Book review: Spy novelist John le Carre relates life stories
Of stories to dine out on, David Cornwell has an abundance. Or should we say John le Carre has? Cornwell's pen name overshadows the title on the cover of this, his first memoir, "The Pigeon Tunnel." The name "John le Carre" attracts the audience, but it's David Cornwell confiding in us here, as if over dinner, then chatting long into the evening over snifters of brandy, or, as he unspools memories of Russia, glasses of vodka.
He is nearing his 85th birthday, so he reflects on his brief stint as a British spy during the Cold War and long career as a revered espionage novelist who does his own fieldwork. Fans of le Carre's fiction will use this as a code book where they will match up characters from "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Little Drummer Girl" and other titles to the real people who inspired them.
To research the Palestine-Israel conflict for "Drummer Girl," for example, Cornwell works his way into the world of Palestinian liberation fighters and eventually wins an audience with Yasser Arafat. He interviews a Russian mafia boss to gather material for "Our Kind of Traitor." For "The Mission Song," he seeks out warlords in east Congo.
Film offers came early, so there are actors and directors to befriend. When hard-drinking Richard Burton, cast as the hard-drinking lead in "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," the 1965 film adaptation of le Carre's early best-seller, needs a pal to keep him steady, it is Cornwell whom director Martin Ritt summons to the set.
Sober-minded Alec Guinness, who plays George Smiley in two BBC miniseries versions of le Carre novels, encounters an actor showing up drunk and "the poor man might as well have gone to sleep on sentry duty," Cornwell recalls. But Guinness' anger gives way "to an almost desperate kindliness."
When Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick call, Cornwell jets off to discuss impossible projects. "One day, I trust, it will be recognized that the best films of my work were the ones that were never made," he laments.
The title "The Pigeon Tunnel" comes from a much earlier memory. His conman father (the inspiration for le Carre's autobiographical novel, "A Perfect Spy") has taken him on a gambling spree in Monte Carlo, Monaco. At a sporting club, the teenager David sees "well-lunched sporting gentlemen" shooting pigeons. He learns the surviving birds fly back to their home on the casino roof where they are doomed to be trapped in the tunnels that lead them again into shotgun fire.
It's a troubling image. Does it haunt him into his 80s because he's trapped by his own inherited nature? His father, Ronnie, looms, at last fully formed, in "Son of the Author's Father," a chapter saved for late in the book. Roguish Ronnie cheats, lies, runs cons, sends others to prison for his crimes, beds women, goes to prison himself and still manages to send his sons to the best schools. Later in life, Ronnie takes advantage of his son's fame whenever he can.
In these pages, Cornwell becomes one of his most fascinating characters — the son who learns to dissemble at his father's knee, joins the British intelligence service and rounds out his life creating false worlds as a novelist.
"Sometimes I walk round him, sometimes he's the mountain I still have to climb," he writes of Ronnie. We listen and nod, sipping with pleasure, intoxicated by his words.
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