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The Father of All Secrets

John le Carré’s daddy issues

In an equivocal recommendation letter to the dons at Oxford, R.S. Thompson, a housemaster at Sherborne School, Dorset, wrote that his former pupil David Cornwell “strikes me as the sort who might become either Archbishop of Canterbury or a first-rate criminal!”

This prophecy struck at the heart of twenty-year-old David’s torments. His father, Ronnie, was a seductive West Country conman and thief who frequently prevailed upon his sensitive, artistic son to collaborate in his deceits. His mother, Olive, had disappeared from the home when David was five (in flight from Ronnie’s infidelity and violence). Ronnie sent his sons off to posh preparatory and public schools in the hopes of turning them into English gents; ideally, barristers. But for David, boarding school was an escape into another form of captivity. At Sherborne, Ronnie’s licentious rule was replaced by another, no less oppressive, sovereignty: this one didactic, high Anglican, and enforced by blows from the prefect’s cane.

To the extent these ministrations left an impression, they only increased David’s anguish. The felonious fog of his homelife ever intruded upon the greener pastures of his potential salvation. Ronnie, perennially in debt, rarely paid tuition except in promises, fibs, and in-kind goods of dubious provenance—dried figs, bananas, and cases of “unobtainable gin.” And on holiday, David and his older brother, Tony, were once again conscripted into Ronnie’s latest scams. “At school, David was being trained to run an empire,” Cornwell’s biographer Adam Sisman wrote in 2015, “at home, he was helping diddle widows out of their pensions.” The conflict between these two irreconcilable lives nearly drove him mad.

It was to the benefit of millions of readers that David Cornwell became neither crook nor priest but something in between: first a spy, then a novelist. Under the pen name John le Carré, he revolutionized the twentieth-century espionage thriller. His breakout book, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, written while he was still working for the British Secret Service, laid bare the convoluted moral logics, futility, and inhuman waste of the Cold War. Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979)—a trilogy in which the portly, past-his-prime spymaster George Smiley battles, and eventually bests his Soviet rival, Karla—solidified le Carré as master of the form. Smiley, as many critics have noted, is the antithesis of James Bond. Where Ian Fleming’s rakish hero is flashy, Smiley is drab; where Bond is charming, Smiley is taciturn; where Bond uses guns and gadgetry, Smiley relies on perception and guile; and where Bond is a womanizer who exudes masculine potency, Smiley is a cuckold: sexless and monk-like in his devotion to Ann, his unfaithful wife.

It was to the benefit of millions of readers that David Cornwell became neither crook nor priest but something in between: first a spy, then a novelist.

Despite the taunts of his critics, the end of the Cold War did not leave le Carré bereft of plots. His later books addressed international arms dealing (The Night Manager, 1993), the neocolonial exploits of big pharma in Africa (The Constant Gardener, 2001), and the war on terror (A Most Wanted Man, 2008). By the time of his death, in December 2020, le Carré had authored twenty-five novels and a book of autobiographical essays (The Pigeon Tunnel, 2016). A twenty-sixth novel, Silverview, was published posthumously in 2021. And this month, Viking published the first collection of le Carré’s letters, entitled A Private Spy, compiled, edited, and annotated by le Carré’s son Tim Cornwell.

In a tragic turn, Tim Cornwell died suddenly in May 2022, just as the project was nearing completion. “Tim collapsed and died shortly before 9 p.m. last night. We have no idea what happened. It is incomprehensible,” his dumbstruck surviving siblings write in a short prefatory note to A Private Spy. “He was a funny, loving, gentle fellow who suffered for years from depression and other ills, but did his best to meet his troubles with what he had.” Tim’s brothers commend him for sifting through their father’s archive “even when it hurt” and assembling “narrative from chaos.” The book, they write, “is [Tim’s] legacy as well as our father’s.” Tim Cornwell’s obituary in The Scotsman, where he worked as an editor and arts correspondent, suggests that le Carré’s fame “cast a shadow” on Tim’s mental health. The process of editing A Private Spy, however, had “seemed to help [him] find reconciliation.”

That A Private Spy is now haunted by two ghosts—the father and the son—is bleakly resonant. As his letters attest, le Carré was tormented by his own (long dead) father to the very end of his life. “I’ve made a life-obsession of my father’s incurable criminality,” he confided to his friend, novelist and former diplomat Alan Judd, in May 2019. The anarchic distress of growing up under Ronnie Cornwell’s thumb, le Carré believed, had established the blueprint for his own circuitous yearnings: his infidelity, his anguished morality, his self-sabotage and falseness. Every accusation made against Ronnie was a counteraccusation against himself. “Our father was a mad genes-bank,” a seventy-five-year-old le Carré wrote to his brother Tony in 2007, “a truly wild card, and in my memory disgusting—still. I never mourned him, never missed him, I rejoiced at his death.” And yet Ronnie’s shadow was everywhere: “When I was faithless, I blamed him, when I promised love all over town, it was his fault.”

Le Carré attributed his skill as a writer, and as a spy, to a childhood under siege. His writing is alert to physical detail and subtle changes in emotional weather, a quality instinctive to children raised in perilous homes; likewise, he displays a childlike eagerness and capacity to imagine himself into other minds and other families. The neglected child is gifted a too-early awareness that he is merely cast in the role of Son, and that the nuances of his performance, its success or failure in various scenes, can have dire consequences. If he is haunted later in life by a sense of his own falseness, that is because he learns mimicry and compliance, how to satisfy the needs and whims of others, long before he has developed a clear sense of his own.

Bridge of Lies

As he freely admits, le Carré could never outmaneuver the coordinates of his loveless upbringing—the missing mother; the lying, smothering, bullying father. “We were frozen children, & will always remain so,” he told Tony in the 2007 letter. “The only poetry we remember is the stuff we learned as kids, & it’s not much different with love. You chase after it, act it, imitate it, and eventually, if you’re old & lucky, you believe in it, but it comes hard, it’s flawed, & we fake it a lot, like religion, in the hope that one day we’ll have it for real.” The line recalls one from 1986’s A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s best and most autobiographical book: “He kept saying it. Like a ritual he was trying to believe in. ‘I love you.’ I suppose he thought if he said it to enough people enough times, one day it might be true.”

The anarchic distress of growing up under Ronnie Cornwell’s thumb had established the blueprint for his own circuitous yearnings: his infidelity, his anguished morality, his self-sabotage and falseness.

Like Ronnie, le Carré was “wayward” in love: “inconstant, needy, desperate to please—yet desperate also to retain . . . sovereignty over his heart,” writes Tim Cornwell in his introduction to A Private Spy. Le Carré’s first marriage, to Ann Sharp, Tim’s mother, fell apart in the late 1960s, in the wake of his sudden fame; his missives to Ann appear frequently in the first quarter of the book. These youthful love letters are artful but rote—seemingly intent to deceive the writer as much as their mark. Is the lover really so beset, or does he only wish to appear so on the page? Ann wondered as much. “Are you in love with me?” she asked him before they married, “or are you just pretending?” Le Carré conducted his love affairs as secret operations, assignations as assignments; few letters to subsequent lovers appear in A Private Spy. (Le Carré’s missives to Susan Kennaway, the wife of his friend James Kennaway, are an important exception.)

Le Carré married his second wife Valerie Jane Eustace (“Jane”) in 1972; she became his lifelong companion, first reader, typist, and, as their son Nicholas put it, “crucial, covert collaborator.” In the letters, le Carré refers to Jane as “Oy” for “Oysters,” an overheard mispronunciation of her maiden name; he called his first wife “A-mouse,” for “Ann mouse.” This impulse to give women “silly nicknames,” writes le Carré in The Pigeon Tunnel, “in order to make them less formidable,” was an inherited affectation; Ronnie’s name for le Carré’s mother was “Wiggly.” Le Carré’s infidelities continued, but Jane’s loyalty—and her tolerance of what le Carré, in a 1999 letter to Tony, lamely called “my little ways!”—held the marriage together. “Nobody can have all of David,” Jane told Sisman. She died a few months after her husband, in March 2021.

Despite this marital stability, his literary fame and wealth, le Carré’s letters paint a picture of a restless, searching, and divided soul, often at war with himself, sensitive to slights yet capable of great magnanimity; ingratiating in one moment, derisive in the next; variously indulgent and abstemious, garrulous and guarded. He once wrote of the great German dramatists, “I related equally to their classic austerity, and their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.” And so he did.

Le Carré experienced his life as a series of frantic escape attempts—or defections—which always seemed to lead him back to the scene of his pain. The “pigeon tunnel,” the working title of several novels before he insisted on it for his memoir, refers to a scene he witnessed at a seaside shooting range in Monte Carlo on a conman’s holiday with Ronnie. “Under the lawn ran small, parallel tunnels that emerged in a row at the sea’s edge,” he writes. “Into them were inserted live pigeons that had been hatched and trapped on the casino roof. Their job was to flutter their way along the pitch-dark tunnel until they emerged in the Mediterranean sky as targets for well-lunched sporting gentlemen” who were arrayed on the lawn below, shotguns at the ready. “Pigeons who were missed or merely winged then did what pigeons do,” le Carré writes. “They returned to the place of their birth on the casino roof, where the same traps awaited them.” He identified with the pigeons.

“The credit balance of the writer is his childhood,” le Carré often said, attributing the aphorism to Graham Greene, though Greene’s biographers could never source it, “and by those standards, I was a millionaire.” The spy novel was le Carré’s form, but primitive, childlike fears were his medium. His stories prioritize plot because plot is the scaffolding of desire. “Betrayal, abandonment and the yearning to belong,” Michiko Kakutani wrote, “these are the psychological tent poles of John le Carré’s novels.” In this sense, Ronnie was perhaps not wrong to claim credit for his son’s success, as he often did, to le Carré’s unending annoyance, inscribing hundreds of le Carré books “from the author’s father.”

But sublimation of this sort is rarely complete or seamless. In A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym, the author’s protagonist and stand-in, is tormented by memories of his emotionally abusive father, Rick. Pym imagines himself as a “bridge” that his own son might “walk over to get from Rick to life.” Le Carré hoped to do the same for his children: clear their path, spare them his inherited guilt and dysfunction. Surely, to a degree, he succeeded. By every account, le Carré was a much better father than Ronnie. The letters are full of pride, love, and forbearance for his sons. “I don’t understand any of my children,” he wrote, charmingly, to his friend John Margetson in 1975, “but I have an uncomfortable feeling they understand me.”

And yet, le Carré’s novels testify to our failure to clear the bridge entirely. As he wrote in 1977, inevitably, “the knotted shadows of our childhood become the very snares with which we trip our own children.” Tim Cornwell knew this well. Contemplating the pain his father occasionally inflicted on those he loved, he writes, “It’s tempting to say that genius is complex, but probably truer that trauma is simple.”

The Parent Trap

Le Carré writes in The Pigeon Tunnel that “it took me a long while to get on writing terms with Ronnie,” but once he did, it was as if he couldn’t stop. Crooked dads with a whiff of Ronnie’s demonic charm appear several times in le Carré’s fiction: Cassidy’s father in The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, Westerby’s in The Honourable Schoolboy, and Charlie’s in The Little Drummer Girla “rather awful swindler chap . . . one of those plausible liars who think God put the fifth ace up their sleeves.” As le Carré’s letters make clear, the character of Charlie, an actress whose wretched upbringing drives her to promiscuity, radicalism, and, eventually, a secret mission for Mossad, is based on le Carré’s half-sister, Charlotte, who was raised by Ronnie and his second wife, Jeannie. “Terrible childhood, of course,” Charlie’s agent, Ned, summarizes in the novel. “It’s what sends ’em towards fantasy in the first place. Dissembling. Hiding your emotions. Copying people who look happier than you are. Or unhappier.”

Le Carré experienced his life as a series of frantic escape attempts—or defections—which always seemed to lead him back to the scene of his pain.

But le Carré’s efforts to give Ronnie a starring role in a novel, he told Charlie Rose in a 1993 interview, always came out “whingy” or “self-pitying.” That was until A Perfect Spy, for which he “hit upon the device of making the son the inheritor of the father’s deceit, and actually more deceitful, perhaps more wicked than the father.” In other words, le Carré was able to write the truth about Ronnie’s villainy, in the character of Rick, only by punishing himself even more severely, in the character of Magnus Pym. Sisman confirms that Pym’s early life—his conman father, his boarding schools, his recruitment by British intelligence in Bern, his time at Oxford spying on left-wing students, and his work under diplomatic cover in Austria—faithfully tracks le Carré’s. Only, where le Carré left the secret service to become a writer, Pym stays on and becomes a traitor.

Both le Carré and Pym are assailed by guilt, a sense of falseness, and a duty to please. “I’ll tell you what I am: a painkiller, a concession man, grown-up on negotiating other people’s emotions. A great big fat fraud,” le Carré wrote to Susan Kennaway in the mid-1960s. “I love you, but I’m a hollow oak.” A few years later, he wrote to Ann Sharp, “I have played too many parts in the hope that I became one of them.” Likewise, in A Perfect Spy, Pym’s first wife, Belinda, recalls, “He was a new man every day. He’d come home one person, I’d try to match him. In the morning he’d be someone else.” “[Pym] is a great imitator, even when he doesn’t know it,” says Axel, the Czech spy whom Pym first betrays and then conspires with to betray England. “Really I sometimes think he is entirely put together from bits of other people.”

But to assume those who embrace a life of strategic deception do so out of comfort with deceit is a mistake; rather, le Carré suggests, the perfect spy is someone assailed by his own fraudulence, by the feeling that he cannot be coherent to himself or others. Long before he joins the clandestine world, our recruit feels he is living undercover, an imposter in his own life. His career, his marriage, his friendships are pervaded by emptiness and pretense. He is an avid compartmentalizer. He has affairs, if he has the courage, but they only exacerbate his affliction. Small lies accumulate, like debts, in teetering piles. He is alone and apart, playing a role, waiting to be found out. The secret life is a refuge in precisely this sense: it transforms the otherwise intolerable burden of doubleness into a duty. The perfect spy is someone who turns his imposter syndrome into an art form—an asset.

Secrecy, le Carré wrote in 1986, is “a place of escape, attracting not the strong in search of danger, but us timid fellows, who couldn’t cope with reality for one calendar day without the structures of conspiracy to get us by.” Undercover and beyond the curtain, Pym feels himself ensconced in “a secret womb.” During his Charlie Rose interview, le Carré said that “secrecy is some kind of embracing, and secure-making, environment.” (As he spoke, he wrapped his arms around himself and smiled.) Becoming a spy was, for le Carré, a relief. “It was that feeling that I could put my inherited larceny at the feet of my country and serve,” he has said. In A Perfect Spy, Pym’s CIA counterpart, Grant Lederer, expresses this sentiment in nearly the same words: “You know what our racket is? It’s to place our larcenous natures at the service of the state.”

The figure of the con man, the spy, and the artist are mixed up in le Carré’s mind. Each relies on their capacity to entertain, mislead, and beguile; to seduce, make others complicit in their personal fantasies, no matter the cost. They set themselves watchfully apart from the world, grant themselves licenses, and depend, for material and emotional sustenance, upon those they deceive. “Is there really a big difference,” le Carré writes in The Pigeon Tunnel, “between the man who sits at his desk and dreams up scams on the blank page (me), and the man who puts on a clean shirt every morning and, with nothing in his pocket but imagination, sallies forth to con his victim (Ronnie)?” And later: “Spying and novel writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.”

In the end, both Pym and le Carré betrayed their service to the state. Pym does so literally, by delivering its secrets to the other side for thirty years. In this way, he resembles another of le Carré’s designated “secret sharers”—an ambiguous term he used for lovers, intimate friends, and characters in his novels with whom he identified—Kim Philby. Philby was a Soviet double-agent, a member of the “Cambridge Five” who nearly became head of MI6 before defecting to Moscow in 1963; he is the basis for the aristocratic mole, Bill Haydon, whom Smiley sniffs out in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré hated Philby, whom he described as “vain, spiteful, and murderous.” His name appears often in the letters, summoned to be subjected to new abuse. But le Carré’s revulsion is symptomatic; its substrate is recognition. Like le Carré, Philby had a nasty, impossible father and resentments toward the British class system. Both felt alienated from the elite institutions that made them. And both, as young men, were ideologically confused and emotionally adrift.

Sensing this affinity, le Carré presumed to write about Philby—whom he never met—in an intimate psychological idiom: “Women were his secret audience. He used them like he used society: he performed, danced, phantasized with them, begged their approbation, used them as a response for his histrionic talents, as a consolation for a manhood haunted by his father’s ghost. When they came too close, he punished them or sent them away.” Much the same could be said for Magnus Pym—and his model.

Le Carré’s betrayal, unlike Pym’s and Philby’s, was only symbolic, but it stung. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was an international sensation. It subjected le Carré’s colleagues, their pathologies and moral fatuousness, to withering exposure. “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs?” seethes Alec Leamas in the final act of the book. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” In an interview on the BBC in 1965, Malcolm Muggeridge—himself a former communist and British spy—told le Carré, in a provocative tone, of a friend who survived a World War II prison camp: “He told me the prison slang for a man who confessed was ‘a novelist.’”

Philby and Pym are what le Carré might have been had he not become a writer. Assessing Pym’s betrayal, Grant Lederer says, “I think if Magnus’s writing had ever worked for him, he’d have been okay.” According to Sisman, after reading A Perfect Spy, Ann Sharp said she “always suspected David of working for the other side.” One way or another, The Perfect Spy suggests, Pym was bound to defect—because defection was in his nature. As children, Pym and his creator were deceived and abandoned by those they loved most. They learned to mistrust anywhere they felt safe, and to confuse betrayal for love.

This notion was an abiding preoccupation of le Carré’s. Love is the precondition of betrayal—what gives it meaning, makes it hurt—and so betrayal is, perversely, the ultimate expression of love. “Love is whatever you can still betray,” Pym thinks. “You can only betray if you love.” Pym’s unpublished novel is full of aphorisms of this sort. Adrian Haldane, in The Looking Glass War, says the same: “Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” In an extraordinary 2001 letter to Stanley Mitchell, a former friend on whom he spied at Oxford, le Carré seeks self-absolution on these very terms: “If I hadn’t greatly valued our friendship, I would not have had anything to betray. If you read ‘A Perfect Spy’ you will find this sentiment—& perhaps a whiff of our relationship —reflected in the relationship between Axel & Magnus. (On the principle that Judas was a shit not so much because he betrayed Christ but because he loved him).”

What le Carré sought in the clandestine world was a compromise between his father’s anarchic moral universe and the repressive traditionalism of his schooling: a place where he could atone for Ronnie’s crimes while deploying his methods for the good of Mother Country. In a letter to his brother Tony, reflecting on his years in British intelligence, le Carré explains that theirs was an “anti-orthodoxy put to orthodox ends. We were rebels in suits.” But such a synthesis could never satisfy for long. A neat Oedipal circuit is at work here: the spy, adopting the state and his handlers as surrogate fathers, begins to chafe at their authority too, recognizing in them—this supposedly virtuous patriarchy—the same licentiousness and hypocrisy he deplored in dear old Dad. As he tells Tony, “The aims were societal. But the means were Ronnie’s.”

For le Carré, as for his secret-sharing protagonists, it is precisely the moment when his adoptive parent, this “embracing” secret institution, begins most to feel like home that acute feelings of love and hatred are excited. From this point, defection is inevitable—because betrayal is the language of his devotion. In A Perfect Spy, Lederer chastises himself for coveting “every wiry smile and casual pat of encouragement” from his boss, “only to round on him minutes later, lampooning him, degrading him in my overheated mind, punishing him for being yet another disappointment to me.” Later in the novel, he explains Pym’s deficiency in even cruder Freudian terms: “If defection is a self-renewal, it requires also a rebirth,” he says. “Know why so many defectors redefect? . . . It’s in and out of the womb all the time. Have you ever noticed that about defectors—the one common factor in all that crazy band? They’re immature. Forgive me, they are literally mother-fuckers.”

Freudian Valise

Le Carré often spoke of writing A Perfect Spy as a form of therapeutic catharsis, but he claimed never to have undergone analysis: “I’ve never been to a shrink,” he told Charlie Rose, wryly. “I don’t think I’d ever get away if I went.” The letters refer, tantalizingly, to a seventy-page self-analysis le Carré wrote in anticipation of visiting a psychotherapist in London, but the encounter apparently never occurred. (Tim Cornwell, in a footnote, blames the missed appointment on “a rail strike” in 1968; he doesn’t explain why it wasn’t rescheduled.)

Love is the precondition of betrayal—what gives it meaning, makes it hurt—and so betrayal is, perversely, the ultimate expression of love.

And yet, straightforwardly Freudian themes pervade his work. Killing Ronnie, le Carré confesses in The Pigeon Tunnel, “was an early preoccupation of mine, and it has endured off and on even after his death.” Learning, as a young man, that Ronnie had “mortgaged” his head to a medical research hospital, le Carré became obsessed with the idea of depriving him of it. “His neck was very broad, hardly a kink where it joined his upper body. I wondered where I would aim the axe if I were doing the job.” In the same essay, le Carré writes of a “white hide suitcase” belonging to his mother, whose interior of “tattered pink silk” emits “a heavy sexuality.” The suitcase, which le Carré inherited and treasures, calls to mind a “hazily-remembered image of carnal flurry—of a bedroom skirmish I have intruded upon when I am very young—and pink is its color.”

Le Carré wonders whether the lascivious scene was Ronnie and a lover; or Ronnie and Olive; or all three; “Or none of them, except in my dreams? And does this pseudo-memory portray some kind of childish erotic paradise from which I was shut out once Olive had packed her bag and left?” Freud refers to such memories, the child’s glimpse of the marital sex act, which appears to them both hideously violent and alluring, as the “primal scene.” Real or imagined, these scenes, including the shameful anger the child feels about being excluded from them, organize our fantasies, fears, and aggressions, sexual and otherwise, into adulthood.

The letters in A Private Spy contain only passing references to Freud, and only as a cultural shorthand, not an intellectual influence. In a letter to publishers in 2009 about the stylizing of his pen name, le Carré jokes, “This small ‘l’ has become, for Freudian reasons, an obsession for me in age.” Another mention comes in a rich May 1966 letter to the editors of a Soviet literary magazine, which had denounced his early books as capitalist war propaganda. Le Carré was offended; he saw himself as a diagnostician of Cold War pathology: “a condition of human illness and a political misery.” To equate his project with sensationalist apologia, le Carré wrote, was like calling “Freud a lecher.” Espionage was for him like sex for Freud: a preoccupation without prurience or vindication. Or so he insisted.

But here, too, lurk other Freudian ideas. Earlier in the same letter, le Carré writes that his books “make an assumption which is anathema to a Communist”—and, we might equally say, to a Cold Warrior in the West—namely, “that the enemy is not outside us but within, that we fight not looking forward but looking back, not for the future but for the past. The problem of the Cold War is that, as Auden once wrote, we haunt a ruined century.” This is a psychoanalytic insight. Le Carré insisted on an analogy between the divided, contrary character of the self and that of the nation state. He described the secret service as a nation’s “subconscious”—the place where the state’s irrationality, untethered id, and belligerence reign. He believed, as he once told Terry Gross, that in every generation “we fight the wars we inherit,” battling the ghosts of our parents’ enemies or paying in blood for the debts our parents incurred. As Axel warned Pym in A Perfect Spy, “There is no such thing as a life that does not return.”

Le Carré was fond of Auden’s line, “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” And so it goes, he thought, for nations as well as families. (Of course, it is far easier to harmonize these registers—the intimate and the geostrategic—in the novel than in political reality; this is perhaps why le Carré’s own political compass could be erratic at times.) “The winners forget, but the victims have terribly long memories,” he wrote in a 2009 letter to August Hanning, then Germany’s domestic security chief, “and we have paid for that, & will pay for it—just as in Ireland.” Terrorism, le Carré held, was a return of the repressed, no less wicked for being explicable. And he saw the war on terror as a neurotic effort to reclaim and redeem Western moral vigor. George W. Bush, in his desire for war with Saddam Hussein, personalized the dynamic: a son seeking to win his father’s war. “If anybody had killed my Daddy, or even tried to,” le Carré quipped in a letter, “I’d have given him my favourite conker.” In le Carré’s world, misery and memory were locked in mad, morbid embrace.

Fathers and Sons

The human impulse to painfully restage and reenact the traumas that shape us was one of Freud’s most counterintuitive insights; to make sense of it, he theorized a “death drive,” which disobeys our pleasure-seeking and survival instincts. Le Carré’s books are theaters for this wounding compulsion to repeat. As Ronnie stand-ins proliferate, so do Davids; and Davids inflict Ronnie-sized wounds in turn. Our flaws take the shape of our wounds, our aggressions the shape of our flaws. Each generation rebels against the last, ambivalently seeking to absolve and destroy, vindicate and convict. In a desperate effort to rectify the past—to win a war that predates us, which made us—we inflict pain on the future.

As children, we are natural spies. We rifle through our parents’ drawers hoping to find a hidden clue—to what?—desperate, and also terrified, to catch a glimpse of something clarifying, to find out they are not who they appear to be.

Can this cycle be broken? Freud was doubtful. He wrote about the death drive most explicitly in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a book that interrogated both the symptoms of World War I veterans suffering from “war neuroses” (what we would now call PTSD) and the aggressive, self-destructive impulses that seemed to drive the war itself. Something in the human organism, he thought, preferred a lethal status quo to the prospect of change. Freud died in exile as another calamitous war was beginning, history seeming to vindicate his pessimism.

Le Carré, likewise, paints a bleak picture. The bulk of the action in his novels occurs through memory, during interrogation or debrief. As for Oedipus, le Carré’s characters only discover the contours of their fated plots in retrospect; like Freud’s hysterics, they suffer from “reminiscences.” In The Looking Glass War, John Avery, conscripted into a doomed espionage operation by his nostalgic superiors, realizes he is “witnessing an insane relay race in which each contestant ran faster and longer than the last, arriving nowhere but his own destruction.” Still, Avery has no choice but to pick up the baton and run.

At times, le Carré seems to suggest that a thorough inquiry into the past—what happened, who was wronged, and why—might offer release. Smiley’s success in Tinker, Tailor, cultural historian Michael Denning has observed, “comes from accumulating information.” One by one, he visits the Circus’s suffering exiles—e.g., the alcoholic archivist Connie Sachs; the physically and emotionally broken Jim Prideaux—each of whom possesses a “fragment” of the picture Smiley needs to “bring forth the whole fantastic secret”: the identity of the mole, Bill Haydon. In exchange for his “trust and love,” they give Smiley “their knowledge,” a recitation of their respective traumas.

And by organizing these traces of the past, Smiley wins. But who is redeemed? Only Smiley, and only slightly. He achieves a minor bureaucratic coup, wins his way back to the top of a ruined secret service—and, perhaps, back into his wife’s bed. But for others, Jim most of all, the truth is only pain; it can’t change what happened, and Jim isn’t capable of changing his relationship to history (which would mean ceasing to love and hate Haydon). “The mole is a function of the past ,” writes Nicholas Dames in an essay on spy novels for n+1, “the betrayal has already happened, has always already had its disastrous effect.” The Smiley novels are ultimately ambivalent about knowing, though it drives their plots. Secrets offer the tantalizing promise of mastery, that we might vanquish the past by revealing it. But no amount of revelation guarantees reckoning or repair.

Still, le Carré continued to explore the allure of total knowledge in his later novels. In A Perfect Spy, this fantasy is symbolized by Rick’s “chipped green filing cabinet,” an object of obsession for Pym. Inside the cabinet—which Rick keeps locked and hidden away—Pym imagines a ledger, a “record” of his father’s debts and deeds, the balance sheet of his life. As le Carré reports in The Pigeon Tunnel, Ronnie Cornwell had one of these too: “a stack of brown boxes that my father always carted round with him when he was on the run.” In young David’s mind, the boxes contained his father’s jealously guarded secrets, the source of his greatest power and his vulnerability. And I wonder if Tim Cornwell didn’t think of his own father’s archive, the undertaking of A Private Spy, in a similar way.

As children, we are natural spies. We rifle through our parents’ drawers hoping to find a hidden clue—to what?—desperate, and also terrified, to catch a glimpse of something clarifying, to find out they are not who they appear to be. What we hope, most of all, is that somewhere in the record, there is an answer for our pain. But to our great disappointment, we rarely find what we are looking for. The contents of the archive are overwhelmingly banal, marked by incoherence and self-contradiction, suggestive but not transformative. When le Carré first dug through Ronnie’s boxes, he found “only personal stuff . . . his Masonic regalia, the barrister’s wig and gown with which he proposed to astonish a waiting world as soon as he had got round to studying law.” Later, during the war, he discovered more lurid but no less trivial fare: “black-market Mars bars, Benzedrine inhalers for shooting stimulant up your nose, and, after D-Day, nylon stockings and ballpoint pens.”

We learn from these notes and knickknacks, but a satisfying portrait recedes further from view. The captivating mystery of our upbringing remains—along with a nagging sense of futility and shame. Tim Cornwell writes that while editing A Private Spy, “I came to know [my father] much better, particularly as a young man.” But he was left with a regret: “That I did not spend more time asking him simpler questions about his life.”