material deposited included handwritten drafts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener. The library hosted a public display of these and other items to mark World Book Day in March 2011.
In October 2008, a television interview on BBC Four was broadcast, in which Mark Lawson asked him to name a "Best of le Carré" list of books; the novelist answered: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener.
In September 2010, le Carré was interviewed at his house in Cornwall by the journalist Jon Snow for Channel 4 News. The conversation involved several topics: his writing career generally and processes adopted for writing (specifically about his latest book, Our Kind of Traitor, involving Russia and its current global influences, financial and political); his SIS career, discussing why - both personally and more generally - one did such a job then, as compared to now; and how the earlier fight against communism had now moved to the hugely negative effects of certain aspects of excessive capitalism. During the interview he said that it would be his last UK television interview. While reticent about his exact reasons, those he was willing to cite were that of slight self-loathing (which he considered most people feel), a distaste for showing off (he felt that writing necessarily involved a lot of this anyway) and an unwillingness to breach what he felt was the necessarily solitary nature of the writer's work. He was also wary of wasting writing time and dissipating his talent in social success, having seen this happen to many talented writers, to what he felt was the detriment of their later work.
A week after this appearance, le Carré was interviewed for the TV show Democracy Now! in the United States. He told the interviewer, Amy Goodman, "This is the last book about which I intend to give interviews. That isn't because I'm in any sense retiring. I've found that, actually, I've said everything I really want to say, outside my books. I would just like--I'm in wonderful shape. I'm entering my eightieth year. I just want to devote myself entirely to writing and not to this particular art form of conversation."
The December 2010 Channel 4 broadcast John Le Carre: A Life Unmasked was described as his "most candid" television interview.
When interviewed by Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio 1 on 26 October 2019, le Carré stated that he has taken an Irish passport; qualifying through his grandmother Olive Wolfe who was born in Rosscarbery.
^ abDebrett's People of Today, "Le Carre - John (pen name of David John Moore Cornwell)," 1 November 2000
^"Say How: L". National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Retrieved 2018.
le Carré, John (15 April 2013). "The Spy Who Liked Me; on the set with Richard Burton and Martin Ritt". The New Yorker. pp. 28-32. (contains a 1965 photograph of actor Richard Burton and author John le Carré sitting together on the movie set of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold")
Monaghan, David (1986). Smiley's Circus: A guide to the Secret World of John le Carre. Orbis Book Publishing. ISBN978-0-85613-916-1.