This interview with John le Carre, conducted by Douglas Davis for the Jewish World Review, first appeared on January 1, 1998 under the headline “Not quite conventional”. It is republished here by kind permission of the author.
The tall, patrician figure is topped by a shock of brilliant white hair. The face is fresh and open, yet craggy as the coasts of south-west England where he lives. Up close, the skin is unexpectedly pink and soft. The timbre is carefully modulated, the words exquisitely calibrated, the sentences elegantly crafted.
This the portrait of a quintessential English gentleman. Or is it? Like George Smiley, the ambiguous, shadowy master of espionage who occupies a central place in so many of his novels, spy novelist John Le Carre is not quite what he appears. What he emphatically is not, he insists, is that quintessential gentleman.
“I am not quite the conventional Englishman that I appear,” he says. “Like most of us, I’m a cocktail.”
There is an uncanny resemblance between Le Carre and Smiley. Both share a passion for German literature, both were Cold Warriors in Britain’s secret service, both live in deepest Cornwall, both are profoundly ambiguous.
Perhaps I learned too early how the British can treat you if you are not quite one of them
Not so surprising, perhaps, the most revealing clue to Le Carre’s own somewhat uncertain identity comes in his suggestion about the identity of his celebrated fictional character: “It is a sheer fluke,” says Le Carre, “that Smiley himself is not a Jew.” And then: “Perhaps he is.”
It is soon obvious that Jews are a source of fascination, perhaps even obsession, for Le Carre. Indeed, Jewish characters are a constant thread that is woven through his work. On the first page of his first novel — which features a Jewish couple in the British Foreign Office — Le Carre observes revealingly that “Smiley traveled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express.”
The yearning to belong
Neither espionage nor excessive ambiguity are on his mind tonight. Here, in the plush surroundings of London’s Savoy Hotel, John Le Carre wants to talk about the pain of the outsider and the yearning to belong, about Smiley and Jews and anti-Semitism. And, of course, about Israel.
“Perhaps I learned too early how the British can treat you if you are not quite one of them,” he says. “Perhaps that lesson continued as I discovered how the English punish their artists.
“Or perhaps,” he suggests, “I am no different from any other artist anywhere in the world who feels himself an outsider in his own country and believes there’s another country somewhere else where he will be happier and safer.”
Le Carre — born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931 — skips lightly over a childhood that must have been bewildering, if not deeply painful. His mother, he says, disappeared — “no doubt wisely” — when he was very young. The boy was left to the mercies of a father who chose to occupy the outer fringes of society and was rewarded with several terms in jail.
I would like to be able to tell you that when Jewish boys were teased I sprang nobly to their defense and got a bloody nose for my trouble. But I can’t
For all that, Le Carre spent his early years “safely confined in one or other gloomy English boarding school, learning to become a bogus gentleman.”
“Being of a romantic age,” he recalls, “I fantasized about belonging to a homeless, polyglot, hounded clan of heroic refugees called Jews, of whom otherwise I knew nothing except that at school they gave me sausages and were let off chapel.
“I would like to be able to tell you that when Jewish boys were teased I sprang nobly to their defense and got a bloody nose for my trouble. But I can’t. Knowing me, I’m sure that, at best, I slipped away and hid. I was far too anxious to belong.”
But it was during school holidays, spent with his father constantly on the move, that he encountered Jews of a different kind — “middle Europeans with quick minds and rich accents that I loved to imitate.”
“My father played poker with them, robbed them and, I hope devoutly, was robbed by them in return. And I, more watcher than player in these scenes, borrowed their shirts and their accents.
“And now and then, they wryly opened the dark door on their own backgrounds — their lives related with a modest gallows humor that made them digestible to those with no experience of pain on this scale.”
Reminders of human tragedy
At age 16, Le Carre finally escaped from the bizarre underworld of his father and the gloomy boarding schools to become what he describes as “a refugee” — again, the outsider — at Bern University in Switzerland and then Oxford, emerging with a degree in German literature.
But it was a visit to the “unbeautified camps” of Belsen and Dachau soon after the war that had a searing impact on the impressionable young novelist-in-the-making and proved to be a defining life experience: “To this day,” he says, “there is no museum and no film, however fine, not even a book, that can compare with the living impact of those places on me.”
Whatever minor inconveniences I had suffered in my own life, they were a joke when set beside the real thing
One year later, he was back, this time as a young conscript — an intelligence officer — to trawl the “refugee cages” and question those who had been washed up from eastern and central Europe.
“Every day brought its tales of human tragedy,” he says. “Every day brought its reminders that whatever minor inconveniences I had suffered in my own life, they were a joke when set beside the real thing.
“And every day brought its Jews. Broken families with broken suitcases. These people are my business, I thought. There is something between their eyes and mine.”
Even after he was demobilized, Le Carre was still not ready to write. For two years he taught at Eton, the school for Britain’s Top Children, and then for the third time in his young life it was back to Germany — this time in the British foreign service — for a five-year stint in Bonn and Hamburg. It was in the midst of this period, in 1961, that Le Carre’s first book, Call for the Dead, was published and his phenomenal career was launched.
A journey of self-enlightenment
The persistence of Jews who insisted on inhabiting his work led inevitably to a fascination with Israel, but it was not until the early 1980s that Le Carre summoned up the courage to tackle a subject that “had long been in my sights, even if it had always scared the wits out of me: the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The result was The Little Drummer Girl.
“I knew nothing of the Middle East, but then I have always seen my novels as opportunities for self-education,” he says. “Investing my ignorance in my central character — a leftist English actress — and making a virtue of her naivety, I set off on a journey of self-enlightenment, living my character, leaning with each breeze — now toward Israel, now away from it — in a series of schizophrenic visits to Amman, Damascus, Beirut, South Lebanon and later Tunis. Then back to Israel, across the Allenby Bridge or by way of Cyprus.”
Israel was the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on
Israel, he says, “rocked me to my boots. I had arrived expecting whatever European sentimentalists expect — a re-creation of the better quarters of Hampstead [in London]. Or old Danzig, or Vienna or Berlin. The strains of Mendelssohn issuing from open windows of a summer’s evening. Happy kids in seamen’s hats clattering to school with violin cases in their hands…”
Instead, what he found was “the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now Oriental, now Western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future.”
“No nation on earth,” he says passionately, ” was more deserving of peace — or more condemned to fight for it.”
In the offices and homes of his Israeli hosts, Le Carre bounced around ideas and probed — without, he notes, ever having to persuade anyone of his goodwill. “And when I told my hosts that I was about to walk through the looking-glass and take my questions to the Palestinians, they said, ‘good idea’ and wished me luck. And I believe they meant it.”
In Beirut, he told Yasser Arafat he had come to “put my hand on the Palestinian heart,” whereupon Arafat “seized my right hand and placed it with both of his against the left breast of his khaki shirt… ‘It is here! It is here!'”
I’m afraid the truth is that, in fiction as in politics, the extreme center is a pretty dangerous place to be. It’s where you draw the fire from the fanatics on both sides
So, after his journey to the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, on which side of the fence did he land? “Where I began — only more so. I mean, I stood — and stand — wholeheartedly behind the nation-state of Israel as the homeland and guardian of Jews everywhere. And wholeheartedly behind the peace process as the guarantor not only of Israel’s survival, but of the Palestinian survival also.”
He apologizes for the triteness of the statement, but now he is closing inexorably on the object of his prey: “I’m afraid the truth is that, in fiction as in politics, the extreme center is a pretty dangerous place to be. It’s where you draw the fire from the fanatics on both sides.”
It is a discovery that was reinforced when — “propagating the heretical thesis that there are rights and wrongs on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict” — The Little Drummer Girl was published.
‘The mystery of my Jewish conscience’
John Le Carre has been impelled to the Savoy tonight by an occasion at which George Smiley himself would have felt at ease: an invitation to an unusual gathering of mostly wealthy, mostly non-Jewish, mostly aristocratic supporters of Israel: a generous helping of knights and peers; a smattering of minor royalty. The insider-outsiders with whom Le Carre evidently feels most at ease.
Their invitation to dinner, he says, arrived at a moment when he was “particularly interested to examine the mystery of my Jewish conscience, to question it quite harshly — its sincerity, its origins, its authenticity — and to puzzle out how it developed and changed its spots as it reappeared in book after book throughout my working life.”
John Le Carre is using the language of catharsis. What exercises him above all — wounds him — are dark charges of anti-Semitism from the United States that have persistently hung over him and his closely examined, intricately dissected work.
I pride myself on having as good an ear as anyone for the nuances of that repulsive, but mercifully dying art-form, British anti-Semitism in the chattering classes
“In my perception of the Jewish identity — in my continuing dialogue with it, in private and in my novels — I have been aware from early of a spiritual kinship that embraces what is creative in me, and forgives what is despicable, and shares with me the dignity and solitude and anger that are born of alienation.
“Ever since I can remember, my ears have been pricked up for the careless chamber music of English prejudice. And certainly I pride myself on having as good an ear as anyone for the nuances of that repulsive, but mercifully dying art-form, British anti-Semitism in the chattering classes.
“I have been so keen to reproduce it in my books that sometimes the undiscerning have mistaken the singer for the song. These are nervous times. They were nervous from the day I started writing some 40 years ago.”
He recalls the reaction to his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” which “continued my absorption in the destiny of the Jews in the Diaspora.” In this novel, a Marxist British Jewish librarian is inveigled in a wicked British plot and dies. A Jewish East German intelligence officer also perishes in the conspiracy.
To Le Carre, both were sympathetic characters, but Jewish organizations in America immediately demanded to know whether he equated Jews with Communists. He responded that he did not equate Jews with anything, although he allows that “in the war of ideas that was currently raging, Jews had better reasons than most to be attracted to grand visions of human equality.”
“It was the first time my Jewish sympathies had been questioned and I was rather shocked.”
In retrospect, he says, “my perception of Judaism at this stage was woolly and Anglo-centric. My Jewish archetype was the whipping boy of our European disorder.”
Now, in America, suggestions of anti-Semitism have been revived with his latest work, The Tailor of Panama, which prompted The New York Times’ reviewer to suggest that, “consciously or not, I had been listening to the internal voices of my English anti-Semitism as I wrote my novel.”
Sitting in the office of his American publisher — “an old Jewish publishing house, a legacy of the European intellectual exodus of the Thirties” — he realized that these were not “off-beat accusations of anti-Semitism as much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness.”
It was, he says, “a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse which, in the name of tolerance proscribes all reference to gender, ethnicity, color of skin, sexual preference, social provenance and even age. It has no leaders, as far as I am aware, only terrified disciples.”
He wanted to tell The New York Times that for America’s greatest paper to permit itself the smear of anti-Semitism on such arbitrary grounds was a serious act of editorial irresponsibility, “but I got no further before a tumult of alarm broke out among my well-wishers.”
They warned him that his career in the United States would be ruined, that he was insinuating that New York was full of Jews (“if it is, I couldn’t be more delighted”) and that he was assuming that The New York Times was controlled by Jews (“it isn’t exactly the Palestinian house magazine either, is it?”). So Le Carre was convinced to keep his counsel, and “I regret very much that I listened to them.”
‘Decent nations are a family’
But now he was approaching the point he has been building to, his statement of faith: “I should have said to hell with correctspeak and to hell with the Thought Police. I should have said I know where my heart is, you don’t. I should have said what I felt and believed — and taken the flak. There was a time when we writers used to tell each other that was the right way to carry on.
I would also love the day to come when it is possible to criticize the State of Israel without being accused of being an anti-Semite. The charge insults not only the supposed offender but also the country it seeks to protect. All countries, at one time or another, do daft things, mistaken things, wicked things. Decent nations are a family. Good men and women of every nation owe it to each other to rescue the truth from its ever more skillful manipulators
“I would also love the day to come when it is possible to criticize the State of Israel without being accused of being an anti-Semite. The charge insults not only the supposed offender but also the country it seeks to protect.
“All countries, at one time or another, do daft things, mistaken things, wicked things. Decent nations are a family. Good men and women of every nation owe it to each other to rescue the truth from its ever more skillful manipulators.
“I have a right to the criticism of my friends in Israel, even when it stings. They have a right to mine. I do not believe that any great cause, or any great nation, was the better for the suppression of its critics.
“If an evil few misuse their freedom — well, they have always been the price that must be paid for the greater freedom of us all.”
For all that, he says, he was gratified to discover how deeply wounded he felt by the accusation of anti-Semitism, and how much he resented the restraints imposed on him by his well-meaning publisher, when he wanted to respond: “Take me back to Israel, I thought, where I can speak my mind without fear.”