Figuring out whether he can still write at 80

2011-10-24 00:00

AFTER 50 years in the spying game, British novelist John le Carre is still a master of his trade. A movie adaptation of his classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Colin Firth, has just been launched to great acclaim.

Le Carre, who lives on a cliff-top estate in Cornwall, south-west England, celebrates his 80th birthday on Wednesday. Notoriously media-shy, he has promised an autobiography next. The author, whose real name is David Cornwell, says he is trying to find out whether he can still write.


John le Carre, are you writing a new book for your 80th birthday?

The new book had a bad time with the film, the new version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I certainly will have to finish it within the next six months. But if it does not turn out to please me as much as I expect, I shall not publish it. And I would begin to recognise that my days of writing fiction are finished. Now I have to find out whether I can still write.


So, have you thought about writing an autobiography instead?

A well-known biographer named Adam Sisman came to me and said he wanted to write my biography. I said, the authorised biography is not an art form I respect. So here is a list of people I know.

And some of them dislike me deeply, they will be useful to you. So go out into the world and do your worst. Unfortunately, that’s what he’s doing. It’s a very strange feeling, if you imagine being 80, and you’ve given someone the licence to see everyone you’ve known in your life.


Will your time at the Secret Service be part of the book?

There was a very funny moment. Sisman went to a former colleague of mine at the Secret Service and asked: “What did David do in the Service?” The chap thinks and says: “I have no idea. But I’ll ring the chief.” So he leaves Sisman in the room, makes a call, comes back and says: “Extraordinary thing: he doesn’t know either.” Sisman was very puzzled by that.


Well, do you know what you were doing there?

No, absolutely not! And even if I wanted to, I can’t tell it.

Still there are some stories from your life only you can write ...

What I thought I might do is write down some episodes. Being my father’s son at times was extraordinary. He had race horses. But because he hadn’t paid the bookmakers he did not dare go to the race course. So he would give me a bunch of money and I — a boy! — would arrive at the race course and go from one bookmaker to another, betting on his horse. And then people would come up: “Are you Ronnie Cornwell’s boy? You look out, son, you look out.”


How do you feel about being 80?

It just seems premature. It was always in the contract, I just didn’t know they would deliver so soon. But it’s okay. I feel ready to die. I’ve had an incredibly good life, an exciting one. I’ve got 13 grandchildren and fantastic wives for my sons. So if it were over very soon, I would not feel anything except gratitude.


In Germany you have been awarded the Goethe Medal for your contribution to European integration, but you appear to be sceptical about it.

I share the European dream. But I’m utterly confused by what in means in practice ... It seems to me, there is an extraordinary vacuum at the moment. The Greeks are embarrassed by their poverty. The Germans are embarrassed by their own generosity and frightened of it. Germany is unquestionably the most powerful force in Europe. And for partly human, partly political reasons, Chancellor [Angela] Merkel doesn’t want to accept that role ... We can’t be run from Brussels or Frankfurt. We need a new elite.


And where might this new elite come from?

I think we need a revolution of the middle class, through the national parliaments. These anxieties of the people in the street need to be addressed at parliamentary level so they know that they are being heard.


You’ve been a harsh critic of the United States in the past years. Are you still?

America has become ungovernable. It’s very frightening. The control of American public opinion by the right-wing media seems to be unstoppable ... I think that the arc of Barack Obama’s presidency will be the arc of incapacity. He couldn’t close the black prisons, he couldn’t close Guantanamo. He couldn’t really sell a health system. He certainly hasn’t cured Afghanistan. And the Middle East peace process looks like a dead duck from the start.


What would your famous master spy George Smiley say today?

Well, first of all Smiley would be very dead by now. And if not he would say that we’ve dealt with communism, now we have to deal with capitalism. — Sapa-dpa.

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