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John le Carre, the spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War spy thriller and brought praise to a genre critics had once ignored, has died.

John le Carre
John le Carre is dead. (Supplied)

Le Carre’s literary agency, Curtis Brown, said he died in Cornwall, southwest England, on Saturday after a brief illness.

The death was not related to COVID-19.

In classics like “The Spy Who Came From The Cold”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “The Honorable Schoolboy,” Le Carre combined concise but lyrical prose with the kind of complexity expected in literary fiction.

His books dealt with betrayal, moral commitment, and the psychological cost of a secret life.

In the silent and attentive spymaster George Smiley, he created one of the iconic characters of 20th century fiction – a decent man at the heart of a web of deception.

For Le Carre, the world of espionage was a “metaphor for the human condition.”

Born David Cornwell in Poole, South West England, on October 19, 1931, he appeared to have a standard upper-middle-class education at Sherborne Private School.

Le Carre worked for Britain’s intelligence service before turning his experience into fiction.

“I’m not part of the literary bureaucracy if you like me to categorize everyone: Romantic, Thriller, Serious,” Le Carre told The Associated Press in 2008.

“I just follow what I want to write and the characters. I don’t advertise it to myself as a thriller or entertainment.

“I think this is all nonsense. It’s easier for booksellers and critics, but I don’t believe in that categorization. I mean, what is ‘A Tale of Two Cities’? – a thriller? “

John Le Carre’s novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. (Supplied)

His other works included “Smiley People”, “The Russia House” and, in 2017, the probable farewell to Smiley, “A Legacy of Spies”.

Many novels were adapted for film and television, notably the 1965 productions of “Smiley People” and “Tinker, Tailor” with Alec Guinness as Smiley.

German literature at the University of Berne, compulsory military service in Austria, where his assignments consisted of interrogating deserters from the Eastern Bloc, and a BA in modern languages ​​at the University of Oxford.

Le Carré was drawn to espionage by a superficially conventional but secretly tumultuous upbringing.

It was an illusion: His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a con artist who was a gangster partner and spent time in jail for insurance fraud. His mother left the family when David was 5 years old; He didn’t see her again until he was 21 years old.

It was a childhood of uncertainty and extremes: one minute limousines and champagne, the next eviction from the family’s last lodge.

It engendered insecurity, a keen awareness of the gap between surface and reality, and a familiarity with the secret that would serve him well in his future profession.

“These were very early experiences, actually, of clandestine survival,” Le Carre said in 1996. “The whole world was enemy territory.”

After college, interrupted by his father’s bankruptcy, he taught at the prestigious Eton boarding school before joining the foreign service.

John Le Carre at the UK premiere of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in London. (AP)

Officially diplomatic, he was in fact a “humble” operative of the MI5 national intelligence service – he had started as a student at Oxford – and then his overseas counterpart MI6, serving in Germany, then on the front lines of the Cold War, under the front page of the second secretary of the British embassy.

His first three novels were written while he was a spy and his employers demanded that he publish them under a pseudonym.

He remained as “Le Carre” throughout his career. He said he chose the name, square in French, simply because he liked the vaguely mysterious European sound.

“Call For the Dead” appeared in 1961 and “A Murder of Quality” in 1962.

Then, in 1963, “The Spy Who Came from the Cold” appeared, the story of an agent forced to carry out a last risky operation in divided Berlin.

He raised one of the author’s recurring themes: the blurring of moral lines that is an integral part of espionage and the difficulty of distinguishing the good from the bad. Le Carre said it was written in one of the darkest points of the Cold War, just after the construction of the Berlin Wall, at a time when he and his colleagues feared nuclear war was imminent.

“So I wrote a very hot book that said ‘a plague in both houses’,” Le Carre told the BBC in 2000.

Le Carre worked for Britain’s intelligence service before turning his experience into fiction. (Getty)

He was immediately hailed as a classic and allowed him to leave the intelligence service to become a full-time writer.

His descriptions of life in the grimy and ethically tarnished clubby world of “The Circus,” the books codename for MI6, were the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s smooth action hero James Bond, and he beat out Le Carre a critical respect that eluded Fleming.

Smiley appeared in Le Carre’s first two novels and in the trilogy of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “The Honorable Schoolboy” and “Smiley People”.

Le Carre said the character was based on John Bingham, an MI5 agent who wrote spy thrillers and encouraged Le Carre’s literary career, and ecclesiastical historian Vivian Green, chaplain at his school and later at his Oxford university, “who effectively became my confessor and godfather.”

The more than 20 novels touched on the sordid realities of the art of espionage, but le Carre always maintained that there was a kind of nobility to the profession.

He said spies once saw themselves “almost as people with a priestly calling to tell the truth.”

“We did not shape or mold it. We were there, we thought, to tell the truth to power. “

His most autobiographical book, “The Perfect Spy,” examines the formation of a spy in the character of Magnus Pym, a boy whose criminal father and unstable upbringing bear a strong resemblance to Le Carre.

Writing after the Cold War

His writing continued unabated after the Cold War ended and the front lines of espionage wars changed.

Le Carre said in 1990 that the fall of the Berlin Wall had been a relief. “For me, it was absolutely wonderful. I was sick of writing about the Cold War. The cheap joke was to say: “Poor le Carre, he’s out of gear; they have taken away his wall.

“The spy story just has to pack your bags and go where the action is.”

That turned out to be everywhere. “The Tailor of Panama” is set in Central America.

“The Constant Gardener,” which was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, was about the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry in Africa.

“A Most Wanted Man,” published in 2008, looked at extraordinary acting and the war on terror.

“Our Kind of Traitor,” released in 2010, featured Russian criminal syndicates and the shady machinations of the financial sector.

Le Carre reportedly turned down an honor from Queen Elizabeth II, although she accepted Germany’s Goethe medal in 2011, and said she did not want her books to be considered for literary awards.

In later years, he was a vocal critic of the Tony Blair government and his decision, based in part on exaggerated intelligence, to go to war in Iraq, and criticized what he saw as the betrayals of the post-World War II generation. by successive British governments.

“The changes that they promised me since I was 14 years old. I remember being told when Clement Atlee became prime minister and (Winston) Churchill left after the war that that would be the end of the (private) school system and the monarchy. ”He said in 2008.

“How have we achieved the poverty gap that we have in this country? It’s just amazing. “

In 1954, Le Carre married Alison Sharp, with whom he had three children before divorcing in 1971. In 1972 he married Valerie Eustace, with whom he had a son, novelist Nick Harkaway.

Although he had a house in London, Le Carre spent much of his time near Land’s End, the extreme south-west of England, in a house on a cliff overlooking the sea. He said he was a humanist but not an optimist.

“Humanity – that’s what we trust. If only we could see it expressed in our institutional forms, we would have hope then, “he told AP.

“I believe that humanity will always be there. I think it will always be defeated. “

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