John Banville on John le Carré: ‘an old-style English patriot and the essence of decency’

‘He was a wonderful writer. I wish I had got to know him earlier in both of our lives’

John le Carré in London in September 2019. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times

John le Carré in London in September 2019. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times

 

I had an email from him the other day. He and Jane were at their house in Cornwall, looking forward to Christmas there with “the kids”. He said he would love to have me over, after the virus. “Things are not brilliant just now,” he added, “so can only get better.” Then, a few days later, came the news that he was gone, taken by pneumonia.

He had been unwell for some time, seriously so, and though he looked disgracefully healthy, and vigorous, and young, we knew the end could not be so very far off. All the same, his going, the suddenness of it, was a hammer-blow.

Death is stranger than birth, which is saying something. Surely we should be used to mortality by now, yet the way the living vanish is always uncanny. How could a man so vividly alive be so quickly dead? And where is it now, the abundance of what he was? Easy to see why we invented Heaven.

I feel I knew John le Carré for a long time, but in fact we only met last year, at the end of the summer. I had been asked by the Guardian newspaper to interview him on the occasion of the publication of Agent Running in the Field, which most assumed would be his final novel, which indeed it turned out to be, though he had been planning a new one in his last months.

We hadn’t met before. Of course, I had read pretty well everything he wrote, and had even reviewed him, somewhat dustily on occasion, I must confess. I had heard he was affable, funny, inquisitive, a superb mimic, fond of his food and of a glass, clubbable but unclubbed, an old-style English patriot without the slightest taint of nationalism. I was eager to meet him, though in the way of these things I confidently expected him to turn out a disappointment.

He didn’t.

Legends are the stuff of legend, and no more than that. To come face to face with a Very Famous Person and find him or her to be a perfectly recognisable human being is to understand that it is we, the needy, who confer celebrity upon the celebrated.

That sunny afternoon I arrived at a handsome house in a bosky Hampstead byway, and David Cornwell, otherwise John le Carré, greeted me in his hallway with the words, “Ah, we were watching out for you!” This conjured the image of the writer and his wife Jane crowding eagerly at that big bay window over there, like a pair of children awaiting the arrival of a rich uncle. The notion was, as David intended, at once comical and disarming.

Not that I came armed. I have never understood why there should be “genres” of the novel, as distinct from The Novel. Fiction is good or otherwise, and some of the best of it has been done in this or that so-called genre. Georges Simenon was a great literary artist whose books are read by millions of people, many of whom have never heard of Virginia Woolf. In the margin of one of his notebooks Charles Darwin wrote a note to remind himself never to say “higher or lower” – and he knew a thing or two about the origin of species.

The John le Carré I met that day, under his real name of David Cornwell, was large and slightly rumpled, with silver hair, shaggy eyebrows, and cheeks and chin as pink as those of one of Trollope’s clergymen. His hand was broad and soft, and seemed on the instant to enfold me entirely in its warmth – surely he had that handshake from his father, a great and incorrigible conman, who no doubt used it to good effect.

And it was his father he began to speak of almost before we were settled in our armchairs. He was fascinated by him, and reminisced about him in tones of amused, head-shaking wonderment.

Ronnie Cornwell had once sought to sell a non-existent satellite town outside Toronto to a firm of lawyers in Buffalo, later tried to get his novelist son to pay back the cost of his own education, and, finding himself in a particularly tight corner, had secured much-needed petty cash by selling his head to a London hospital for the purpose of posthumous research. A representative from the hospital turned up at the old boy’s funeral to claim the paid-for property. David gave him back the stated price and got rid of him; it was not the first wad of money he had been compelled to hand over to get his father out of the soup. “I wonder if the fellow was genuine,” David mused, “or was I conned?” The eyebrows twitched, reminiscent of a walrus’s moustaches, and the smile turned into laughter.

“People who have had very unhappy childhoods,” John le Carré wrote, “are pretty good at inventing themselves.” Certainly John le Carré was David Cornwell’s invention – but was David Cornwell? All I can say is that the David Cornwell I sat with that day, and the David Cornwell I met on subsequent occasions, seemed to me one of the most authentic people I have known in my life. He was among those very few men – women are different – with whom one falls into instant friendship. No one ever said that of Kim Philby, and certainly not of Anthony Blunt.

David Cornwell had been a spy, though never, like Philby and Blunt, a double agent. He knew what it was to be betrayed by those who should have been truest to him. His father plagued him for as long as he lived – and afterwards, not only in the matter of the bartered bonce – and his mother ran off and abandoned him and his brother when they were still schoolboys. He learned from these experiences, and learned well. He seemed to me the essence of decency, and seems so yet.

More to the point, he was a wonderful writer. All his books are good, some superbly so, and one of them, at least, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is a masterpiece that will live for as long as there are readers. That he was my friend is neither here nor there in the general run of things, but to me it’s of the essence. I wish I had got to know him earlier in both of our lives; that I knew him at all was an inestimable gift.

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