Le Carré (1931-2020) saw himself as such, a bohemian magpie and a bohemian magpie. His father, Ronald Cornwell, was a louche West Country trickster and rake whose sins le Carré longed to commit and was afraid to repeat. About the great German dramatists (Schiller, Goethe, Kleist, Büchner), le Carré wrote, “I related equally to their classical severity, and their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to mask one with the other.” And so David Cornwell of Dorset became John le Carré, who not so secretly remained John the Square.
The product of this wise, secretive, melancholic mind is a body of work extraordinary in its scope, consistency, generosity and wit – if not always its diversity. Familiar characters come in and out under new names. Crooked fathers and anguished sons abound, as well as apathetic, powerless wives and love affairs with foreign beauties. These sometimes memorable proceedings are raised by his themes (loyalty, betrayal, nostalgia, belonging, fraternity and patriotism), by his plots and by his sentences.
And, of course, by George Smiley. The decorated, bespectacled hero of Le Carré arrives in his first novel, “Call for the Dead” (1961). Bright and gruff, shrewd but cuckolded, Smiley is le Carré’s biting answer to James Bond. He appears in nine novels; he is the star of five. He is missed when he is not around. But for those times when Smiley is off the page, reading German literature in some dank Cornish study, other unforgettable characters fill his (ugly, practical) shoes. My favorites — Magnus Pym, Jack Brotherhood, Richard Roper, Barley Blair — are set with sonorous, Dickensian names that stick in your head long after you’ve finished their stories.
This means that le Carré wrote many good books, and a handful of great ones. A spy must learn to distinguish signal from noise. Here are his best works.