John Le Carré (Profile)

Perhaps the only problem in taking tea with John le Carré is that it is never clear who will speak next. One moment, it is a Russian gangster named Dima; then Genrikh, a KGB operative - and then, a plummy-sounding Margaret Thatcher lackey.

Perhaps the only problem in taking tea with John le Carré is that it is never clear who will speak next. One moment, it is a Russian gangster named Dima; then Genrikh, a KGB operative - and then, a plummy-sounding Margaret Thatcher lackey. All are delivered with the perfect mimicry for which the 68-year-old le Carré is celebrated. Then, there are the anecdotes, which segue effortlessly from a visit with a priest in Val-d'Or, Que., who praises the restorative values of prostitution, to negotiations in Beirut with a minion of Yasser Arafat. Le Carré has experienced them all - but each from a different perspective. "When I research," he says, "I see the world through my protagonist."

The world of le Carré is unfailingly entertaining, and morally uncertain - whether in person or print. With his 17th novel, Single & Single, nipping smartly up best-seller lists in Great Britain and North America, the biggest surprise is his ability to surprise readers still. Most renowned for his spy novels, le Carré has made the transition from the strictly delineated lines of the Cold War to the chaos of New World Disorder. His new book tackles his constant themes of betrayal and duplicity - as well as international banking and the Russian underworld - with confidence and ease. In person, le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, is animated, far removed from the melancholy of his characters. "I suppose," he said, during an hour-long interview in a Toronto hotel café last week, "I am much different than I once was."

Le Carré concedes that writing has been "a form of exorcising demons" - which include two that shaped his life. One is his late father, Ronnie Cornwell, a charming, reckless, self-centred reprobate who drove himself into bankruptcy and jail - and everyone else to distraction. Before he died in 1975, he went to prison many times and left a trail of debtors across Europe and Asia - most spectacularly in 1954 when his debts totalled $40 million in today's money. The writer's mother, Olive, left Ronnie for another man when le Carré was 5, and for years, he and elder brother Tony (a former ad executive now retired in the United States) were told their mother was dead. At 21, having found out otherwise, le Carré arranged a meeting. Although they met on occasion until her death in 1989, he says he still grapples with how she abandoned her children.

Ronnie Cornwell's slippery financial situation meant that the children became used to providing excuses for their father as bills went unpaid. And while they lived amidst Britain's upper class, they were acutely aware they had no money of their own. "For years, I tried to block my father out of my life," le Carré says. "After he died, I became aware that was not possible." Single & Single, he says, is one of several books that grapple with his father's legacy. (The 1986 novel A Perfect Spy features Magnus Pym, who has elements of his creator, and Pym's con man father modelled on Ronnie Cornwell. Le Carré calls it "my favourite: I think I nailed it.")

Le Carré's other fixation is England. He loves it, loathes it, and acknowledges that while he has thought about leaving, he never could. "There is a lot about England I dislike," he says. "But it is too much a part of me to go elsewhere." He is a vociferous critic of the country's class structure - and refused an offer from Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s that might have led to a knighthood, or peerage. "I hate the idea," he says, "that you have some sort of invisible academy that will oversee England. I won't be a part of it." Although he once taught at Eton, England's most famous school, le Carré insists that such exclusionary private institutions should be abolished.

But le Carré has always loved his country enough that from his late teens until the age of 33, when he quit to write full time, he worked in British intelligence. His past life has been rumoured for years, and in the past decade, le Carré has begun to open up about it. Although he will not talk about everything he did, he admits to working for MI-5 and MI-6, the intelligence and counterintelligence agencies. His duties included interrogating defectors from Soviet-controlled countries. Nor does he deny suggestions that he ran agents, tapped phones, performed break-ins, and was trained in martial arts and silent killing. His background showed to advantage in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the bleak 1963 novel that gave the world Alec Leamas, one of the first espionage anti-heroes. Graham Greene called the book the "finest spy story ever written."

Le Carré's "secret world" of literature began as a child. His father disapproved of his reading, which he thought unmanly. Le Carré's writing began while stationed - supposedly as a foreign service officer - in Germany in the early 1960s. Because he wrote his first books while employed by the government, he had to use a pen name. The choice of "le Carré" was accidental, and mercenary, he says: "I wanted something three-syllabled and exotic. I forget how I came to the precise choice."

Since then, le Carré has defended his spy work on the grounds that it was necessary for philosophical and pragmatic reasons during the Cold War. But, he has said, he understands the conflicted emotions that drove Kim Philby to betray his country and become a double agent for the Soviet Union. "People form loyalties and become disenchanted for different reasons," he says. Although most renowned for his spy books, and in particular, the enigmatic, spectacularly uncharismatic spymaster George Smiley, he has written almost as many books about other topics and says "even if the Cold War had not ended, I was finished writing about it."

In le Carré's books, people are more complex than they seem, like the author himself. With his rugged, still-handsome features, impeccable manners and elegant speaking voice, le Carré is the model of a British gentleman. But rather than join the system, he chooses to fight it. He and his wife, Jane, a former book editor, keep a house in London's upscale Hampstead area, but spend most of their time far removed on the coast of Cornwall. (Le Carré has four grown-up offspring: three sons by his first wife, and a son from his 27-year marriage to Jane.)

And there is the world outside England to keep him occupied. Le Carré's research is painstaking, and firsthand. For 1993's The Night Manager, which had a chapter in rural Quebec, he boarded a plane from London to Montreal, got on a connecting flight to Val-d'Or, close to 500 km to the north, and landed alone, without alerting anyone in town of his intentions, or who he was. Le Carré, who speaks French and German fluently, checked into a low-cost motel, and persuaded its manager and the chief of police to show him around. One of the most interesting characters, he recalls, "was this old priest, who gave me a lecture on why the local whorehouse was important to the mental and physical well-being of the community. I was charmed." Not everyone is as pleasant. In 1991, le Carré arranged a meeting with a Russian Mafia leader while researching his 1995 book, Our Game. His first question was whether the Russian, with his newfound wealth, might donate part back to the community to secure his good name. The response ran several minutes, while le Carré waited for a translator to explain. When he finally did, the translator's answer was brief: "He said to f - - off."

Although he won't provide specifics, the sales of his books, translated into more than 30 languages, and movie rights have earned le Carré millions of dollars, and the freedom to work whenever - and at whatever - he wants. He has long talked of a biography of Ronnie Cornwell, and has written chapters and outlines. But these days, he is less committed - and points to the end of his new novel as evidence. It closes, in dramatic fashion, with Tiger Single and his son, Oliver, in the same room. Without giving away the factual elements of the end, Oliver, says le Carré, "comes to a realization about his father: the man he always thought was a monster is, in fact, just a little piggie. So he is free." With that, le Carré smiles: the conflict that was such a part of his past life may finally be exorcised from his future.

Maclean's April 5, 1999